Special Report: Catching A Sex Offender

Sexual predators.

Police say they’re lurking everywhere. And many of them, behind a computer screen.

There are around 40,000 registered sex offenders just in the state of Michigan.

Even more are out there, hiding, and using technology to find their victims, and to stay in the shadows.

That’s why there are computer forensics specialists across the state, like the one in Charlevoix County.

In this Special Report, Alyssa Gambla takes you behind the scenes to see what work goes into catching a sex offender.

“Not everyone can do this. It’s very long very tedious it takes a lot of time to process a computer,” said Deputy Bill Church. “People think they’ve deleted it and its gone, and unfortunately, with the tools and knowledge I have, more often than not, it’s not gone… and I will be able to find it.”

Billy Church is not your average police officer. Instead of patrolling the streets, his time is spent in a tiny room, catching criminals who offend from their living room.

Most of his cases involve sex offenders.

“We can find what they’re searching on the Internet from Google searches, key word searches, and then from there we will have the pictures they are downloading, the child pornography,” said Deputy Church. 

“Find the little crumbs… and the pictures are much bigger crumbs. It’s also placing the suspect behind the keyboard, that’s the challenge,” explained Deputy Church. “Just because there’s pictures on the computer, I have to place the person behind the computer, the one typing, viewing, searching,”

Exactly how he uses these programs is a heavily guarded secret. That allows them to keep locking up offenders.

But Church builds a mirrored copy of the offenders original computer and is able to pull the evidence. That way the original computer can be used in court. But the Charlevoix County sheriff says it can be tedious staying on top of trends.

“Since the first of the year, we’ve looked at 12 computers 9 cell phones,” said Sheriff Don Schneider. “It’s not unusual for teens to do selfies that are ..revealing.. It’s against the law.. Our job is to try to protect them from themselves in some cases. I think they’re finding more ways to try to cover their tracks which is why it’s important forensic experts to stay trained and one step ahead of the bad guy.”

And the Michigan State Police say there’s upwards to 40,000 sex offenders in the state, constantly having to come back in and update their information. They say this keeps these offenders from re-offending.

“Any movement they have, like their jobs or where they live, they have to come register. With that being said and the sweeps and random checks we do, it’s stringent and it’s difficult for them to violate without us knowing about it,” said Sgt. Jeff Gorno. “You would think in your home, if you were doing such, you would stop because you would get caught.. But it continues. It’s shocking and disheartening.

But it takes a village.

Police say to catch a sexual predator.. Everyone from parents to schools need to keep their eyes open.

And keep children talking.

“You wanna say I accept the fact they want to be social on computers, and on phones and Snapchats, where they take pictures of themselves and they are supposed to go away. That’s not always the case,” said Sgt. Gorno. “The schools came out with a good touch bad touch, every time they teach that lesson, we have brand new cases.”

Petoskey School Superintendent John Scholten said, “We got into this business because we care about them. It’s crucial they have trust and a safe feeling so the person will step up and report this – and us just making sure our staff knows how to report it to the right entities.”

They say bottom line, there’s no tolerance for sex offenders.

And as they hide behind their computers, police are right on the other side.

“It’s one of those things, yes the Internet has brought great avenues for people that wanna offend, but at the same time, our investigators are doing the best to catch up to that technology and were using advanced technology back to catch them,” said Sgt. Gorno.

And their training, will never be over.