Back in early June 2005, child exploitation was the furthest thing from his mind. He was an award-winning business reporter, known for his ability to master arcane corporate puzzles and finesse uncooperative sources. He came to prominence on the ruins of Enron as well as scandals at Archer Daniels Midland and Arthur Andersen—proving himself amid America’s business crises as an unparalleled investigative reporter who could find a heart-stopping thriller in any corporate drama. His best-selling books have been snapped up by Hollywood, one set to star Leonardo DiCaprio, the other Matt Damon, with Steven Soderbergh directing. He had two George Polk awards on his shelf, and was a finalist (with Gina Kolata) for a 2000 Pulitzer.
It was entirely by accident that he turned his talents to exposing the Internet-porn business, he says. Between investigations, he was Googling for a new project. “I was looking for something international,” he has said, and something involving dirty money. So he typed in Interpol, fraud alert, and investigations. That led him to a Website called MexicoFriends.com, which sounded to Eichenwald like it might involve cross-border money laundering but turned out to be an amateurish porn operation starring Justin Berry, who was 18 at the time, and a parade of beautiful Mexican women. His eye fell on the Website’s help icon. It was illustrated with the face of a young kid—Berry at about age 14. There were disclaimers, but Eichenwald looked past them. “Nobody could look at this image knowing that it was a porn site and not conclude this is about child porn,” Eichenwald testified in a related criminal case in Michigan. “It was an image of a 14-year-old boy, somebody who was clearly underage. Somebody who, in truth, and this was a very important thing, he looked a lot like my oldest son, who was 13 at the time.”
Eichenwald, who has two other sons (then ages 7 and 10), was haunted by the comparison. He showed the picture to his wife, Theresa, a physician. “I remember him saying, ‘This could be ours, this could be our boy,’” she says.
In that moment, they both say, the boy in the picture stopped being a potential story and became a rescue operation, a mission of mercy. They decided to make contact. “A little voice was asking, ‘What if our sons were in trouble,’” Theresa Eichenwald says. “I would hope somebody would help them.”
Something kept them from thinking that they could simply alert authorities to their concerns and leave it at that. Eichenwald now says he should have e-mailed the CyberTipline, a project of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Instead, he recruited his own spiritual adviser, an Episcopalian minister named Kevin Huddleston, and spoke to their oldest son, using Justin Berry as an “object lesson” in the perils of the Internet.
With everybody onboard, over the next several days Eichenwald posed as a pervy fan and made awkward contact with the youth and his business partner and sometime sexual partner, a 37-year-old operator of a Sonic drive-in named Greg Mitchel. He won their trust in part by leading them to think he was a celebrated musician. They guessed Eichenwald might be Don Henley of the Eagles. Despite Berry’s claims to being over 18, Eichenwald says the contacts only increased his concern for the youth and his fears for the kid’s safety.
Justin Berry first went through the looking glass as a 13-year-old, when he hooked up a Webcam and began broadcasting live from his bedroom in Bakersfield, California. His distracted mother and stepfather apparently paid little notice; his biological father was long gone, having beaten charges of child abuse for knocking Berry’s head against a wall, then left for Mexico.
He thought the Webcam would give him the opportunity to meet “some girls my age,” he once said. But that’s not exactly what happened. Soon, a man invited him to remove his shirt, which he did for the promise of cash, he says. By 14, he was fielding requests to masturbate online in exchange for “gifts” his admirers would send, chosen off a “wish list” he kept on Amazon: computer equipment, toys, CDs, movies.
In this, he was clearly not alone. An indeterminable number of teenagers had stumbled into similar businesses—a number that today has no doubt ballooned thanks to perfectly legal sites like MySpace, Facebook, and especially XTube, where 43,000 people have uploaded their home sex pictures and videos.
But Berry’s corner of the marketplace was a bit scrappier. For one thing, he was underage—federal child-pornography laws make it illegal to film, view, or sell sexualized images of anybody under 18, though age-of-consent laws are lower (in most states, 16). Berry—a lanky bottle-blond—launched JustinsCam.com when he was still 15 (one preserved Webpage announced he was on hiatus “due to homework”). He says he was soon making a six-figure income. In retrospect, he says, he was being lured into these activities by practiced predators. But a review of chat logs from that period suggests he was especially precocious. He sends school-exam questions to his fans for them to answer and sometimes brazenly stiffs subscribers after they paid for shows.
When his girlfriend confronted him, he refused to quit. “It’s a job, and I enjoy it,” he wrote.
Berry says that at 13 and again a year or so later, he was drawn into a pair of sexual encounters with adult men he met over the Internet. At 16, he fell into his sordid, on-and-off relationship with Greg Mitchel (they met in Mexico, where the age of consent can be as low as 12), which would last until he was nearly 19. “im str8,” Berry once IM-ed a friend, “but bi for money.”