Gifted Mobile Lab to Help Phoenix-Area Police Find Predators

Operation Underground Railroad and doTERRA donated a $300,000 mobile forensics unit to the Mesa, Ariz., Police Department that allows them to analyze digital forensic data much faster than previous technology.

by Jim Walsh, East Valley Tribune / December 19, 2018
The Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the Arizona State University Center for Smart Cities and Regions, and the Arizona Institute for Digital Progress have come together to launch the Greater Phoenix Smart Region Initiative. Shutterstock

(TNS) — Police in Arizona's East Valley have a new tool to target child predators and human trafficking, thanks to the generous donation of a mobile forensics unit to the Mesa Police Department.

Equipped with computers and monitors, the mobile trailer will allow detectives to analyze cell phones and laptops much faster than previously, looking for digital evidence that could link a defendant to a variety of sex crimes.

Once search warrants are obtained, the digital evidence could reveal that someone is in possession of child pornography or is even holding children captive as part of a sex ring, said Mesa Police Sgt. Jason Troth.

The $300,000 lab was donated by doTERRA, a company that makes essential oils with natural therapeutic properties, and Operation Underground Railroad, a national and international organization dedicated to fighting sexual exploitation of children.

“It’s going to allow us a platform to harvest digital evidence sooner. It’s going to speed things up for us,’’ Troth said.

He said such evidence can be gleaned from a variety of electronic devices, including laptops and other computers that predators use to store child pornography, sell or exchange with others, or even to operate sex trafficking rings.

Police target web sites typically used by sexual predators through the FBI’s Internet Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking task force. Mesa detectives are also adept at tracking down such evidence, Troth said.

“We really try to identify child victims through sexually exploitive images’’ seized as evidence in hopes of liberating potential victims and saving them from the sex trade, Troth said.

He said the Mesa unit also will be used to assist other East Valley police in sex investigations, with police realizing that criminals do not pay attention to city borders.

Mesa police have a long-term commitment to regional policing through the East Valley Fusion center, where detectives from a variety of agencies work together to share surveillance information and identify serial criminals.

“It’s a gift," Troth said about the new unit. “Part of having a gift is to share it.’’

Jon Lines, executive director of Operation Underground, said he selected Mesa police to receive the mobile lab because of their deep commitment to fighting sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking.

He said the goal of the mobile unit is to eliminate any delay between the collection of evidence at a crime scene and the analysis needed to develop probable cause for an arrest.

“If they can do it in real time, they can make an arrest immediately,’’ Lines, a former Department of Homeland Security supervisor, said. “There’s nothing more important we can do as a police department and a community than to protect our most vulnerable.’’

Mesa City Councilmember Kevin Thompson said he was appalled when he learned that adult men were pursuing 12- and 13-year-old girls for sexual gratification.

Referring to the mobile forensics unit behind him, Thompson said, “if we can save one child or one person from being sold for sex, it’s worth its weight in gold.’’

Mesa Mayor John Giles compared the city defending its children to the country protecting its national security.

“The battleground is one of technology,’’ he said. “These battles are fought over the web. We just landed an aircraft carrier.’’

Mesa police conduct stings from time to time that lead to the arrest of men pursuing underaged girls. Police have said many times that illicit, underaged sex is advertised over the web and children also are recruited and manipulated over the web.

Many Mesa stings are financed through grants from the Hickey Family Foundation, which has made significant contributions to pay for police overtime.

Nancy Baldwin, trustee and executive director of the foundation, said she just donated $160,000 to pay for additional investigations — after making donations of $140,000, $121,000 and $120,000 in past years.

She said she realized the importance of such investigations after understanding that children are very vulnerable to sexual predators, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds.

©2018 East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.