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But where's the girl?

A child porn arrest could lead an investigator to a suspected victim he's long sought. Finding her is key to more prosecutions.

January 05, 2013|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • LETHA MAE MONTEMAYOR is led away by authorities in North Hills. Investigators hope her arrest will lead them to a suspected victim of sexual abuse depicted in child porn images known as the "Jen Series."
LETHA MAE MONTEMAYOR is led away by authorities in North Hills. Investigators… (Associated Press )

She is about 13. A cigarette dangles between her fingers and a smattering of tattoos adorn her skin -- three dots on her lower back and, on her ankle, something that looks as if it could be a butterfly, maybe a hummingbird. A blue heart-shaped sticker is pasted next to the outside corner of each eye.

Todd Hammer has been searching for the girl for two years now, with only a few dozen pixelated photos a decade old to go on.

The investigator knows every corner of the apartment she's in -- the shuttered vertical blinds, white walls, dark Berber carpet, old-fashioned wall-mounted gas furnace. He has memorized the mundane details: a copy of the Yellow Pages, a language school flier, an old wall calendar from a Jewish religious supply store in Encino.

He studies the two adults in the photos: a man with a pot belly, widow's peak and graying around the chin, his face obscured by a black oval. A woman with an eyebrow piercing and a tattoo of a sleeping cat behind her shoulder.

The girl must be an adult now, but the crimes haven't stopped. Month after month, police across the country and on different sides of the planet discover that the photos of sex acts are in the hands of yet another child pornography collector -- hundreds of them by now.

Finally, a long-awaited break. On Friday, authorities announced the arrest of the woman believed shown in the photos. She stands accused of distribution and production of child pornography.

Will the woman finally lead him to the girl?

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The 'Jen Series'

The girl is a suspected victim of sexual abuse depicted in widely circulated child pornography images known as the "Jen Series," a set of forty-some photos first discovered by investigators in the Chicago area in 2007.

Hammer, a child exploitation investigator with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles, is the latest on the trail. Finding the girl would have a hand in prosecuting collectors of child pornography across the country, cases that could number in the hundreds.

Identifying the abused in child pornography cases took on a new importance for law enforcement in 2002. That's when the Supreme Court ruled that unless the target of sexual acts is proved to be a child -- not a youthful-looking adult, not an adult digitally morphed to look underage -- the material is not illegal and is protected under the Constitution as 1st Amendment speech.

It's a needle-in-the-haystack search for children who could be anywhere on the planet, a search in which anything from electric sockets unique to certain parts of the world or local programming flickering on a television screen can offer clues, and cadres of experts as unlikely as dermatologists, pediatricians and optometrists end up putting investigators on the right track.

In one New Jersey case, a botanist told investigators that plants in the background of a child pornography series were found only in a particular region of Thailand. The man in the photos was arrested in 2008 and admitted to production of child pornography and traveling to Thailand to have sex with boys.

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No traces

At a small Jewish store in an Encino strip mall, a husband and wife who run the religious supply store tell Hammer they handed out only a few hundred of the calendars in the photos, and only to walk-in customers. That tells him he's searching the right area.

At the language school's Northridge campus, none of the officials recognize photos of the girl or the woman. The girl, who a forensic pediatrician said was probably between 11 and 14, was too young to have been a student.

From the sequence of dates visible in the calendar, Hammer theorizes the photos were probably taken in the spring of 2001. After digging through the Web, he manages to find on EBay the same copy of a Men's Health magazine on a table in the background of the photos. He sees the issue is from September 2000. That lends support to his time estimate.

Hammer pays a visit to the Mary Magdalene Project, a Van Nuys group that helps girls and women off the streets. No one recognizes the girl. He goes from school to school in the area, flipping though yearbooks from the right time period, looking for matches to the face now seared onto his brain.

He looks through logs of unidentified bodies at the county coroner. A long shot, he knows.

There are no traces of the girl.

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Instant sharing

Once, trading child pornography meant that photos or videos were sealed in envelopes and physically mailed from one collector to the next. In today's world, massive amounts of data circumnavigate the globe in fractions of a second.

If a particular image or series of images has been reported more than five times by law enforcement, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit authorized by Congress to act as a clearinghouse for such material, considers them "actively traded."

Images in the "Jen Series," investigators say, have been reported about 300 times.

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