In early 2006, Interpol the global police network based in Lyon, France received from Norwegian police a cache of 800 disturbing images, roughly 100 of which depicted a man sexually abusing at least three boys aged between 6 and 10 in 2000 or 2001. While a luggage tag in the photos suggested they may have been taken in Southeast Asia, the trail grew cold, and for two years investigators were unable to decipher the man's identity or whereabouts even though he hadn't bothered to conceal his face in the images. So this week, Interpol's child exploitation unit did an unusual thing: they turned to the worldwide public for help.
The media broadcast Interpol's plea and the tips came rushing in from as far away as Bangladesh. In the end, they ended up arresting a suspect. Less than 48 hours after Interpol's appeal for help, three tips submitted over the Net led to the arrest of Wayne Nelson Corliss in Union City, New Jersey, who was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement and charged with producing child pornography. Interpol depicted him as an aging deviant who entertained children by dressing up as Santa Claus and painting their faces at parties. According to prosecutors, Corliss, 58, described his sexual encounters with three prepubescent Thai boys as a "euphoric" experience. He is being held without bond and scheduled for a hearing on Monday. He could face 20 years in prison if convicted on the charges.
It is only the second time such an international public appeal has been made. In the fall of 2007, Interpol published images in media outlets worldwide that drew tips leading Thai police to arrest a man named Christopher Paul Neil, whom they accused of sexual abuse and who went on trial earlier this year. The lightning effectiveness of the tactic raises the question: why not do it more often?
Indeed, Interpol believes the global appeals may be the child exploitation unit's newest weapon. "It's a silver bullet," says Michael Moran, Interpol's head of operations for both cases. "We've shown the efficacy of this. The public likes being asked. They produce the goods. And it sends a message that if you abuse children, you will be caught." That doesn't mean civilian policing will dislodge more conventional methods. "There is no question this can help, and probably often would," says David Kennedy, Director of Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The problem is, as an operational matter, how would it be done?" Plucking actionable tips from the deluge of leads is a time-consuming chore, Kennedy says: "You are going to drown in false positives."
Moran, who spent sleepless nights going over this week's tips, agrees that the "ideal" way to chase suspects is through "proper, normal, investigative" channels. But he says eliciting leads from civilians is a "new front in the war" against sexual predators, one that he expects will continue to be effective because of a collective empathy for the well-being of children. Interpol will almost naturally take the lead in such cases because Internet clues as to where child abuse may have taken place are never clear. Determining the locale potentially requires a global search.
Moran thinks cases like this chip away at the perception that the Internet remains a lawless frontier where criminals can act with impunity. "People think of the Internet as this dark place," Moran says. "We're shining a light into that shadow." If nothing else, it offered a delicious bit of symmetry: the conduit through which Neil and Corliss allegedly committed their crimes may also be the tool that brings them to justice.