Another busted in SoHopeful’s pedo ring

SHE was a girl most police around the world thought had been lost to the violent hand of her abuser.

As a Queensland-led investigation smashed the oldest and most sophisticated internet pedophile ring ever known, the tortured face of the child haunted law enforcement agencies in 20 countries, who had been unable to find out who she was, where she lived and how to rescue her.

For two years, police had watched her grow up on film.

Thousands of pictures and movies had been shot of her being abused, sometimes at knifepoint, with the series becoming a “collector’s item” among the insidious network of pedophiles. A commonwealth government employee living in Townsville is one of them. As police moved to arrest the 22 ringleaders, and hundreds of other voyeurs who enjoyed their often made-to-order films, there was an overwhelming fear that the international dragnet was about to trigger her death.

“He knows we are closing in, we are very worried he is going to kill her, if she hasn’t already been killed,” one of the lead investigators privately told The Australian in March.

At the time, there was little known about the girl: just the country in which she lived and that she was about nine years of age. Despite fading hopes, police – led by Task Force Argos, the Queensland Police Service’s child sex unit – never gave up the search. Hundreds of investigators, including the FBI, trawled for tens of thousands of hours looking for clues to her identity among the captured catalogue of depravity that had been her life.

It paid off. On Tuesday night, FBI agents raided the US home of the abuser – James “Bart” Huskey, who gave her the pseudonym of “Tara” on the internet – and took her to safety.

According to an FBI affidavit, obtained by The Australian, Tara had been raped by Huskey, 38, the previous day. Not surprisingly, it was captured on film and destined to be shared with thousands on the internet.

Huskey, a married tennis coach from the southern state of Georgia with two children, is now behind bars in a high-security jail in Atlanta after being charged with abusing Tara and filming and photographing the offences over a four-year period.

Like many of his fellow ringleaders, he is facing decades in jail under tough new US federal laws covering the booming trade of child pornography on the internet. Already, Huskey has allegedly admitted to molesting the child.

“(He) stated that he had several thousand images of (the girl’s) molestation and several hundred videos of sexual molestation on an external hard drive connected to his desktop computer,” the affidavit said.

Not that it was needed, but the young girl also confirmed what had happened.

“She disclosed that (Huskey) had been sexually abusing her for years, and had … raped her within the last day,” said the affidavit.
Back at Brisbane’s Argos police unit, the arrest and rescue of Tara was received with a mixture of joy, pride and, most of all, relief. The beer then flowed.

Queensland’s Child Safety and Sexual Crime group chief, Detective Superintendent Peter Crawford, who oversaw the investigation, said it was difficult to describe the reaction to the news.

“We were ecstatic,” he finally offered. “It keeps people motivated and lets us all know that the work we do here, from Australia, can be a benefit to kids all around the world. It’s a distasteful job and all of us have the best interests of the kids at heart, and some of these cases are going to really get at you. Tara was one of those cases.”

For the Argos team and Crawford, who was awarded the Australian Police medal this month for his work, the mystery of Tara had soured any sense of jubilation earlier this year about leading the charge that helped to bring down the world’s worst known internet pedophiles.

“It required us, and later the FBI, to go through all of the images and carefully, methodically look for clues,” he said.

The search for Tara was an exercise daunting in its size and complexity, involving tens of thousands of hours of work, and would have put any Hollywood script in the shade.

According to Crawford, Argos investigators began to suspect this year that Tara was living in the US. The alleged offender had his face pixellated in all of the images and movies, and was, so he thought, extremely cautious about restricting geographically identifying features that appeared in the background.

An FBI agent was dispatched from the US to Brisbane to join in the laborious task of looking for clues within the notorious “Tara series”.

“We had this suspicion about the US,” Crawford said. “But when we were looking at the images as Australians, not knowing American culture or regions, there were things that meant nothing to us. She (the FBI agent) was able to look at the images and say this might be a certain geographical area, and progressively refine the search.”

The first big break came around the new year, when they discovered pictures of Tara inside a car. They were then shown to US automotive manufacturers, who were able to pinpoint the car as a being a 2003-2005 Pontiac Aztek with exterior “sunburst orange” metallic paint. Just before the car clue emerged, the FBI had begun looking at a painting – titled Inspired Hillsides – that could be seen in the background of a hotel room in one of the sex-abuse films. Investigators then scoured the records of all sales in the US of paintings with the same or similar titles. They soon discovered a copy of the painting had been sold to a small motel in Carrolton, Georgia.

In the FBI affidavit, the investigators revealed that the alleged abuser had titled one of his films “2007 Tara 8yo – gets (assaulted with a sexual device) – July 21, 2007”.

A search of the motel register offered up Huskey’s name, who had declared at the time that he was driving a van.

But a subsequent search discovered that a 2005 Pontiac Aztek was registered to a woman, who The Australian believes is the man’s wife. The FBI then trawled through the internet’s plethora of chatrooms and social networking sites, including MySpace. They uncovered a MySpace account registered to the woman.

“Background interior images on … MySpace account match background interior images on the ‘Tara’ series images,” the FBI affidavit said.

The FBI had enough to move.

The obstacles that the Australian and US police overcame to find Tara cannot be overstated. Police say the reason the pedophiles had not been caught, or even detected as a network, was their level of security.

To get into the inner sanctum, a member had to go through stages of passwords, highly sophisticated encryption and codenames. Even the location of their IP servers was disguised. Most, it is believed, did not even know the real location or identity of each other. There was even a guidebook providing the dos and don’ts of avoiding detection and protecting hard drives in the event of a raid. Police had not seen anything like it before.

“They would change their passwords on a regular basis, they would change their encryption keys on a regular basis and use codenames even within the group,” Crawford said.

The level of protection, and years of operating with immunity, allowed them to trade freely and speak openly.

Before being broken, members of the network even boasted among themselves of being able to “defeat” any law enforcement agency in the world.

“This is the greatest group of pedos to ever gather in one place,” one member crowed. “And I’m honoured just to be a part of it.” Their seeming invincibility was to be their undoing. It all began to unravel in January 2006 when New Zealand police, who, like Argos officers, are constantly trawling the internet, came across them.

Crawford said Argos did a preliminary investigation to establish that it was a job worth doing. “To be honest, we were not sure if we could break through the security, but we wanted to try,” he said.

Crawford is guarded about how it was done, but Argos officers were able to infiltrate the group.

Flowing from Operation Achilles, more than 2500 “customers” of child sex websites have been identified, with 100, including a US reserve police officer and the Australian federal bureaucrat, arrested and charged.

Just as importantly, 70 children worldwide, including a four-year-old Brisbane girl, have been rescued.