FDLE takes year to build Tampa child porn case from computer evidence

TAMPA — The person who bought Stephen Olman's computer was concerned about the files discovered on his hard drive — some looked like prepubescent girls in sexual situations, according to police reports.

The buyer gave the computer to the Tampa police, but it was about a year before they had gathered enough solid evidence to charge Olman with possession of child pornography. Meanwhile, he went about his business.

Authorities say sifting through dozens of electronic photos and videos is a painstaking process, but one that eventually pays off.

Tampa police gave Olman's computer to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab on Dec. 9, 2008, said Mike Morrison, a spokesman for the agency. By February, FDLE had unearthed 69 images the agency thought could be child pornography.

But in some of the photos, there were only body parts, said Laura McElroy, a spokeswoman for the Tampa police.

"We have to be certain that the images are, in fact, child pornography before we charge someone," she said.

With modern porn stars adapting childlike affectations, it can be hard these days to tell who is a teenager and who is an adult.

So Tampa police sought further analysis from another source.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's exploited children division receives around 10 million images and films annually that need to be verified as child pornography for local law enforcement agencies, said Michelle Collins, the division director.

There, the images are filtered through a program called the Child Recognition and Identification System.

Collins said 20 people work in the Child Victim Identification Program, viewing and sorting the images so that it can be established whether the person is a minor, and comparing the image to others to determine whether the child has already been located and removed from the abusive situation.

Sometimes they get closely cropped photos and videos that do not show many details. But it may be possible to match the narrowly focused slice of a photo to a larger child pornography image in the center's records.

Biological cues help determine the victim's age, she said.

The team, which keeps a psychologist close by because of the solemn, disturbing nature of the work, looks for key identifiers in the backgrounds of photos and films, such as pillows, blankets or wallpaper, she said.

On the week of Dec. 7-13, the team viewed 445,119 images and films that came from just 69 cases where suspects were being investigated for child pornography. Out of the nearly 30 million images they've examined since 2002, only 2,692 children have been identified.

"It seems like the number (of images) goes up every year," she said.

But Collins said there are rewards in the job.

"Obviously, I get the personal satisfaction of making a difference and I'm excited about my job," she explained. "There are a lot of different backgrounds (on the team) but there is a consistent thread of a strong motivation and desire to help children."

When local law enforcement agencies identify a child who is suspected of being abused, they forward the child's information to the center, which then flags any images they already have of the child to make for easier verification when the images are found on a seized computer.

In the case of Stephen Olman, Tampa police said the 69 images were confirmed as child pornography and he was arrested on Dec. 15.

The 31-year-old was already a registered sex offender as a result of a 2004 conviction in Pinellas County. He had been living and working at the Lord's Redeemer Ministries at 2815 N Morgan St.

McElroy said the ministry was aware of the nature of the computer pornography investigation.

"We've been in touch with the church and no one has come forward (to say he's done something inappropriate)," McElroy said.

He's being held at the Hillsborough County Jail in lieu of $375,000 bail.

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or rmitchell@sptimes.com.

FDLE takes year to build Tampa child porn case from computer evidence 01/17/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 17, 2010 11:42pm]

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