Web group finds sex offenders

The charges filed against Antony Periathamby, a research professor in the School of Dentistry, for the use of a computer to facilitate a child sex crime Wednesday marked another of over 30 active court cases for uscyberwatch.com, a volunteer organization whose actions led to Periathamby's Feb. 27 arrest.

The organization, with eight volunteers, began in May 2004 with the launching of its Web site, according to the group's founder, who agreed to speak to the Tribune under the alias Nikki due to the sensitivity of her work.

Uscyberwatch.com volunteers enter regional chat rooms on the Internet. They create profiles identifying themselves as children usually around the age of 13 accompanied by donated photos of 13-year-olds.

Then they wait.

"The guy makes the first contact," Nikki said. "They bring up sex. They bring up meeting. Though, I shouldn't say 'guy' because we have a woman (we're pursuing a case against)."

The process — from first encounter to meeting — includes a phone call to verify identity and the request from a volunteer for a picture of the person. Transcripts of conversations, taped phone calls and any other information the volunteer can obtain are turned over to police prior to the meeting. Then the police show up in unmarked cars to confront suspects at the meeting place.

David Batton, an assistant district attorney in Cleveland County, Okla., said that with nine or 10 cases involving uscyberwatch.com pending and one conviction he worked on in Cleveland, the group generally follows that protocol.

However, he said in one conversation transcript, the person talking to the uscyberwatch.com volunteer seemed to try backing out of the conversation.

Batton said the work of uscyberwatch.com could run into some potential hazards. For example, there are usually emoticons — graphic faces with different expressions for different emotions like the smiley face — used in the conversation. These do not print off in the transcripts.

This is "problematic because it's hard to prove what was being solicited," Batton said. "If you just read the log, it's hard to figure out the real intent."

Further, he said, ambiguity in Internet language — does 'LOL' mean 'lots of love,' 'lots of laughs' or 'laughing out loud — could potentially be a problem.

If a volunteer says she is "13, LOL," does the person she's talking to really believe she is 13?

Nikki dismissed the ambiguity argument as irrelevant. She said everyone knows Internet language, and that ambiguity as an issue in prosecuting someone has never been raised. Nikki reiterated the volunteer's use of a strict "they make the first move" protocol.

Debra Blasius, the deputy district attorney working on the Periathamby case, declined to discuss uscyberwatch.com's role in the investigation. However, the criminal complaint lists them as the source of much of its information.

The complaint offers both Periathamby's denial of the accusation and an account basically matching the mode of operation Nikki described. However, the complaint says the volunteer asked for a phone number, and the suspect, identified as TOGERKING, initiated sexual conversation and meeting.

Periathamby denied in the complaint using or ever hearing of the alias TOGERKING.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Mar. 15 2005.