It was going down the same way it had gone down a dozen times before. Lydia, a criminal investigator attached to the Westchester district attorney's office, was waiting at a shopping mall in White Plains in her white blouse, plaid skirt, and Skips. This was the uniform she had described to Bruinbud43 in a chat room. Just the thought of this teenage virgin dressed for private school had been enough to make him masturbate. He had wanted to get her off in turn, promising to show her how to get pleasure from her own body. He had sent her a photo of a man and an underage girl having sex. "looks like it hurts!" she'd written back. "no it feels good if done right," he'd replied.
Online, Bruinbud43 had warned her about chat rooms: "be careful don't get hurt."
"thank u i'm sorry for bothering u," Lydia had written back from her desk in the D.A.'s office.
He'd responded: "just wanted to help you since you new in here. think you're a doll."
Lydia sat on a bench in the mall; Bruinbud43 checked out the area until he saw her, approached, and sat down. He was in his early forties, and bald.
The personal slogan on his AOL profile was "Enjoy life for it is short. Take that chance." Bruinbud43 had told Lydia he made computer systems in Maryland. He loved her and would never do anything to hurt her. After they'd made love, he would look for a new home near her. They would grow old together.
Who really knew? Just as she wasn't a student at Good Counsel Academy, he probably wasn't a computer programmer. He probably had no intention of taking her to a hotel room -- the car would probably be fine.
Lydia is small and had made herself up, following the advice of her teenage niece, but even so, 30 didn't look like 13 unless you really wanted it to. She said, "Oh, I thought you had hair." She gave the signal, and the backups approached. Bruinbud43 was trapped.
Since it began in July 1999, the Internet-pedophile sting has grown from a modest law-enforcement effort into a prosecutorial home run for Westchester district attorney Jeanine Pirro. To date, 50 men have been arrested; 44 have pleaded guilty, and the remaining six cases are pending. So far, no one has been acquitted. Convictions tend to occur at the end of the week. It's happened so often they have a nickname for it in the D.A.'s office: Pederast Friday.
"We were surprised by the number of arrests," says Michael Delohery, one of the prosecutors in charge.
What's more surprising is the profile of the offenders: mostly middle-aged male professionals, some family men, the sort who don't often show up in the crime columns. They include one priest, one coach, and six teachers. Twenty-five percent of them had regular contact with children. Arrest No. 26 was James Irwin, the principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Bronx. No. 32 was Kenneth Lawrence, a sports director at Club Fit in Ossining who taught children's programs. No. 41 was a history teacher at the prestigious Harvey School in Katonah. Arrest No. 42, John Castaldo, of Stamford, Connecticut, was not only a priest but the one whom other priests sent young boys to see when they confessed the urge to masturbate.
All these defendants pleaded guilty to the charges arising from the sting. Together they have consolidated Pirro's reputation as a crusader on behalf of women and children. "There is no question that we have deterred many people from doing what they might otherwise do," Pirro says. "We are having the effect that we want." Still, not everyone is a convert. Some argue that there's less here than meets the eye, that this is prosecution as theater, a way to win the gratitude and votes of middle-class parents in a relatively safe county.
Pirro's interest in Internet pedophilia began eight years ago in Seattle, where one of the first nationally publicized cases took place. In 1994, a Seattle postman named Alan Paul Barlow began exchanging e-mails with a 14-year-old Mamaroneck girl. Compared with the explicit Instant Messages Pirro's investigators have been fielding in the D.A.'s office lately, they were almost quaint. Barlow described all the things his "Oscar" would like to do to the girl's "Love Bunny."
Eventually, they agreed to meet, and Barlow flew east to visit her. He booked a motel room and picked her up. His plan was derailed only by the remarkable coincidence that the girl's mother bumped into the two of them at the local mall. The subsequent arrest of Barlow brought law enforcement -- including Pirro, in whose jurisdiction the arrest took place -- national attention.
There had been this lurking fear of the Internet as a danger to children, and now it was confirmed. The Internet invited the guys in raincoats right into your den. If you happened to be a young, ambitious district attorney with a special interest in abused children, this was the kind of case you couldn't help but notice.
It took Pirro several years to formulate her response. First, she had to persuade the State Legislature to make typing dirty with a minor on the Internet into a felony. But once that was accomplished, the sting started in earnest. The first man apprehended was one Robert DeCarlo, on July 21, 1999. Among the most recent was Robert Sternberg, an accountant from Spring Valley, New York, arrested in early January. Steady as raindrops, the disgraced names appear in the local paper of record, the Journal News, and on News 12 Westchester. Michael Stavola of Danbury, Connecticut; Timothy Austin of Yonkers; Steven Gellhaus of Rye Brook; Christopher Prato of Katonah.
There have been six men in retailing, three in the building trades, five unemployed, nine corporate executives, four in computer services, an actor, a med-school student, and an employee of the Daily News. One, Nicholas Puner, was the planning chairman of affluent New Castle. For defense lawyers, the sting is a mini-industry. "Basically, every significant defense lawyer in the county has a client," says Vincent Briccetti, who represented Puner and Castaldo.
The Barlow case was the inspiration for the sting as a law-enforcement strategy, but its emotional roots -- the reason it is so popular in the county -- stem from the nature of the Internet. "For the first time, the pedophile is in my home. He's not at arm's length anymore," says Pirro. "And that's shocking."
The county has always had its share of perverts loitering in school yards and video arcades. That hasn't changed. What's different with the Net is the pool of potential victims. It's all about access. A pedophile sitting in Yonkers can seduce a child online in Rye, Bedford, or Chappaqua -- no matter how innocent or protected the child. "You can have absolutely no idea who's talking to your children," Pirro continues. So just as in an earlier era police officers went undercover into public rest rooms, now they patrol the World Wide Web.
The idea was seductive enough to catch the attention of Nassau County's district attorney. "Seeing Westchester's success, we realized we could do this, too," says Stephen Treglia, the A.D.A. in charge of the effort, whose department made eight arrests last year. More recently, Suffolk County has followed, as has the New York City Police Department. The Queens D.A. has been in touch. Pirro herself, despite the political damage she sustained after her husband, Albert, a lawyer and Republican lobbyist, was convicted of tax evasion in 2000, was re-elected in November. She won in part, according to Antonio Castro, her Democratic opponent, because of the pedophile sting, which started about a year after her husband's problems first hit the papers. Not surprisingly, Castro is skeptical of its merits. "It's all image. It's all public relations," he says. "In the last two years, it's all she's done to make a name for herself."
The New York Times endorsed Castro, who had no political experience, in the race, applauding the two-term D.A.'s record but arguing that Pirro's claims of ignorance of her husband's tax situation had left a "lingering cloud" that would "undermine trust in her office." It was a tight contest; with a war chest one sixth the size of Pirro's, Castro drew within six points.
Pirro's sting is run from the fourth floor of the courthouse in White Plains. Down the hall, the narcotics and fraud units do their work, but here the talk is of sex. Not that the environment is sexy. It's a windowless room. The only pictures are of the smiling children who belong to the investigators, Pat (who has two) and Brian (four). Lydia joins them for certain cases, but usually it is just the two of them sitting at their adjoining desks, using laptops seized in drug raids. They have EnCase software and a 60-gigabyte forensic tower to decode the child pornography on suspects' hard drives. "It's usually the NSA" -- the National Security Agency -- "that has this stuff, so it's pretty good for a local district attorney," Delohery, their boss, says proudly.
In fact, there is little that is high-tech about this operation. It is classic sting work, requiring patience, focus, and an aversion to fresh air. Pat, 39, who is swarthy with dark hair, is senior on the desk. Previously a member of the organized-crime squad, he was in from the start. He recruited Brian, 36, who calls it "the most satisfying work I've ever been involved in." A former Internal Affairs guy in the Treasury Department, Brian works out and looks firm, gun at his waist; Pat, once a beat cop in Mount Vernon, is softer and more easygoing. "When I first started, people would comment on how cold and clammy I looked," says Pat. "But now it's much easier." He jokes about the work to keep himself sane.
Sometimes they go days without a nibble. Sometimes it takes just minutes. Their record from first contact to meet is three hours. Today it is Pat who gets a bite, from Quickfire9 in an AOL chat room aimed at men.
"Hi. What's up?" writes Quickfire9.
Pat types back in his best unpunctuated teenagerese: "Hi nothing u?"
Quickfire9: "where are you?"
"how old r u i'm 15 white plains," replies Pat.
Quickfire9 answers: "38 Porchester. What are you looking for? wy are you in this room?"
"just watching," types Pat. He edges himself in and out of his chair, sips on a diet soda, and waits. Strategy is everything in a sting.
"have you had sex before?" Quickfire9 types.
That's easy. Pat has had to deny this more times than Doris Day: "no."
Quickfire9: "do you like boys or girls?"
Also obvious. Teenagers like to explore. And from a law-enforcement point of view, why limit the pool of potential perps? "both i guess . . . what are u looking for? if i can ask."
Quickfire9: "To hookup and have clean safe fun in the nude."
"cool," taps in Pat.
Oblivious to what is actually unfolding, Quickfire9 continues: "do you j/o a lot."
Pat: "what's j/o?"
Quickfire9: "jerking of." In his eagerness, he has flubbed the typing.
Pat: "yeah u?"
"i've gotta go soon," Pat writes before asking: "u ever been with a guy my age b4?"
Quickfire9 says no. Pat is about to log off when, unexpectedly, he gets a bite.
Quickfire9: "but I'd like to try it.
"i suck on your dick till you came," he adds.
Pat types: "try what?"
Quickfire9: "being with 15 year old."