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The investigator exhales. There are three main defenses accused pedophiles use, and a lot of Pat's energy goes into taking them off the table. The first is the I-didn't-know-he-was-illegal defense. That's gone now.

Quickfire9 is so excited by Pat's supposed age that he says he has to go. Pat urges him to keep in touch before logging off. He then relays the conversation to Delohery, who arranges a subpoena for AOL so the officers can verify Quickfire9's subscriber information: Richard Manuli, an EMS worker from Port Chester.

A few days later, in the late afternoon -- prime time for pedophiles trolling for teenagers -- Quickfire9 is back online and delighted to find Pat logged on. He wants to know when they're getting together. He'll skip work so they can meet in the morning.

"school dude remember i'm 15!" Pat objects. Instead, he proposes a Friday afternoon. Quickfire9 agrees. Then Pat asks for a picture, and is pleased when he gets it -- Quickfire9 has just lost his second out, the it-wasn't-me-on-the-computer defense. So he decides to give the guy a little present in return: He says he has to go shower. He laughs as he types it. Quickfire9 answers quickly: "ok don't play to much."

"no time," Pat replies honestly. His family is waiting for him at home.

All that remains is to schedule the meet, but when Pat IMs Quickfire9 a little later, he finds him initially suspicious. Maybe someone has mentioned the sting to Quickfire9. Maybe he has been reading the local paper.

Quickfire9: "your not a cop or anything are you."

"i am way too young to be a cop!" types Pat. He knows few pedophiles stop at this point. What caution Quickfire9 possesses has been overcome by Pat's revelation that his penis is "8 1/2 - 8 3/4 hard."

After he picks him up, where, Quickfire9 asks, can they go?

Quickfire9: "Your house is no good right."

Pat can hardly keep a straight face as he types back: "NO! if i got caught i'd get killed."

He suggests a local park. Quickfire9 is unsure; maybe he's thinking he's too old to have sex in the grass. So Pat types: "i drive by there sometimes with my mom."

That does it. "kewl," exclaims Quickfire9.

Pat: "Friday at 3:00."

Friday, at 3 p.m., Quickfire9 will lose his third and final defense, the it-was-just-an-Internet-fantasy defense.

The cops say it's the child porn the pedophiles sometimes e-mail to their potential victims that gets to them most: the pictures of drugged-out preteens being penetrated by faceless men. "Looks like it hurts," the officers type back. "It's the one thing about this job that still twists me," says Pat. Otherwise, they claim they can turn off, put a wall between themselves and their work. They type and plot, tell an occasional joke. Brian says he is always thinking of the next step. It's like playing chess with a pervert.

After the first few arrests, Delohery and his colleagues asked some of the defendants to critique the cops' performances. They advised them to spell worse and use less formal grammar: No teen would write, "what r u looking for? if I can ask." The cops also learned not to be so impatient, and how important control is; how no matter what, the pedophile must be able to feel the inexperience on the other end.

Brian is now corresponding with someone using the screen name Jimmy37777, who tells him to describe himself.

Brian, shoulders squared in his chair, types: "i'm into runnin people say i'm pretty."

Another day, Jimmy37777 asks him his cup size. Brian replies: "34b."

"i love b cups," Jimmy37777 writes back. "hate anything bigger than a c . . . "

Jeanine Pirro is the first woman district attorney in Westchester's history. Her office emphasizes domestic crime. It does extensive outreach to victims of abuse, something the previous D.A.'s, whose black-and-white photos line the corridors, might not have thought worth worrying about. She has dispatched 100,000 flyers on Internet safety, provided peepholes for the doors of the elderly, and handed out free cell phones to battered women. She supports the death penalty and the Brady Bill. You don't need a pollster to see that she could help solve the Republican Party's problem with women if she were to run for higher office. She was mentioned not only as a replacement for Betsy McCaughey Ross as lieutenant governor under George Pataki but also as a successor to Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Senate.

Those hopes headed south with her husband's conviction. After serving eleven months in a Florida jail, he was transferred two months ago to a halfway house in the Bronx. Though Jeanine supported him by regularly appearing by his side during the trial, it was damaging, not least because it raised urgent questions about her own awareness of the situation. How come she never quizzed her husband on how he was paying for their enormous $1.7 million home in Harrison, with its ornate $45,000 security gates? And what about the designer pen for the family's Vietnamese potbellied pigs? What about the jewelry?

"She's a smart woman with an eye for detail. Should she have known the mother's Mercedes was charged to the company . . . ?" her predecessor Carl Vergari asks, trailing off. Because Pirro announced her Internet sting so soon after her husband's troubles began, her critics have always seen it as an act of political opportunism. "The sting has got a lot of political pizzazz, and parents go for it," Vergari says.

The photographer Helmut Newton once took a stern portrait of Pirro for The New Yorker. It hangs in her office, as an answer of sorts to all those black-and-white shots of her predecessors. "Maybe I should go into therapy," Pirro says when I ask her what drives her. She smiles at me from behind her enormous desk. "Maybe I'd understand myself better." We both laugh; it's clear she's not going anywhere near therapy. Then she tells me of a crime that deeply touched her, the beating death of a girl named Christi Bruin on Halloween Night 1979.

"I was pretty new, and it just stayed with me," she says. "All the warning signs were there. She'd been beaten with a switch, she'd been made to stand in the hallway, and all the neighbors saw it; she would show up with bruises on all the different parts of her body. She was 4 years old and she had old fractures, new fractures, she'd been beaten to death. I couldn't help but think, Here it is, Halloween Night, and all these kids are running around getting candy and treats. And she's being beaten to death. It just struck me, and it still does." She named her own daughter Christi in memory of the victim.

"I saw the sickest thing this morning," she continues. "This guy was jerking off on a Webcam. We just signed on -- you can just sign on, a kid can sign on -- and he's there masturbating. It's just there and available." She says she wants to start another sting operation, to go after such people. I inquire as to what law he's breaking. "The question is," Pirro continues, undeterred, "is it disseminated to an individual for the purpose or with the intent of harassing, annoying, or alarming, or knowing the individual was a minor?"

The standard understanding of sex offenders is that they need help. "You're not going to help them surmount their problems with a public branding," says Dr. Fred Berlin, the founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic. "In fact, it's counterproductive." He explains that many offenders were themselves abused as children and go on to repeat the cycle. Pirro is unmoved. "These people are determined; they are devious and calculating," she says. "They're evil."

"It was a searing emotional experience," says one Westchester mother whose son was abused by a teacher who used e-mail to "cultivate his victim." "He was very upset. He felt betrayed. He became severely depressed." She says she had taught him to be careful, too. "We had conversations about pedophiles posing as teenagers," she says. Pirro has also warned her own children, laying down strict rules for Christi and her 12-year-old brother online. "As soon as someone asks for any communication -- for a kiss, even something as minor as that -- they immediately sign off." Delohery closely supervises his son when he's online. Quickfire9 arrived for the meet with duct tape and a blanket in his car.

I ask Pirro whether the large number of arrests suggests that Westchester is harboring more than its share of pedophiles, and she shoots back, "Westchester by no means has more of this problem than any other county anywhere else across the United States."

But Parry Aftab of Cyberangels sees something specific to the suburbs here. "You don't see this problem in the inner city," says Aftab, whose group works to protect children online. "Ask a kid there to take pictures of himself and send them, and they will say, 'Are you kidding? Get a life!' But the kids in Westchester live in houses with fences and burglar alarms. They're clueless. I wish she'd take all that money that goes into the sting and put it into educating them instead."

And some Westchester residents find the idea of the sting almost as disturbing as the behavior it uncovers. "Even though the men are creepy, the sting is creepy, too," says one Westchester father of three.

"People here are frightened," adds Ben Cheever, the writer, who has lived in the area since he was 3 years old. "People are anxious because of the incredible distortion of the world they see on the news . . . They trust her to take care of them, but she just makes everyone tenser. It's a sick relationship." Ben's father, John Cheever, famously chronicled suburban life in his fiction -- and his homosexual experiences in his diaries, which his son published after his death, to some controversy. Had his father lived in the Internet age, Ben remarks, he might well have fallen afoul of Pirro's zeal.

The defendants tend to be "middle-class to upper-middle-class, respected members of their community," as Treglia, the Nassau A.D.A., puts it. "They seem higher up in intelligence than our normal defendant," says Delohery. They are also obsessional. Nicholas Puner, caught once in pre-sting days and released on probation, wound up caught again and jailed by Pirro's investigators. There is a pathetic earnestness to the pedophiles' e-mails. "Would be proud to call you friend," Lydia's pursuer typed shortly before leaving to meet her -- and be arrested.

Despite the number of arrests and the 100 percent conviction rate, what's still not clear is the true extent of the problem. Since the sting's inception, Pirro's office has received only a "small number" of complaints from parents about adult Internet solicitations of their children. All sex crimes are notoriously underreported, but according to the only professionally conducted survey on the subject, produced in 1999 and led by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, most Internet solicitation actually comes from other teens. The report found "few sexually oriented relationships between youth and adults. In contrast to the depiction in media stories . . . a lot of the Internet looks and sounds like the hallways of our high schools."

Kids may also be more savvy than Pirro allows. "Most of my friends ignore IMers they don't know," one Westchester teenager told me. "It's not an issue." Sandy Sunderland, chairman of the New York State PTA's juvenile-protection board, disagrees: "The PTA perceives this as a major problem. We believe there is significant risk to our students."

Of the 50 men arrested to date in Pirro's sting, 15 were found to have had "some sort of improper contact with minors," including child pornography or previous Internet contacts. In several other cases, Delohery received complaints from people who said they had been abused by the defendant. For the majority of the men, nothing else has come out.

None of the teachers is known to have abused a former student. In fact, most were admired by their students. When Timothy Austin was arrested, students and parents protested. "I still think he's a great guy," says a female student who was in his choral group at Hastings High School for four years. "He was nothing but professional with any of us."

"He was too good to be true," says one parent about a teacher who molested her son. "He was in at 6:30 every morning. He ran the outdoor-education program. He got 50 kids to go out for the student newspaper."

The uneasy question remains: Is the use of a sting operation really netting abusers, or is Pirro's team creating crimes? Entrapment is a tricky business, and the law provides little help. Technically, entrapment is almost impossible to prove -- the defendant has to show he did not have a predisposition to commit the crime, which is unlikely if you're online busily seducing someone you think is only 14. Morally, the sting is also ambiguous. Consider the following excerpt between Lydia and a Long Island man who used the name Jingantony.

Jingantony: "we can go for a motorcycle ride . . . i got a suzuki 1200 bandit."

Lydia: "oh cool! i would like that."

Jingantony: "how about tomorrow?"

Lydia: "ummm . . . we would have to talk more and plus there is alot of family here . . . for the weekend . . . so i don't think i could get away."

Jingantony: "oh . . . i would like to call you sometime."

Lydia: "i think i would like to talk to you . . . what else would you want to do if we met?"

And then what about the meet? The sting's assumption is that most people who talk dirty on the Internet really want to act dirty. But according to Berlin, who has treated Internet pedophilia, many pedophiles "are secretly ambivalent when they go to the meet. They're intrigued by the idea, but if the child doesn't show, they're relieved." Sometimes they don't really think it is a child. They've made up an online persona. Why wouldn't the other person? They go just to see, and by that point it's too late.

Delohery isn't buying it. "Not one defense counsel has gone forward and made any type of motion that we have entrapped anyone," he says. "They look at the transcript and decide not to raise the issue."

"These are easy cases to win," protests Castro, Pirro's Democratic opponent. "First, the evidence of the alleged crime is in writing. Second, the people caught have a lot to lose by drawing out the process of their humiliation. The last thing they want is their names in the paper a second time." The whole thing works so well, it seems to other prosecutors like cheating. Doubts also seem to gnaw at county judges, who have yet to sentence anyone who pleaded guilty to jail time, even though the D.A. asks for it as a matter of policy. "I am disappointed," Pirro says. "Maybe it's because it's on the Net and there's a feeling that it's somehow removed, but you and I know these people are recidivists. They should be put in jail and constantly monitored."

As Delohery explains, "What they say is the crime."

The final defense pedophiles often use is fantasy. Anthony Gallichio, a 24-year-old Yonkers man, was arrested last January for asking a 14-year-old boy (in fact a police investigator) to meet him for sex at a Bronxville motel. Gallichio drove by the meet spot, saw no one, and set off home to do his laundry. He was arrested on the way. Gallichio says he thought the person on the other end was a friend kidding around. "I thought it was a joke," he says. "I thought it was my friend because he's done that in the past. He set me meeting with people before, and I just bit. I told them that when I was arrested, but they said they didn't want to hear it." The 14-year-old didn't even sound like one. "What 14-year-old talks about doing a 'book report'?" he asks. He was going to go to trial, but in the end he pleaded guilty, and he'll be sentenced to probation this month.

"This kid put his hand up and swore he did something he didn't do," Gallichio's mother says, distraught. "I told him to fight it, but he said, 'Mom, I can't take that chance.' "

Statistics bear him out. Anthony Stabile, the only defendant to go to trial to date, made a similar argument. How could he know who was on the other end of the computer? He had no more reason to think it was a 14-year-old than the cops did to think he was 14. He shouldn't be punished with a fantasy. With every word, he dug a deeper hole.

"He was absolutely right, but it's hard to make obvious points when you're dealing with children," says his lawyer, Robert Collini, who recommended he negotiate a plea. "He got absolutely no sympathy from the judge or the jury." Stabile was jailed for one to four years.

Pirro, of course, was delighted with the sentence. "You know, we asked middle-school students if they had ever gone online after their parents had thought they'd gone to bed," she says. "Fifty percent of them raised their hands. Even though their parents had told them not to. Even though their parents thought they were asleep."

Maxxsam4: "hey, my name is rob . . . 32 6ft 190 br/ha white plains too."

Pat: "hey rob im brad 14 5'7 150 blk hr & eyes."

Maxxsam4: "you have been on all day. . . . working for jeannene pirro?

Pat: "jeannene pirro?"

Maxxsam4: "yes . . . the DA . . . looking to snag guys online."

Pat: "i go 2 skewl dude dont know what ur talkn bout."

Additional reporting by Joy Armstrong.


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