One hundred subscribers to child pornography Web sites have been arrested in an undercover investigation into what authorities say is the largest commercial child porn business ever uncovered in the United States.
The 2-year-old “Operation Avalanche”investigation led by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service began with Landslide Productions Inc., a Fort Worth, Texas, Internet company that provided users who paid a monthly fee with links to child pornography Web sites with names like “Cyber Lolita” and “Child Rape.”
Subscribers around the world also could place or respond to classified and personal ads for child pornography. They were caught by federal undercover agents who had taken over the Landslide Web site and contacted its users. When subscribers ordered child pornography delivered to their homes, agents moved in with search warrants.
Announcing the results of the investigation Wednesday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the arrests will help ensure “that cyberspace does not become a free-fire zone to target children.”
Hundreds of children were used in the operation; most have not been identified.
The Internet site had around 250,000 subscribers, many from overseas. Because they don’t have the resources to go after all of them, authorities said they focused on the most egregious offenders here in the United States. Some of those arrested were child molesters, authorities said.
Investigators conducted 144 searches in 37 states, including 18 in Texas, 11 in New York, nine in California and eight in Pennsylvania. The names of those arrested were not released. Police said one subscriber who was arrested has committed suicide.
Arrests were made as recently as last week, and authorities are continuing to pursue subscribers, officials said.
Two Indonesians has been previous named indictment as webmasters: Aries Dharmann and Michael Yamim.
Authorities say a key to clamping down on child molesters is tracking down people who collect child pornography. Kenneth Weaver, chief of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said about 36 percent of those investigated for possession or trafficking of child pornography turn out to be child molesters.
Landslide’s owners, Thomas and Janice Reedy of Fort Worth, charged customers about US$29.95 a month to access child porn sites operated primarily by overseas webmasters, authorities said. Landslide grossed as much as US$1.4 million a month.
The Reedys lived in a mansion and drove fancy cars. Last year, they were charged in an 89 count federal indictment with conspiracy to distribute and possession of child pornography. A federal judge on Monday sentenced Thomas Reedy to 1,335 years in prison and Janice Reedy to 14 years.
The bulk of the pornographic material available through Landslide came from overseas, including from Russia and Indonesia. Authorities said some of the children involved were American.
An 8-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother, both from England, are among the few youngsters depicted in the materials who have been identified. Law enforcement officials hope that some of those arrested will help identify child victims in exchange for leniency.
Five international webmasters have been indicted; none has been arrested, authorities said.
Landslide provided a credit card verification service that admitted customers into Web sites containing graphic pictures and videos of children engaging in sex acts with adults and with each other, the government charged.
Operation Avalanche was conducted by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Dallas Police Department and state and local law enforcement groups.