Just like Watson was to Sherlock Holmes and Robin was to Batman, the Keene State College Department of Psychology has been Detective James McLaughlin’s number one ally throughout his career as a sex-crime detective.
While social networks and technology firms make profit promoting features like instant messaging and file sharing; behind the screens, sexual predators wait impatiently for their next prey to go online.
In order to solve child pornography and rape cases, a New Hampshire born and raised detective and KSC Alum (class of 1986) enters the world of chat rooms and online grooming as a 14-year-old boy interested in having sex with adult males.
Detective James McLaughlin, Supervisor of the Bureau of Criminal Investigations from the Keene Police Department, said he has worked in the over 850 arrests of sex criminals he has contacted through chat rooms.
“Internet has allowed offenders to build the connection with their victims. Sometimes they [sex offenders] are not willing to commit the crime in their hometown. They feel more confident driving fifty, sixty miles to meet a child they can have sex with in another town,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin has worked since 1996 investigating cases involving sex offenders from every state in the U.S. McLaughlin has also helped put some international criminals behind bars.
McLaughlin was one of the first detectives in the country to specialize in investigating cases related to child pornography and pedophilia. He was part of the initial group of investigators that formed the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program.
In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice created International Crimes Against Children, ICAC, “in response to the increasing number of children and teenagers using the Internet, the proliferation of child pornography,” stated the program’s official website. Ever since, investigators in the program have arrested more than 30,000 individuals.
Detective McLaughlin’s friends and family call him Jim. In the cybernetic world, he responds to ‘Adam,’ a 14-year-boy that enjoys swimming, playing sports and calls himself a ‘total virgin’.
McLaughlin has created online profiles from young boys that allowed him to contact criminals that target children to engage them in sexual activity. That’s how detective McLaughlin met Bob.
“Bob was a man that researched chat rooms to find boys to have sex with. After we arrested him, he told me that his computer gave him access to kids all over the world. He compared himself to junk mail,” McLaughlin said.
Just like junk mail, pedophiles can reach out to anyone with access to a computer.
Some remarkable benefits technological advances have brought to society are shaded by the risks they present to naive, immature users. The non-profit British organization Safe Kids states in its website that the use of the Internet may represent a “threat of physical danger to children,” because criminals often use techniques like ‘online enticement’ or ‘grooming’ to meet juveniles and engage them in sexual activity.
Statistics from RAIN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) indicate that at the end of 2012, 44 percent of sexual assault victims were under the age of 18.
While the Internet has been a weapon for pedophiles, McLaughlin has combined technological tools with his own academic instruction.
Detective McLaughlin has a degree in psychology from KSC and a master’s in criminal justice from Fitchburg State College.
McLaughlin said, “It is important to know how offenders may react in different situations and be able to see the world the way they do. With time, you learn their ways; it’s a matter of patterns.”
McLaughlin has seen some patterns. As a U.S. marine in 1986, he worked in his first sex-crime investigation.
“I went into a basement and found what looked like a mannequin covered with flies. I then realized it was a woman’s body.” Detective McLaughlin discovered the body of a female marine that had been missing for two weeks. She had been raped and strangled.
McLaughlin recalled when a sex offender told him, ‘If it wasn’t for the sex, I would make a great dad.’ The man had married a woman from his town because he felt attracted to her seven-year-old boy, McLaughlin said.
A parent himself, McLaughlin was not shocked by the commentary. “We are prepared to face situations involving different psychological patterns. Most offenders have three to four perversions, thoughts a common individual could never understand,” McLaughlin said.
According to McLaughlin, the criminals he deals with usually confess to be guilty of child pornography and pedophilia. “Sometimes I have felt that I am the first person they have been honest to.”
Although McLaughlin no longer goes out to search for criminals online, he is part of a training squad for younger detectives in Keene and his department investigates potential sex crimes citizens report.
Detective McLaughlin said he believes that some individuals that have committed felonious sex offenses can change for good. “I have had cases in which offenders go to jail, do their time, and when they go out, they say they have never been happier.”
For those who believe reality is stranger than fiction, McLaughlin’s memories might be the most authentic evidence. The detective has seen a mature man bike through ten states to meet a teenager, another one save money for a year to fly thousands of miles for sex and one last one engage in sexual activities with deceased children. Yet, he said he doesn’t abominate sex offenders.
For McLaughlin, “There is no point in hating the offenders.” He approaches the suspects in a comprehensive way. “You have to understand that things we think go against our nature as human beings might be common for them. We are not here to judge them, that is not a law enforcement officer’s obligation.”
Regarding his relationship with the ones he has put behind bars, McLaughlin noted he has sometimes remained in contact with criminals for over two years after the arrest. “I still get more Christmas cards from jail than I do from my family,” he said.
After serving as a law-enforcement officer for over 30 years, he has achieved what many consider impossible. It’s not a about the awards, it has nothing to do with the number of arrests or the fact that all the offenders he has caught has been condemned. It’s all about faith and sanity.
After all, McLaughlin said he remains hopeful.
“I believe there is a shade of good in every individual. Some of them [sex offenders] might make you grow some doubts, but you can’t lose faith in humanity, then we wouldn’t have a reason to be here.”
Karina Barriga Albring can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org