Uncovering the truth How CLEAR broke open an investigation of child pornography and sexual exploitation
In November 2016, a cyber tip came in regarding activity on an open hospital Wi-Fi in Bountiful, Utah. This marked the beginning of a two-year investigation held by local law enforcement and an Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Investigator. The events that followed exposed dark truths which shook the local area, but also revealed the Everyday Heroes who work tirelessly to keep their community safe.
A group of individuals was communicating online, their double lives hidden behind usernames and email addresses. Tens of thousands of chats demonstrated a disturbing mutual interest: the sexual exploitation of children and the production and distribution of child pornography.
With extensive backgrounds in investigating cases of child exploitation, Davis County Detective John Peirce and the ICAC investigator, whose name shall not be disclosed, recall the events that led to the identification and prosecution of two of the worst offenders they had seen in their careers.
The people of Bountiful watched in disbelief as a highly-regarded doctor, Nathan Ward, was sentenced for the heinous crimes he had committed. Ward’s prosecution made it possible for another key figure in the case, Robert Francis, to be identified and sentenced as well. With further ongoing investigations, the task force continues to utilize CLEAR, the software responsible for cracking the first break in the case.
The beginning of a lead
When internet service providers or companies suspect that child exploitation material is being uploaded or downloaded on their network, they will generate a cyber tip with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), providing some of the account information and the facts in question. NCMEC then attempts to geo-locate the IP address before sending the case out for investigation. In this instance, the cyber tip came from Yahoo, and made its way to the Salt Lake Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force, before being assigned to Detective Peirce. The investigators faced their first challenge: identifying the suspect of the cyber tip.
With limited information to go by, Peirce turned to CLEAR, inputting a suspected first and last name derived from the Yahoo user ID, along with the location as Utah. CLEAR provided Peirce with the name of Nathan Ward’s son, and then also the doctor himself. “In the initial part of the investigation it was actually the son that was the primary suspect,” Peirce explained. “He was eventually eliminated from being a suspect, but CLEAR is what gave us the starting point. All we really had was that email, an IP address, and an open Wi-Fi at the hospital which anybody could use.” Ward had purposefully used his son’s name to create his user ID. The investigators believed that Ward had attempted to cover his tracks by ‘throwing it on his son’, however after interviewing Ward’s son and searching his devices, it became obvious that he wasn’t the suspect. The team used a warrant to gain detailed information from Yahoo and were able to identify Dr. Nathan Ward as the true suspect, even down to the selfie he had provided.
With the correct suspect now under investigation, the floodgates opened, and Peirce began to target the network of people that Ward had been communicating with. Around this time, the ICAC investigator joined the investigation, as another member of the ICAC task force. It had become apparent that this investigation had the potential to be a higher profile case, with possible federal prosecution. What happened next was a stroke of luck.
A criminal error
Many hours went into reviewing Ward’s online chats with seemingly anonymous individuals. “It was the first time we had access to how some of these guys think and act; there were tens of thousands of chats and emails. They were dark and disturbing and really graphic,” Peirce said. In a slip-up which would later cause a major unraveling of the case, one Yahoo user gave their phone number to Ward during their chat. “We knew we had him,” Peirce said. “We knew we had both of them.”
A search was run on the phone number. “CLEAR immediately came back with the information that was Robert Francis – the other individual who was producing and sharing images of child pornography with Ward,” the ICAC investigator explained. The investigators had his home address, and then a warrant within days.
“It was CLEAR that started us identifying who Francis was. From there, we also looked into his social media,” the ICAC investigator said. “We actually identified who the victims were before we were at the house, and then we found more evidence at the house.”
Against the clock
As Ward’s arrest made the news, Detective Peirce believed that Francis must have anticipated that they would be coming for him next. Time was of the essence for the investigators. “Every day that was delayed, evidence could have been destroyed or removed,” Peirce said. “Maybe we never would have found the production. The longer we waited, the more time Francis had to think about it and get rid of it.” Without CLEAR, it would have taken significantly longer to identify and locate Francis, which would have increased the risk of evidence being destroyed.
When the investigators arrived at Francis’ property, they also found images of the primary victim in the Ward case. “This opened up the possibility of a major federal prosecution against Ward for production of child pornography,” Peirce said. “Without CLEAR, Ward might not be doing as much time as he is now.” In cases such as these, efficiency means more than meeting a deadline on time. It can mean the difference in rescuing a child or delivering justice for the victims and their families.
While emotionally tolling, Detective Peirce and the ICAC investigator recall the satisfaction of ‘taking a bad guy off the board’. “It was a team of guys looking at each other, saying ‘Hey, we can go rescue these kids’, you can’t measure that,” said the ICAC investigator. “It was the most important thing I’ve done in law enforcement, to see the families and victims have closure,” Peirce added. “The amount of work that went into this, we may never repeat in our careers, but it was worth every single moment.”
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