Federal authorities in Washington D.C. on Thursday announced the results of an international crackdown on predators who own, trade and produce child pornography.
"Operation Sunflower," led by Homeland Security Investigations, resulted in the arrests of 245 people and the rescue of 123 children, most of them in the United States.
Investigators used vacation photos to crack a case in Minnesota, which led to the arrest of an Illinois woman who's now serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton called the operation "significant but grim." For a five-and-a-half-week period late last year, Homeland Security Investigations worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and local and international law enforcement partners to target pedophiles who photographed or videotaped their acts and distributed them over the internet.
They rescued children from 19 states and six countries. No Minnesota children were rescued, but two Minnesota men were arrested. A Stearns County man was arrested in early November, and Nathan Severson of Rochester will serve a 15-year sentence for distributing child pornography.
Authorities rescued 44 of the 123 children directly from their abusers. Morton said the remaining 79 either were exploited by people living outside their homes, or were abused years ago and are now adults — yet their photos continue to circulate on the internet.
Morton said 70 of the victims were girls, and 53 were boys.
"Sadly, some of the children were very young," Morton said. "For example, we rescued 5 children who were between the ages of 2 and 3. Nine children were between the ages of 4 and 6. 21 were between the ages of 7 and 9."
Agents looked for clues in the online images that would help them locate where and when the crimes took place. "Operation Sunflower" gets its name from a 2011 case, when a distinctive sunflower on a rural Kansas highway sign helped agents track down an 11-year-old girl whose attack was being planned by a teen pedophile.
One of the cases highlighted Thursday was solved by vacation photos taken at a resort in northern Minnesota.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had photographs of an adult woman sexually abusing a girl, but it was the non-abuse photos of the two that provided the clue to the pair's identity.
The Homeland Security agent in Bloomington who cracked the case works undercover, so MPR News agreed not to use his name.
"They were entitled 'MN trip' and in the background of these pictures, it showed cabins and an adult female and a juvenile female holding up some fish," the agent said.
The agent contacted Explore Minnesota, the tourism site, and an employee there knew the resort in the photograph. The agent says the resort owners remembered the vacationers.
"Even before the photo hit the table, one of the owners stated, 'Oh, I know who this is.' In fact, they actually had their own photographs in a Polaroid album of this family," the agent said. "It was kind of a shock because they ... kept in contact with them even when they were not staying at the resort."
The adult in the photo, Ann Piper of Peoria, Illinois, is now serving 25 years in federal prison for her involvement in the production and distribution of child pornography, and ICE officials say the girl is safe with family members.
At Thursday's news conference, John Ryan with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said to date, the Center's Child Victim Identification Program has helped identify 5,000 children featured in abusive images and videos. Ryan says most victims are abused by someone they know.
"We know that there's more work to be done," Ryan said. "As you've heard, so many of these victims are yet to be identified. Anyone can know these victims, these children. And they are relying on all of us to help them."
Homeland Security Investigations is asking for the public's help in three ongoing investigations and released photos of three adult suspects agents are trying to identify.
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