By Margie Wuebker
A 14-year-old Celina girl entered an Internet chat room and within the course of several keystrokes became involved in conversations with two men -- one claiming to be 52, the other eight years older.
Questions popped up in rapid succession -- "Have you ever been with an older man? Are you a virgin? What have you done? Would you like to hook up? So you wanna?"
The men -- one from Southern California and the other reportedly from Ohio -- had no idea the girl they were asking for bra and panty sizes was actually Coldwater Police Chief Gery Thobe, a member of the Mercer County/Coldwater Internet Crime Unit. They also were unaware the instant messaging conversations were part of a demonstration for more than 50 people attending a Monday night "Internet -- Parents Be Aware" program sponsored by the Celina High Academic and Motivational Promoters (CHAMP), Celina City Schools and the Mercer County Teen Coalition.
The crime unit was established 18 months ago to catch perpetrators preying on young people over the Internet. It is one of many operating for the same purpose in the state.
"Our kids are not looking for them," Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey told the audience at the Celina Insurance Group. "They're looking for our kids. And I don't want them coming here to our doorstep." Grey and Thobe attended a three-day workshop in Xenia, where Greene County authorities have nabbed numerous men from all walks of life who came to the community to have sex with girls and boys they met on the Internet. Instead, they spent the night in jail and faced a judge in the morning.
The Mercer County unit nabbed its first perpetrator in September 2003 when Phillip Bakewell, a trucker from California, came to town for a rendezvous with a 14-year-old Coldwater girl who turned out to be Thobe.
Bakewell, a British citizen who was in this country on an expired visa, drove to Celina and rented a motel room. Law enforcement officers were waiting when he arrived at the predetermined meeting place.
A search of Bakewell's car and motel room turned up a digital camera, laptop computer, handcuffs, generic Viagra and condoms. Further investigation of the computer revealed nude photographs of a teenage girl apparently taken in a motel somewhere.
"What did Phil plan to do with handcuffs?" Grey wondered aloud before telling the grim story of a 13-year-old girl from another state who went to a mall to meet an Internet friend. She was killed while having sex in a car in the parking lot.
Men and women participating in chat rooms go by screen names and many provide a profile containing a name, age, address and a list of likes and dislikes.
"As soon as your kid logs on that stranger out there knows it," the sheriff said. "The conversations take place through instant messaging. That equates to a private message being sent from one computer to another. A chat room is far too public for sexually explicit matters."
Officers working with the local unit have been involved in as many as nine conversations at a time. Several conversations involved doctors, who investigators verified were actually doctors.
Thobe warned about the inherent danger of teens revealing too much personal information that could lead to an unwanted face-to-face encounter. One girl, who does not reside in the area, provided her name, age, address and information regarding when her parents come home from work. The details were enough to bring an Internet acquaintance to her home at what he considered the most opportune time.
Soliciting sex over the Internet with a juvenile is a crime. The Mercer County/Coldwater unit has turned over information on such offenses to law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The decision to follow through with charges then rests with that agency.
"Check on your kids and monitor their Internet usage," Grey said. "Find out who they are chatting with and check out gifts or phone calls from people you don't know. Don't be afraid to snoop. It's not just your right, it's your job as a parent to protect your child. I'm not knocking the Internet, it's a great tool if used properly."
But Grey noted that being diligent is not as easy as it might sound since many young people are more computer savvy than their parents who know little if anything about deleting cookies or using Internet lingo.
In addition to chat room activity, local authorities have received numerous complaints regarding pornographic pictures being sent via the Internet through the use of Web Cams.
"It amounts to show me yours and I'll show you mine," Grey said. "Some kids are so brave they're flashing body parts for the camera while a parent is in the room. Other kids are getting these pictures but not necessarily because they want them."
Both Thobe and Grey encourage parents to warn their children about supplying photos as well as personal information over the Internet with people they don't know. Statistics indicate there are between 250,000 and 500,000 pedophiles residing in the United States. Many of them could be lurking in Internet chat rooms waiting to pounce on unsuspecting teens or those simply flirting for fun.
"This is not just a big city problem," Thobe said. "It's a right here problem and your child could wind up being a target. We want to stop our kids from getting hurt and parents can be the first line of defense."