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Google helps nab Rapid City sex offender accused of child porn possession
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Google helps nab Rapid City sex offender accused of child porn possession

A federal affidavit provides insight into how technology companies like Google, a national child-protection organization and local law enforcement work together to catch people accused of creating and distributing child porn. 

In this case, Google reported in September that a Rapid City man was storing 34 pornographic photos and videos of extremely young children, according to the affidavit for his arrest signed by Elliott Harding, a detective with the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force in Rapid City.

Google alerted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which sent a tip to ICAC whose investigators found that the man allegedly had more than 100 child porn photos and videos on his phone. 

ICAC then handed its case over to federal prosecutors who last week charged 27-year-old Nathan Hankins with receiving child porn.

Child porn is not just about people looking at inappropriate photos and videos, said Brent Gromer, an agent with the state Division of Criminal Investigations who oversees the ICAC task force and its Rapid City office. 

"There's a live child behind every one of those images," he said. 

Hankins new federal charge comes after he recently pleaded not guilty in state court to 4th degree statutory rape after he allegedly impregnated a 15-year-old girl (the age of consent in South Dakota is 16). Hankins was convicted of the same crime in 2014 but all details of the incident are sealed, court records show. He had to register as a sex offender due to that case, the federal affidavit says.  

Google reported more than 45 million photos and videos of children being sexually abused in 2018 — more than double what it found in 2017, according to a Sept. 28 New York Times investigation. The Times reported that many technology companies have failed to track such images or cooperate with police, while law enforcement agencies are understaffed and underfunded in this area. The investigation also cited a NCMEC study that said it, other agencies and law enforcement are at a "breaking point" where they can't keep up with the number of images being shared and reported. 

Finding predators

Hankins was allegedly caught with child porn after he uploaded 34 files to Google Photos and his Gmail account, the affidavit says. Google found the material in September and reported it to NCMEC, which contacted Harding in November. 

Gromer said he couldn't comment on Hankins since it's an open case, but explained that Google and other internet services use special technology to detect child porn. He said photos and videos have a hash value, or "digital fingerprint," and companies use algorithms to detect the hash value of known child porn images. Technology to identify new images is being developed, Gromer said.

After the information is sent to NCMEC, it conducts an initial investigation, creates a report and sends it to a law enforcement agency associated with the suspect, Gromer said. 

Harding wrote that photos and a video NCMEC sent over as part of the Hankins case depicted children as young as three being raped or forced to receive or perform other sexual acts with adults and other children in bedrooms and a van. He wrote that Hankins uploaded, downloaded or viewed the content from several IP addresses, including from a restaurant's guest Wi-Fi account, his victim's device, a local motel and a pizza place he worked at. 

After serving Google with a search warrant, Harding wrote, he discovered that Hankins had more child porn and a photo of a two- or three-year-old girl sitting on his lap at a park that was taken with a cell phone in June. He also found an email Hankins sent to himself that contained a link to a cloud storage website, and the link was followed by a warnings that said: "WARNING:LINK TAKES YOU TO CHILD PORNOGRAPHY!".

Harding wrote that he clicked on the link and it took him to a folder called "Dark5" that displayed multiple thumbnails of child porn videos. He said one subfolder had 101 items taking up 1.2 gigabytes. 

When law enforcement served a search warrant on Hankins on Dec. 4, the affidavit says, they found he was with his 17-year-old girlfriend, the girl he's accused of raping when she was 15. The search warrant was conducted at a Rapid City motel where Hankins lives by officers from the Rapid City Police Department, DCI, ICAC, and Homeland Security Investigations, according to state court records.

Law enforcement found marijuana, a pipe and grinder, police reports say, and prosecutors later charged him with the misdemeanors of violating two no-contact orders against the girl, marijuana possession, and contributing to the abuse, neglect or delinquency of a minor, records show.

After officers seized Hankins' cell phone, the affidavit says, a computer forensic examiner with ICAC found he stored 175 photos and four videos of child pornography that appeared to be downloaded from the internet. 

Hankins, who's now being held at the Pennington County Jail on a $10,000 bond, appeared Friday at the state court in Rapid City where his lawyer said he will address his new misdemeanors after completing his statuary rape trial. His two-day trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 28, according to court records. Hankins does not yet have a federal court date for the child porn charge. 

'Rewarding assignment'

Gromer, a 45-year-old from Rapid City, has worked in law enforcement for 23 years and said the 10 years he's spent with ICAC has been the "most rewarding assignment I've had."

There are ICAC offices across the state. In Rapid City, he works with another DCI agent, two Rapid City detectives, and one investigator and one computer forensic examiner from the Pennington County Sheriff's Office. 

Just like in other child sexual abuse cases, Gromer said, child porn victims are "far more likely" to be abused by someone they know, like a relative or family friend, than a stranger who kidnapped them. Gromer said most of the images reported to ICAC are recycled content depicting children who have not yet been identified and rescued. He said most of the porn is made in the United States, possibly because of access to technology, but also because the U.S. has a problem with child porn and other kinds of child sexual abuse. 

Gromer said people obtain child porn "through trading and personal communications" and are likely to exchange it through the dark web, which is accessed through special software. ICAC catches suspects through the NCMEC tips, while searching through computer or phones in existing criminal cases, or after a member of the public reports seeing child porn on someone's device. The task force also conducts undercover investigations where they create fake identities to interact with people interested in child porn or having sex with minors.

ICAC doesn't just go after those distributing and receiving child porn, it also works to find the adults producing it and the child victims "so we can try to save, rescue that child from that abusive environment," Gromer said. 

He said NCMEC's Child Victim Identification Program (CVIP) works to identify children by comparing them to missing person photos, searching other records and looking at clues in the photos or videos. CVIP has helped identify more than 17,900 child victims since 2002, according to the Key Facts page on NCMEC's website

Gromer said he didn't want to provide further details about how children are identified because he doesn't want abusers to learn how to avoid being detected. 

The children are often found due to a mistake by the adult and "they know that if this child is identified, they're going to have some serious legal problems," he said. 

One successful example of finding an adult abusing children and creating child porn is when ICAC caught Robert Hanshaw of Brookings, Gromer said. 

Google reported Hanshaw having child porn in November 2016. He was sentenced to life in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 15 children — including relatives, neighbors and acquaintances — and distributing some photos and videos he took of them, according to a December 2017 article in the Brookings Register. 

Gromer said ICAC task force members can struggle with viewing the "horrible" child porn images, and to manage the stress they play distracting TV or music while looking at the images, lean on co-workers for support, and are encouraged to take time off. 

"What helps most people cope is that mission to save kids," he said. 

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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