When Glenn Devitt returned from the battlefronts of Iraq and Afghanistan, he looked for a new mission. He found one in Charlotte.
Devitt, 31, was part of the second class of the H.E.R.O. Corps, a program that puts veterans on the front lines of the fight against child sexual predators.
The former Army Special Operations Intelligence sergeant was trained as a cyber investigator to find and prosecute what experts describe as an epidemic of child exploitation.
“It’s insane that there’s so much of it,” says Devitt, who now works in cybersecurity for a Charlotte defense contractor. “Everybody would be surprised if they lived the life of a forensic investigator.”
Money for the H.E.R.O. Corps is one of hundreds of budget issues that lawmakers have to reconcile in the coming weeks. The House set aside $2 million that Gov. Pat McCrory requested to pay for more investigators. The Senate budget allocates nothing.
Half the money would go to hire investigators through the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, part of a nationwide network. The other half would go to the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child-Rescue Corps, a project of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and the U.S. Special Operations Command and funded in part by private grants.
North Carolina would be the first state to hire investigators for the H.E.R.O. program. They would be busy.
Terabytes of porn
Law enforcement has identified 14,000 individual computers in North Carolina with images of infants and toddlers being sexually abused, according to Camille Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Association to Protect Children, a group founded in Asheville.
It was her group that started the H.E.R.O. program for veterans such as Devitt.
Like others, he went through 11 weeks of intensive training in computer forensics. That was followed by an unpaid internship with ICE, a division of Homeland Security. It didn’t take long to realize the magnitude of the problem.
His first case involved seizing a computer with 600,000 images of child pornography. Another involved a computer with over 20 terabytes, enough to fill more than 30,000 CD-ROMs.
Shannon Krieger knows all about that. He’s a former Army Ranger from Fort Bragg who says after leaving the Army he wanted to be part of a team and “part of something bigger than me.” He worked with H.E.R.O. Corps in New Orleans, and now works there doing the same thing with ICE.
“It’s not uncommon to go through several hundred thousand images in one day,” he says. “The number of pedophiles living among us is ridiculous.”
Krieger and other corps volunteers, supported in part by their military benefits, work with law enforcement agencies to identify people in the business of child exploitation. When perpetrators are served with warrants, the volunteers go along to seize their computers.
They also use whatever clues they can find to identify the young victims in the images. The kids are often referred to social services. Going through thousands of images of lewd acts against children is not for the squeamish.
Krieger says veterans, many of whom have seen their share of trauma, know how to compartmentalize. But Devitt says one reason he’s no longer in the business is because he was disturbed at what he constantly saw.
“It’s not a job that I could do for long term,” he says. “(But) my No. 1 frustration is how low on the totem pole it seems to be. … It’s not a priority for people.
“If you’re going to pay the money to educate (children) why not pay the money to protect them?”