Billings police officer Earl Campbell

Billings police officer Earl Campbell talks to students at Huntley Project High School about online security on Wednesday. Campbell works with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

David Arthur Sievers showed up at a Lewistown motel in March of 2011 carrying a teddy bear, flowers, soda, alcohol and condoms.

The 41-year-old Billings man had spent the previous year having sexually explicit chats and sending photos of the same nature to who he believed to be an underage girl.

He thought he’d convinced her to meet up with him at the motel to have sex.

What Sievers didn’t know was that the girl was actually an undercover officer from the Lewistown Police Department. When he showed up at the hotel, he was arrested. Later that year, he was sentened to 15 years in federal prison for coercion and enticement, transfer of obscene material to a minor and receipt of child porn.

The officer was part of the Billings-based Montana Internet Crimes Against Chldren Task Force, a federally funded group that combats Internet-based exploitation of children across the state.

“We want to monitor those presences on the Internet,” said Billings Police Officer Earl Campbell, one of three lead ICAC investigators. “If we find some suspicious activity we try to zero in on it.”

The task force partners with 18 law enforcement agencies — local, state and federal — across Montana and is funded with $225,000 in grants annually through the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency.

Headquarted in in downtown Billings, the ICAC is made up of program coordinator Tim West, Campbell and one agent each from the FBI and Montana Division of Criminal Investigation.

“Since we’re based in Billings we really appreciate the support of the communities at large in Montana,” West said. “It’s something that we couldn’t do without the cooperation of communities and agencies across the state and we really appreciate that relationship.”

Campbell said the majority of the nearly 4,000 cases they’ve investigated since the task force was formed in 2007 have focused on child pornography.

“Computers and the Internet have changed everything completely,” he said. “They can take a picture and, within seconds, they can have it up on the Internet.”

They also track what the task force calls “traveler cases,” people like Sievers who set up a relationship and then travel to meet the children, or undercover officers, somewhere.

Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock announced earlier this year a new effort through the Montana Children’s Justice Center designed to bring together different agencies, including the task force, to deal with child abuse.

He likened that effort to the way ICAC works, bringing in specialists and multiple law enforcement agencies for a single purpose and said that, due to the shifting nature of online exploitation and the number of people involved, it’s an important group.

“Every month there are 800 hits from Montanans to sites supplying and sharing child pornography,” Bullock said. “We have to be working together to get some of those cases.”

Since they’re not often investigating a physical crime scene, ICAC members take a different approach. First, they’ll identify a suspect, which often is difficult because of online anonymity or the use of false information.

But, through warrants and cooperative efforts, they can usually pinpoint where the information is coming from and work toward an identification from there.

All of the task force investigators are specially trained in using technology to investigate, often from a distance, and they then branch out into specialized areas.

“It’s not your typical street crime these officers are investigating,” Bullock said.

For Campbell, that means a focus on child pornography cases and tracking social media.

“I keep an eye on where the kids are going, what they’re doing,” he said. “The suspects we’re after, that’s where we’re going because that’s where they’re eventually going to end up.”

Since 2007, the task force has made 88 arrests as a result of its investigations. However, it doesn’t happen overnight and can take nearly a year from the beginning of an investigation to an arrest or conviction.

In each case, the suspect usually has a computer and other electronic devices, which are sent to an FBI computer forensics lab in the state.

Due to backlog and the volume of data, that process can take months. Then the case must move through the legal system.

“Before we bring anything to the front, there are definitely cases where you want to have everything line up to make sure you have the right person,” Campbell said.

Bullock said that the collaborative nature of the task force — bringing in members of different agencies and jurisdictions for a single purpose — is a great benefit.

“The essential piece of all of this is that an Internet predator or somebody sharing child pornography, it doesn’t stop in a municipality or at a state line,” he said.

Education is another key piece of ICAC. Over the last five years, its members have spoke with more than 34,000 students, parents and educators across the state on Internet safety.

“We’ll continue to do our education pieces across the state as we always have throughout the years,” West said.

More and more technology, including the recent explosion of smartphones on the market, is getting into the hands of children and with that comes the danger of online predators, something Campbell said ICAC will continue to fight.

“The Internet has opened Montana kids up to the rest of the world,” he said. “But with more and more heads working together, it makes it easier to combat.”