An international investigation that reached a Minnesota fishing resort has rescued more than 100 children from sexual exploitation, the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Thursday.
Some 245 people were arrested in the recent multi-nation sting called "Operation Sunflower," named after the Kansas highway signs that led agents to one of the first victims.
The operation wrapped up in December and targeted people who owned, traded and produced images of child pornography -- often over the Internet.
A photo in a computer folder labeled "Minnesota Trip" led a local ICE agent to a fishing resort near Richville, then, in turn, to the arrest and conviction last month of an Illinois woman on child pornography charges.
During Thursday's news conference in Washington, D.C., ICE director John Morton described the results of Operation Sunflower as "significant, but grim" and "a sad reminder to us all that online child exploitation is a very real part of our lives and absolutely demands our full attention as a nation."
Federal agents found 110 victims in 19 states and the remaining 13 in six other countries. Morton declined to provide details about the other countries, other than to say that some were in Mexico.
Morton also announced warrants for two unidentified adults charged in Los Angeles with molesting a girl who appeared in online photos to be about 13 when she was abused. The man and woman, identified as "John Doe" and "Jane Doe," may have been in the San Fernando Valley area, north of Los Angeles, when they abused the girl. Online photos of the abuse are believed to be about 11 years old, Morton said.
The victims ranged in age from younger than 1 to 17 years old. Morton said 44 of the victims lived with their accused abusers.
He asked the public for help in identifying suspects in the cases, directing anyone with information to call the tips line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or go to www.ice.gov/tips.
Tracking a predator
In an exclusive interview, the special agent from Minnesota's ICE office who helped find the Illinois predator and her victim recounted his role in the investigation.
The agent, who did not want to be identified because he does undercover work, said he received a tip last April from ICE's Oregon office about 36 digital images, some of which depicted child exploitation, the agent said.
Among those 36 images were pictures labeled "Minnesota Trip." One image showed the suspected abuser and the victim, each holding a fish, at what appeared to be a cabin. The agent contacted Explore Minnesota and asked for help in locating the cabin.
One of the tourism agency's employees said that it looked like a resort in Richville, Minn. The agent called the owners of the "mom-and-pop resort" and they confirmed it was their business. They also said the people in the photo were regular visitors and gave the agent the Illinois woman's name and e-mail address.
Agents in that state searched her home and arrested her. She pleaded guilty last spring to producing and distributing child pornography and was sentenced on Nov. 15 to 25 years in prison. She became one of a record number of child predators --1,655 -- who were arrested on criminal charges last year.
Operation Sunflower was named after the first case conducted by ICE's new Victim Identification Program. The Sunflower case began in November 2011 when Danish police shared information they found posted on a chat board indicating that a 16-year-old boy was planning to rape an 11-year-old girl.
The suspect was posting images of the girl and asking for advice on a pedophile chat board.
One of the photos showed a yellow road sign with a sunflower image common on Kansas highways.
ICE agents drove for days until they found the sign -- in a small town. Morton said that, using a combination of computer forensics and old-fashioned police work, "we ultimately prevented that girl from being raped."
He said Thursday that his satisfaction over the "Sunflower" arrests was tempered by the ongoing enormity of the problem.
"The grim reality is that online child exploitation ... is going on throughout the world right now on a grand scale," he said.
"It is a wrong among wrongs and one we must combat with the full force of the law. We are literally defending the defenseless."
This story contains information from the Associated Press. Allie Shah 612-673-4488