WASHINGTON — The young Texas couple had two Mercedeses, a $450,000 home and a shameful secret: They were child pornographers, making millions off the rising tide of cyber-porn.
The couple, indicted in April 2000 and sentenced to prison this week, ran what is believed to be the largest child pornography business in U.S. history, and authorities are now using their dismantled operation to target thousands of former customers in a stepped-up attack on child exploitation.
So far, 100 people have been arrested in a two-year undercover sting dubbed Operation Avalanche. Five Web site managers connected to the outfit are wanted overseas, and U.S. officials have begun forwarding the names of 9,000 Web subscribers to local authorities because of the users' "predilection" for child pornography.
Some civil libertarians worry that such a crackdown could be taken too far, but authorities say their aim is clear: to close off a growing maze of Internet back alleys they say have made children more susceptible than ever to sexual exploitation.
"Today's Internet has become the new marketplace for child pornography," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said Wednesday in announcing the completion of Operation Avalanche's undercover phase.
The operation began with a tip from a postal inspector in Minnesota, leading authorities to a Fort Worth business called Landslide Productions Inc.
Run by Thomas Reedy and his wife, Janice, the company linked an estimated 250,000 subscribers worldwide to pornography sites for $29.95 a month. With revenue of up to $1.4 million a month, Landslide made much of its money off the hard-core end of the business--child pornography--and for extra fees it linked users to explicit sites with names such as "Child Rape" and "Children Forced to Porn."
Postal inspectors said they think most of the abused children shown in the graphic video images were overseas, but they have been able to identify very few of the victims so far.
A federal judge in Texas on Monday sentenced Thomas Reedy, 38, to 1,335 years in prison on 89 counts of distributing child pornography, while Janice Reedy, 33, was given 14 years in prison.
Dallas police Lt. Bill Walsh, who worked on the investigation, said the Reedys were not merely "ticket-takers" for child pornography viewers. "They were madames in a whorehouse where kids were being prostituted."
But federal officials have cast their net far beyond the alleged masterminds of the Texas operation.
They also are working through diplomatic and international police channels to search for five Web masters--four in Indonesia and one in Russia--who allegedly helped run Landslide's pornographic links. And they have arrested and in many cases already obtained convictions of 100 people on suspicion of trafficking in child pornography after executing searches in 37 states, including 18 in Texas, 11 in New York and nine in California. More arrests are expected.
The suspects were targeted through sting operations as postal inspectors took over the Landslide Web operation, contacted thousands of users and offered to sell them child pornography videotapes, compact discs and other material. Those accepting the offer were arrested.
Postal officials refused to release the names of those arrested because they said it might compromise the ongoing investigations.
Federal officials have been compiling the names of about 9,000 hard-core Landslide subscribers--those who subscribed repeatedly to child pornography--and have forwarded those names to local authorities in more than 200 jurisdictions, said Michael Medaris, who runs the Justice Department's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Medaris said the Justice Department is suggesting to local police that they may want to run background checks on those named on the list, interview their neighbors about any suspicious activities and even approach the subscribers themselves to speak with them.
Capt. Jan Hoganson, who oversees the Sacramento Sheriff's Department's high-tech crime unit, said the department received the names of 300 local people on the list earlier this year and ran criminal checks on many of them to look for sex offenses, outstanding warrants and other trouble signs.
He said the department has used the list as a tip sheet. "These are leads, nothing more. We don't know if someone stole their credit card and used it [to log on to the Landslide site] or if Junior is posing as Dad on the computer."
Hoganson said that while he did not think it would be appropriate for police to talk to the neighbors of those on the list, investigators did knock on the doors of about 35 of those named to question them about child pornography issues. That triggered ongoing investigations into two people who consented to have their computers searched.
Because possession of child pornography is only a misdemeanor in California, unlike some other states, Hoganson said he has not been able to pull officers off felony investigations to pursue the leads. But as information develops, he said, "it's certainly possible that more people may receive more taps on their doors from investigators."