The 13-year-old boy sat in his California home, eyes fixed on a computer screen. He had never run with the popular crowd, and long ago had turned to the Internet for the friends he craved. But on this day, Justin Berry's fascination with cyberspace would change his life. Weeks before, Justin hooked up a Web camera to his computer, hoping to use it to meet other teenagers online. Instead, he heard only from men who chatted with him by instant message as they watched his image on the Internet. To Justin, they seemed just like friends, ready with compliments and always offering gifts. Now, on an afternoon in 2000, one member of his audience sent a proposal: He would pay Justin $50 to sit bare-chested in front of his Web cam for three minutes. The man explained that Justin could receive the money instantly. "I figured, I took off my shirt at the pool for nothing," he said recently. "So, I was kind of like, what's the difference?" Justin removed his T-shirt. The men watching him oozed compliments. So began the secret life of a teenager who was lured into selling images of his body on the Internet over the course of five years. From the seduction that began that day, this soccer-playing honor-roll student was drawn into performing in front of the Web cam - undressing, showering, masturbating and even having sex - for an audience of more than 1,500 people who paid him, over the years, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Justin's dark coming-of-age story is a collateral effect of recent technological advances: Minors, often under the online tutelage of adults, are opening for-pay pornography sites featuring their own images sent onto the Internet by inexpensive Web cams. And they perform from the privacy of home, while parents are nearby, beyond their children's closed bedroom doors. The business has created youthful Internet porn stars with nicknames like Riotboyy, Miss Honey and Gigglez, whose images are traded online long after their sites have vanished. In this world, adolescents announce schedules of their next masturbation for customers who pay fees for the performance or monthly subscription charges. A six-month investigation by The New York Times into this corner of the Internet found that such sites had emerged largely without attracting the attention of law enforcement or youth protection agencies. While experts with these groups said they had witnessed a recent deluge of illicit, self-generated Web cam images, they had not known of the evolution of sites where minors sold images of themselves. "We've been aware of the use of the Web cam and its potential use by exploiters," said Ernest Allen, chief executive of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a private group. "But this is a variation on a theme that we haven't seen. It's unbelievable." Some children are ending up as pornographic commodities inadvertently, even unknowingly. Adolescents have appeared naked on their Web cams as a joke, or as presents for boyfriends or girlfriends, only to have their images posted on pay pornography sites. One Web site proclaims that it features 140,000 images of "adolescents in cute panties exposing themselves on their teen Web cams." The scale of Web cam pornography is unknown, because it is both new and extremely secretive. But Justin Berry is far from alone. One online portal that advertises for-pay Web cam sites, many of them pornographic, lists at least 585 sites created by teenagers, internal site records show. The Times inquiry has already resulted in a large-scale criminal investigation. In June, The Times located Justin Berry, then 18. In interviews, Justin revealed the existence of a group of more than 1,500 men who paid for his online images, as well as evidence that other identifiable children as young as 13 were being actively exploited. In its investigation, The Times obtained the names and credit card information for the 1,500 people who paid Justin to perform on camera, and analyzed the backgrounds of 300 of them nationwide. The majority of the sample consisted of doctors and lawyers, businessmen and teachers, many of whom work with children on a daily basis. In a series of meetings, The Times persuaded Justin to abandon his business and, to protect other children at risk, assisted him in contacting the U.S. Justice Department. Arrests and indictments of people he identified as pornography producers and traffickers began in September. Investigators are also focusing on businesses, including credit card processors who have aided illegal sites. Anyone who has created, distributed, marketed, possessed or paid to view such pornography is open to a criminal charge. "The fact that we are getting so many potential targets, people who knowingly bought into a child pornographic Web site, could lead to hundreds of other subjects and potentially save hundreds of other kids that we are not aware of yet," said Monique Winkis, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who is working on the case. Law enforcement officials also said that, with Justin's cooperation, they had obtained a rare guide into this secluded online world, whose story illuminates the exploitation that takes place there. "I didn't want these people to hurt any more kids," Justin said recently of his decision to become a federal witness. "I didn't want anyone else to live the life I lived." In 2000, Justin was a gangly 13-year-old who lived with his mother, stepfather and younger sister in Bakersfield, California, a city of 250,000 about 90 miles, or 145 kilometers, north of Los Angeles. Already he was so adept at the computer that he had registered his own small Web site development business, which he ran from the desk where he did his homework. So Justin was fascinated when a friend showed off the free Web cam he had received for joining an Internet service provider. The device was simple and elegant. Justin quickly signed up, eager for his own Web cam. "I didn't really have a lot of friends," he recalled, "and I thought having a Web cam might help me make some new ones online, maybe even meet some girls my age." As soon as Justin hooked the camera to his bedroom computer and loaded the software, his picture was automatically posted on spotlife.com, an Internet directory of Web cam users, along with his contact information. Then he waited to hear from other teenagers. No one Justin's age ever contacted him from that listing. But, within minutes, he heard from his first online predator. That man was soon followed by another, then another. Justin remembers his earliest communications with these men as nonthreatening, pleasant encounters. His new friends were generous. One explained how to put together a "wish-list" on Amazon.com, where Justin could ask for anything - computer equipment, toys, music CDs or movies. The men also filled an emotional void in Justin's life. His relationship with his father, Knute Berry, was troubled. His parents divorced when he was young; afterward, police records show, there were instances of reported physical abuse. The emotional turmoil left Justin longing for paternal affection, family members said. And the adult males he met online offered just that. "They complimented me all the time," Justin said. "They told me I was smart, they told me I was handsome." Justin's mother, Karen Page, said she sensed nothing out of the ordinary. Her son seemed to be just a boy talented with computers who enjoyed speaking to friends online. Justin's desk became a high-tech playhouse. To avoid suspicions, he hid the Web cams behind his desk until nighttime. Whenever his mother asked about his new technology and money, Justin told her they were fruits of his Web site development business. In a way, it was true - with one fan's help, he had by then opened his own pornographic Web site. Justin began to feel he belonged to something important, a broad community of teenagers with their own businesses. Collectively, they were known by a name now commonplace in this Internet subculture: They call themselves "camwhores." Justin says that he did not fully understand the dangers his fans posed, and before he turned 14, he was first lured from the relative safety of his home. A man he met online hosted Justin's Web site from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and invited him there to attend a computer camp. Justin's mother allowed him to go, thinking the camp sounded worthwhile. Another time, the man enticed Justin to Michigan by promising to arrange for him to have sex with a girl. Both times, Justin said, the man molested him. In early 2003, Justin's offline life began to unravel. A former classmate found pornographic videos on the Internet from Justin's Web site, made copies, and handed them out around town, including to students at his school. Justin was taunted and beaten. Then, in February, came another traumatic event. His father, who had been charged with insurance fraud related to massage clinics he ran, disappeared. Soon, Berry called his son from Mazatlán, Mexico; Justin begged to join him, and his father agreed. In Mexico, Justin freely spent his wads of cash, leading his father to ask where the money had come from. Justin said that he confessed the details of his lucrative Web cam business, and the reunion soon became a collaboration. Justin created a new Web site, his most ambitious ever: It featured Justin having live sex with prostitutes. It rapidly became a wildly popular Web cam pornography site, making Justin one of the Internet's most sought after underage pornography stars. Money from the business, Justin said, was shared with his father, an allegation supported by transcripts of their instant message conversations. In exchange, Justin told prosecutors and The Times, his father helped procure prostitutes. Over the following year, Justin tried repeatedly to break free of this life. He roamed the United States. He contemplated suicide. For a time he sought solace in a return to Christianity. In June, Justin began communicating online with someone who had never messaged him before. The conversations involved many questions, and Justin feared his new contact might be an FBI agent. Still, when a meeting was suggested, Justin agreed. He says part of him hoped he would be arrested, putting an end to the life he was leading. They met in Los Angeles, and Justin learned that the man was this reporter, who wanted to discuss the world of Web cam pornography with him. After some hesitation, Justin agreed. At one point, asked what he wanted to accomplish in his life, Justin replied: He wanted to make his mother and grandmother proud of him. The next day, Justin began showing the inner workings of his online world. In the days that followed, he agreed in discussions with a reporter to abandon his pornography business. He cut himself off from his illicit life. He destroyed his cell phone, stopped using his online screen name and fled to another part of the country where no one would find him. After confirming his allegations, The Times urged him to give his information to prosecutors, and he agreed. In July, Justin met in Washington with the FBI and prosecutors. He identified children who he believed were in the hands of adult predators. He listed the marketers, credit card processors and others who supported Web cam child pornography. He also described the voluminous documentary evidence he had retained on his hard drives: financial information, conversation transcripts with his members, and other records. Prosecutors agreed to grant Justin immunity, and he became a federal witness. Justin himself has found a measure of control over his life. He revealed the details of his secret life to his family. He has sought counseling, resumed his connection with his church and plans to attend college beginning in January. In recent weeks, Justin returned to his mother's home in California. On their final day together, Justin's mother drove him to the airport. Hugging him as they said goodbye, she said that the son she once knew had finally returned. Then, as tears welled in her eyes, Justin's mother told him that she and his grandmother were proud of him.
|Boy's Web cam opens portal to a grim world|
|By Kurt Eichenwald The New York Times |
MONDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2005
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