I made my first opening statement nine days after reporting to my first assignment in South Carolina; a fully litigated drug trial (in the military, you litigate the findings AND the sentencing portion). Knew I’d get trial experience early, and I craved it. Then a dear friend had a “great idea,” and so began my focused experience in complex child exploitation cases. . . .

Shaw Air Force Base. Home of the 20th Fighter Wing (largest F-16 combat wing in the Air Force), Ninth Air Force, U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Third Army Headquarters, and U.S. Army Central Command.

It’s hard to describe how it felt. Throughout my time there, I rarely entered the base through the main gate. I chose a back gate, so I’d drive past the squadrons’ “parking lot,” past the rows and rows of Fighting Falcons (also known as Vipers). Never stopped looking up as I walked into the building whenever I heard them roar overhead.

Military law child exploitation prosecution

I had no idea where Sumter, South Carolina was before being assigned there. “It’s near everything. And since you want military justice experience, there are lots of trials there,” the assignments people said.

Truer words could not have been spoken. Life hack: if you hear “it’s near everything,” it’s in the middle of nowhere.

It wasn’t state attorney/public defender volume, though it was high by Air Force standards. And the cases more complex early on. I think my second or third trial was a fully litigated multi-million dollar fraud case.

Then, it happened. The Chief of Military Justice–the person that oversees criminal investigations and manages each attorney’s caseload–was temporarily detailed to serve as legal advisor to an aircraft accident investigation. His duties fell to me.

I had prosecuted one child exploitation case before. It was what you’d call a “reactive” case. An Airman grabbed another’s cell phone after he left the cab of their truck and saw a picture of what he believed to be child pornography. Law enforcement searched the phone, and I had my case.

While Acting Chief of Military Justice, a good friend, special agent at Office of Special Investigations (OSI) approached me. He had been interested in “proactive” child exploitation investigations. To Catch a Predator stuff. For some time, he had pursued training from the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force, and had put his training to work.

What are we talking about when we say “child exploitation” cases? Any case involving the exploitation of a child or obscenity. I know, not very helpful. Child pornography, child molestation, child abuse, leud and lascivious conduct, etc. You get it. Child sex crimes. The military offense mirrors federal law very closely. And Florida law is the same.

But I digress.

The investigations EXPLODED. We weren’t equipped for that.

The Air Force does have an assignment for a senior prosecutor that focuses on these sorts of cases, but there is no subject matter experience requirement. People have been given that responsibility having never worked a child exploitation case before. The Air Force prefers generalists, a plug and play approach.

This had not been done before.

Lucky for me, the Department of Justice (DOJ) maintained its National Advocacy Center (NAC) just an hour away in Columbia. So, I reached out. The NAC hosts a Project SAFE Childhood seminar, a weeklong course for Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSA) who specialize in child exploitation prosecutions. And it was coming up. Could I audit the course? I can commute daily and feed myself. I just wanted a seat.

They were incredibly gracious and eagerly welcomed me.

I have always described that week as a crash course advanced degree in complex child exploitation investigations and prosecutions, and digital forensics. I still have my course handbook in my office.

Afterward, we got to work. My philosophy was AGGRESSIVE investigation and conservative charging. Take everything. Charge to win.

I’ll never forget one of the operations we ran. “Captain,” the agent said. “I want to set up a target house on base and post an ad on Craigslist. A joint operation with Security Forces. Ghillie suits, the whole thing.”

Reminded me of my time interning at the Office of the Attorney General’s Statewide Prosecution Unit in law school. Got introduced to these investigations. That house was in Polk County.

But just one problem. My boss was on temporary duty elsewhere. Do I tell the base commander? That’s a PR nightmare if I don’t and this gets on the news. But, I thought, what if he might show up? I decided not to tell him.

I don’t remember the exact numbers now, but within twenty minutes of posting the ad, over 200 individuals responded. Graphically. One of the several with base access showed up, and we had a case. When my boss returned and learned what we did, I got feedback on my decision:

“Great job. Don’t ever do that again.” Got it, boss.

Not the base commander and after my time, but I’ll just leave it here.

We were building this from scratch. And unlike units like Statewide or DOJ, and more like local prosecutions, military criminal investigators complete their investigation with little Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) coordination. They investigate to complete a report. It is then handed over to the SJA to prosecute, who usually has to re-investigate because it is insufficient for prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt. It wouldn’t get anyone promoted, but I wanted to break that practice.

I’d spend most of my days at OSI, reviewing the evidence together. Hundreds of thousands of images, chats, texts, browser history, etc. I’d show them how I could use what they found, and how some things they thought weren’t useful actually were. I taught them the ins and outs of Rule 404(b). Over time, I didn’t need to anymore. They understood how a case is built, prosecuted, and won. Then other bases and commands came calling, and I was advising on their cases. Mind you, there was someone else tasked to do this, but we were called.

When Headquarters OSI came asking for a draft Air Force-wide Operations Plan, we were ready.

Today, the way the Air Force investigates and prosecutes child exploitation cases began in the mind of an enterprising special agent from Detachment 212. And now all the services do the same thing. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

I literally wrote the book on how these cases are prosecuted.