"Homeland Security" operation offered illicit "sex tourism" trips

Ed: Let's be clear about this: at a time when the U.S. is on the brink of fiscal disaster, the American taxpayers are funding entrapment schemes such as the “Precious Treasure Holiday Company” to ensnare individuals who, although lacking the common sense they were born with, are very likely not a threat to anyone but themselves.

Once ensnared by this creepiest of enterprises brought to you be our very own Department of Homeland Security, the taxpayers are again on the hook for the cost of prosecuting and then confining such individuals for the next twenty or more years.

When the D.H.S. was formed as a "super agency" just a few short years ago, the reasons given for its massive scale and even more massive appetite for tax dollars was the exigency of combating terrorism and keeping it away from America's shores.

Instead, we find that we are paying for it to create improbably salacious sting operations having nothing to do with "Homeland Security" whatsoever.

And all of this at a time when we are being told to expect less from government but are required to give it more.

At what point will our unfounded fears and obsessions with everything having to do with children and sex be widely recognized as the ruinously expensive and bizarre misadventures they have become?

Not convinced? Let's take a look at the government's own statistics on incarceration and crime:

MARCH 9--In an aggressive bid to entice prospective “sex tourists,” the Department of Homeland Security last year launched an undercover web site that purported to arrange trips from the U.S. to Canada, where clients could engage in sexual activity with minors, The Smoking Gun has learned.

The “Precious Treasure Holiday Company” web site was active until a few weeks ago when its Massachusetts-based web hosting firm removed the site from its servers, apparently in response to a complaint about its content. Now, visitors to precioustreasureholidaycompany.com are greeted with the message, “This site has been suspended.”

After a year online, the DHS undercover site may have fallen victim to its own sleazy, overt come-on. As seen at right, the site’s front page carried three symbols that an FBI intelligence bulletin has identified as being used by pedophiles. Additionally, the site’s acronym, PTHC, is an allusion to “preteen hardcore” pornography. The site’s carefully misspelled motto--“We Help Make Your Fantasy’s Come True!”--also does little to mask its illicit intentions.

An account executive with the hosting firm, who appeared unaware that “Precious Treasure Holiday Company” was a government operation, said that following a site’s suspension an internal investigation is launched. Upon the review’s completion, a site is either reinstated or terminated. The executive, Jason Crawford, added that if a customer’s site is found to contain illicit material like child pornography, the FBI is contacted.

[Five years ago, FBI agents concocted a similar sting, launching “Wicked Adventures Travel,” a web site purporting to offer pedophiles "exotic excursions" to the Philippines and Thailand. That operation yielded at least one felony conviction.]

According to court records and several sources familiar with the sting operation, the “Precious Treasure Holiday Company” web site was operated by investigators assigned to DHS’s Cleveland office. In affidavits sworn by Agent Gabriel Hagan, the undercover web site is described as “offering ‘international travel’ from Cleveland, Ohio, to Canada for the purpose of engaging in sexually explicit conduct with minors.” While records reveal that the site was first registered in February 2010, further details about its owner (as well as administrative and technical contacts) have been carefully cloaked.

To draw visitors--and potential targets--to the site, DHS agents early last year began seeding a wide variety of sketchy web sites with mentions of (and links to) “Precious Treasure Holiday Company.” Investigators touted the undercover business on Russian and Swedish web sites, assorted chat rooms, and online destinations with words like “jailbait” in their addresses.

Using the online handle “otra,” one individual has been particularly enthusiastic in trying to drive traffic to the undercover operation. Posting on several sites, “otra” enthused that “Precious Treasure Holiday Company” was a “great place for real incest” and the “only place for the real thing.” In one online profile, “otra”--who is described as a Canadian male--opted for a profile photo (seen at left) showing a hand in a masturbatory position. Shortly after the DHS site went live, an anonymous poster on a Swedish bulletin board reported that, “I found a website where you can travel to go have sex with kids.” After including the nascent undercover operation’s web address, the poster added, “This website…is an actually thriving business that is legit.”

While it is difficult to gauge the overall success of DHS’s efforts to drum up visitors, the “Precious Treasure Holiday Company” operation has led to the conviction of at least one defendant on felony charges (he was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison), while another man is under indictment for conspiring to transport an eight-year-old girl from Canada to the U.S. with the intent of having her engage in sexual activity.

Federal court records indicate that two other individuals became targets of the DHS operation after visiting the undercover web site last year and engaging in subsequent e-mail exchanges with investigators. One subject is a former Marine now deployed in the Middle East with the Army Reserves.

In every instance, targets have visited the undercover web site and sought, via e-mail, additional information about “Precious Treasure Holiday Company” offerings. Agents responded by sending back a “brochure” with details of the sex tour to Canada. The brochure, a court filing reported, also “requested answers to specific questions so not to disappoint the customer.” These included queries about the preferred age of the minors with whom the prospective sex tourist sought to consort. The brochure also noted that a female employee would accompany customers to Canada (this role has been played by Agent Hagan).

In some cases, a target was also provided a username and password that would allow access to a section of the DHS site containing an online “catalog” of girls aged eight to 14. Two men were arrested last year when they traveled to meet a child advertised in this catalog.

The enlisted man snared by the “Precious Treasure Holiday Company” web site, TSG has learned, is Sergeant Jason Talbott, a 32-year-old Washington State native.

In a mid-June 2010 e-mail from his Yahoo account, Talbott, pictured at right, wrote that he was “interested in a discreet package” involving an eight-year-old girl. While noting that, “I have no way of knowing if you are law enforcement or FBI,” Talbott asked about rates and sought “some sort of assurance that you are a legit company. Picture of some of the services provided maybe?” An account of Talbott’s e-mail exchanges with Agent Hagan is contained in a search warrant application excerpted here.

After receiving the brochure (and being provided access to the online catalog), Talbott described one particular child as “an attractive young lady, who would more than suit my needs.” He added, however, “I will not be back in the country for another year and a half as I am abroad.” Along with asking about adoption options mentioned in the brochure, Talbott wrote, “Again, I still have no assurances that you are legitimate, and not a sting operation or scam.”

Four months passed without further contact from Talbott. Then, on October 20, he sent an e-mail seeking “an updated catalogue of your females.” Based on entries from Talbott’s MySpace page, the e-mail was sent while he was home on leave in Spokane. In an October 14 post, he told of returning in a few weeks to the “sandbox” (Talbott previously wrote of being deployed in Kuwait).

Included with the October 20 e-mail was a naked photo of a prepubescent girl. “Attached is a pic of what I like just to show that I am not FBI. I would love a sample pic of one of your girls to verify something that shows a bit more than a clothed girl that looks like one of the dateline bait girls. All I need is to find myself on dateline.” While assuring that he was not a law enforcement agent, Talbott still appeared unconvinced that the web site’s proprietors were not themselves carrying badges or NBC employees.

After identifying Talbott as a target of the DHS probe, a TSG reporter sent a series of detailed e-mails to the Yahoo account seeking comment. In an initial response, the recipient replied, “I'm sorry, why are you calling me Sgt. Talbot? And what image was sent from this email? Do I need to run another virus scan?” Subsequent e-mails noted that, “I have nothing to talk to you about” and “I don't like being accused of shit like this. You are sick.”

In one e-mail, a reporter included a link to a TSG page that contained an excerpt from a search warrant for the contents of the swlfty@yahoo.com account. Within minutes of the e-mail being sent to the Yahoo account, the particular TSG page, server records showed, was accessed by an IP address registered in Kuwait City.

Additionally, after TSG e-mails were sent last month to the Yahoo account, Talbott’s profile page on Netlog, a social networking site targeting European youth, was edited. His name and photo were removed from the page, which carried the handle “swlfty.” His date of birth was changed. And the photos and nicknames of seven female friends were deleted. Of those friends, four were 14, one was 15, and another was 16.

Talbott’s Netlog page, which described him as “a man of particular tastes,” was subsequently deleted in its entirety (though a screen grab of the original page can be seen here). But his MySpace page, which contains the exact profile photo that was deleted from the Netlog page, remains online. (3 pages)

Minnesota Sex offender program is unconstitutional

Eventually the courts will reach that judgment about what is essentially indefinite incarceration.

What do you call a forced in-patient treatment program that has never successfully treated and released a patient?

Either it is a complete and utter failure, or you call it what it really is -- a prison.

That is the problem that Minnesota faces. It has 605 sex offender inmates who have no pending charges or convictions.

They are not on probation. In fact, all of these people have already been convicted and have served their debts to society.

However, some Minnesotans feel that is not enough. Rather, Minnesota is holding them for what they might do.

While both state and federal courts have called this dubious decision constitutional, they have done so only because it is "treatment."

Otherwise, the program would be considered unconstitutional. Which takes me back to my initial point.

If there has been no successful treatment, then it is nothing but incarceration.

You doubt me?

Minnesota started its Sex Offender Treatment Program in 1994. The number of inmates is growing by about 50 a year.

They are held at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter and at a facility in Moose Lake. However, both are running out of space.

St. Peter is looking to expand its facility by an additional 55 beds, while Moose Lake is seeking to expand by some 400 beds. At a cost of about $96,000 per inmate per year, this is not a cheap proposition.

And how successful has the treatment been? Not one person forced into the Sex Offender Treatment Program has ever been released.

I repeat: Not one!

As we speak, one man is trying to be the first person ever released from the program.

Admittedly, he has done some horrible things, but he has been held for decades and has done everything -- everything -- asked of him.

However, while the Special Review Board may go along with the release, state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson opposes the release. Frankly, she is a politician, and nobody would want an albatross like this around their neck if things went south.

But that is the ultimate problem. Again, these convicts have done some pretty terrible things.

As a result, the standard refrains seem to be "lock 'em up and throw away the key" or "shoot 'em out of a cannon." Of course, these arguments are irrelevant to the point at hand.

It is not about what one should do to those who commit these types of crimes in the first place.

If Minnesota thinks they should never see the light of day, the Legislature should consider that issue. This is about what we as a society should do once people have fulfilled their obligations.

If the state continues to do as it has done with this program for 16 years, the courts will see it for what it is: a prison.

When that happens, this entire system will be justifiably shut down.

Then what do we do?

Jack Rice is a criminal defense attorney , former prosecutor and former CIA officer. He also is the former host of the "Jack Rice Show" on WCCO Radio.

The Power of Lies: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children Fans the Flames

Ed: "There are nearly 500,000 registered sex offenders across the country and at any one time about 100,000 are unaccounted for."

This particular fabrication comes from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) a private, non-profit organization which gets almost all of its money from the U.S. Justice Department. This pronouncement follows several decades of distortions and lies issued by the group as a means to re-engineer social and criminal policy.

For several years, state Rep. Peter G. Palumbo has worked to revise the way Rhode Island registers and monitors convicted sex offenders. This year he introduced legislation to consolidate the state’s sex offender registry under the supervision of the state police and revamp it to comply with federal guidelines.

A General Assembly news release announcing the new bill cites the reason such legislation is needed, attributing the statement to Palumbo: "Across the nation, there are nearly 500,000 registered sex offenders and at any one time about 100,000 of them are unaccounted for. As long as there is one sex offender out there that we cannot account for, there is the potential for great harm, the potential for another victim."

We wondered if that many sex offenders were really missing, so we asked Palumbo where he got those figures. He cited one source: The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va. According to its annual report, the center was created by Congress in 1984, following the highly publicized disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz in New York City.

The center created a national missing children’s hot line and serves as a clearinghouse for information on missing and exploited children. It also collects data twice a year from every state on registered sex offenders.

Carolyn Atwell-Davis, the center’s director of legislative affairs, says the group arrives at its figures by calling law enforcement officials in each state and requesting the totals. It uses the information to periodically publish a national map showing the number of registered sex offenders in each state. Using similar data, and what it calls conservative estimates, the center tallies offenders who are unaccounted for.

Atwell-Davis said the number of registered sex offenders, based on the most recent survey, in December, is actually 728,435 -- 46 percent more than the number Palumbo cited.
Atwell-Davis said the last time the total number of sex offenders nationally was close to 500,000 was about 2002.

The group’s estimate of the number of unaccounted for is 100,000 -- a number that hasn’t changed in years.

NCMEC receives nearly $50 million annually in government grants and charitable contributions to fight child pornography, track sex offenders, maintain a missing children’s hot line and train police and prosecutors. Its data on sex offenders are cited routinely by politicians and the Justice Department.

Because Palumbo’s underlying point is that a substantial number of registered sex offenders is missing, we decided to examine that premise.

First, we checked Rhode Island, where the sex offender registry lists 569 offenders. Of that total, 119 are so-called Level 3 offenders, who have been convicted of sexual assaults, child molestation or kidnapping a minor. Ten of those were identified as being deported, moved out of state, incarcerated out of state or whereabouts unknown.

Another 225 are so-called Level 2 offenders, those who had committed less serious felony sex offenses. A total of 12 were identified as whereabouts unknown.

So, 22 of the 569 registered offenders in Rhode Island are unaccounted for -- about 4 percent.

We checked with some neighbors. One problem is that many use different criteria in entering offenders on their registries.

Connecticut, for instance, does not have tiers of offenders. All are lumped together, for a total of 5,279. Rather than having various categories of missing, public information officer Lt. Paul Vance says the state uses a category of "not in compliance." That includes everyone from those who haven’t supplied their addresses to those who have fled. The total is 372 or about 7 percent.

New York State identifies 31,972 offenders in three tiers. But only 490 are identified as location unknown. That is 1.5 percent of the total.

Massachusetts has a total of 8,166 registered sex offenders. Those who haven’t properly registered or who are otherwise unaccounted for are termed violators. As of Wednesday, there were 227 violators - or less than 3 percent.

We aren’t the only ones wondering about NCMEC’s numbers.

Jill Levenson, chairwoman of the Department of Human Services at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Fla., has been studying sexual offender registries, with other researchers from the University of Massachusetts, the University of California and the New Jersey Department of Corrections. She disagrees with the number of 100,000 "missing" offenders reported by NCMEC. Levenson said the highest number her group could determine was 17,688.

"When they (NCMEC) say missing, part of the question is what does that mean?" said Levenson. She said her group found many of the "missing" were homeless, in transit or simply the result of data entry errors. A study of the Florida registry found nearly a third of the people listed had died, moved or been deported.

Levenson said she feels it’s important to make the proper data available so that resources may be allocated most efficiently to deal with social problems such as sexual offenses. She argues the current emphasis on "publicly identifying and tracking known offenders may do a disservice to the public, since over 90 percent of sexually abused children are victimized by someone well known to them with no previous sex crime record, not a stranger found on a registry."

We asked Atwell-Davis about Levenson’s conclusions.

As for the missing offenders, Atwell-Davis said, "We’ve always said that was an estimate and that it was conservative." She said several studies suggest the true number is higher.

For example, she said she believes California is missing 20 percent of its offenders. The official figures from California, as of March 1, are 71,803 registered offenders, with 17,544 in violation of the registration law. That is 24 percent.

Atwell-Davis said she believes the discrepancy is due to the fact that Levenson gets her figures from public registries while NCMEC gets data directly from law enforcement agencies in each state and territory.

"We don’t want to create fear where it is unnecessary," said Atwell-Davis. "We believe it is important for communities to have good information."

So where are we?

* The 500,000 figure Palumbo cites for the total number of sex offenders in the United States was, by NCMEC’s count, off by more than 228,000. The last time it was 500,000 was nine years ago.

* If NCMEC’s numbers are accurate, the ratio of unaccounted for sex offenders nationwide is 1 of 7, not the 1 of 5 Palumbo’s statement suggests.

* NCMEC’s numbers are in dispute. A team of academics says they’re substantially overstated. Data from Rhode Island and nearby states supports that view.

Clearly, when even one registered sex offender is missing, that’s a serious problem -- a problem Palumbo is trying to fix. But public officials owe it to their constituents to get the facts right when they’re trying to address such issues.

Palumbo’s statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression -- the PolitiFact definition for Barely True.