February 25, 1998 in City

A False Sense Of Security Is Dangerous

Diana Griego Erwin Mcclatchy New

The wild grasses skirting El Dorado Hills are green in springtime, lending the community a pastoral feel. By summer, however, the harsh Valley sun scorches entire hillsides, although residents prefer “golden” to brown.

A positive spin is what people buy into when they relocate to communities like El Dorado Hills. Such places promise everything the city can no longer pretend to be. Country air. New schools. Larger houses. But most of all, they promise an increased sense of security.

And so it’s no wonder that 43-year-old Mindy Miller, who moved here from Los Angeles in 1994, is, as she so fiercely put it, “really fired up.”

Last week, FBI investigators showed up on her best friend’s doorstep to ask her if she could identify children pictured in photos. The women, both of them mothers, were sickened when they discovered why. Earlier in the week, agents had arrested a local man the FBI says was plotting to kidnap, torture, kill and mutilate an 8-year-old neighborhood boy.

“I just died inside when I found out the guy lives here,” Miller said.

The FBI alleges that over several months, Charles Bradley Hall, 45, revealed his murderous plan to an Internet acquaintance in a chat room. According to an FBI affidavit, Hall also spoke of sexual exploits with juveniles.

The affidavit’s description of how Hall allegedly planned to kill the child, taken from chat room text, is too horribly vicious to print in a family newspaper.

“I know it isn’t rational, I know there are perverts everywhere, but things like this aren’t supposed to happen in a place like El Dorado Hills,” Miller said. “That’s why we moved here.”

That Hall allegedly hatched the plan using the anonymity of his computer, even transmitting a photo of his intended victim to his chat room friend, has brought new attention to the use of computers by pedophiles.

While a great educational tool for children, the Internet has proved to be much used by pedophiles, an FBI official testified before the House Judiciary Committee in November.

“Our investigative efforts have shown pedophiles often utilize ‘chat rooms’ to contact children,” said Stephen R. Wiley, chief of the FBI’s violent crime and major offenders section. Chat rooms “provide the pedophile an anonymous means of identifying and recruiting children into sexually illicit relationships. Children can chat for hours with unknown individuals, often without the knowledge or approval of their parents. A child does not know if he/she is chatting with a 14-year-old or a 40-year-old.”

The FBI has investigated more than 70 cases involving pedophiles traveling interstate to meet undercover agents posing as juveniles. And those are just the ones they’ve caught.

Watchdog groups say too many children surf the Internet completely unsupervised by adults. The potential for problems can be compounded in communities such as El Dorado Hills, where work commutes often stretch parental hours away, leaving some kids home alone and bored.

Another El Dorado Hills mother, Nancy Perry, said one of her three sons used to hang out in computer chat rooms after school until he had a big scare when a 22-year-old woman threatened to show up on his doorstep.

“She didn’t realize he was only 12 and apparently was enamored with him,” Perry said. “Even when he told her his age, she wouldn’t stop contacting him.”

The boy turned to his parents for help.

In Hall’s case, his alleged plan to kidnap a child was so serious, the FBI was forced to act. “Our experience is that, at some point in many of these cases, talk becomes action,” said James Maddock, the FBI’s top man in Sacramento.

Miller calls the arrest a wake-up call - for parents who feel “too safe” in bedroom communities and for parents who may not monitor their “computer-whiz” children’s Internet use.

The broader message is one that’s been good advice for a long time: Know where your kids are, what they’re doing and who their friends and acquaintances are.

Some of the most dangerous influences today are as imperceptible as the hum of your home computer.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Diana Griego Erwin McClatchy News Service

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