Monday, November 20, 2006
'Monster' often proves to be living next door
Most offenders are white males with some college education and business or computer-related jobs.
Timothy Elder was once a house husband.
He lived in a nice ranch home with a bay window, rose trellises and a two-car garage, and he kept it all tidy while his wife went to work.
Now he spends each day in a tiny room with nothing but a bed, a sink, a toilet and a piece of steel for a mirror.
Elder's 40-year prison sentence will give him plenty of time to reflect on how he spiraled from a loving family man to a pedophile and child molester.
The 49-year-old Roanoke man pleaded guilty to forcible sodomy and aggravated sexual battery in March 2005, but his problems began much earlier.
It is difficult to say when, or why, Elder became sexually attracted to children -- he says he was sexually abused as a child and had suppressed his own desires for years.
In a telephone interview from the Roanoke City Jail, Elder said he saw a television news report about child pornography in 1997 or 1998 and realized how easy it was to find on the Internet.
The more he looked, the more he obsessed about seeing more. He didn't have to look far: According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are at least 100,000 child pornography sites on the Web.
"Being in the comfort of your own home ... it just keeps snowballing," he said.
Agent Kathleen Canning with the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime describes a profile of child molesters that closely matches many of Elder's own characteristics: a white male over 40 years old who is married, has some college education and is computer-savvy.
Canning said studies show about 100 percent of offenders are male and 96 percent are white. But she added that, contrary to the stereotypical view, 40 percent of offenders have a college degree and many score above-average on cognitive tests. In addition, nearly 40 percent are married and 96 percent are employed, most in business or computer-related fields. Their ages range from young adults to the elderly.
"We've had guys who have shown up at their 'meets' carrying their oxygen poles behind them," Canning said.
Richmond lawyer Steven Benjamin, who serves on the board of directors of the National Association of Defense Attorneys, cautioned against accepting a law enforcement profile as a true portrait of a typical offender. That could just be the type of person law enforcement targets, he said.
However, he also said he's been astonished at how easy it can be for law enforcement to catch intelligent, professional adults engaged in Internet sex crimes. In the Roanoke area, those charged with online solicitation have included schoolteachers, an aide to the West Virginia governor and a foreign diplomat for the United Arab Emirates.
Benjamin said some of his own clients' behavior has left him aghast.
"The very people who should know better because of their education and experience," he said, "how quickly they rush to set up a meeting with a juvenile, with a child, in hopes of a sexual encounter."
Elder said he did not seek to meet a child over the Internet, but as his pornography-collecting habit grew, he gave little thought to getting caught. "It's like an alcoholic, drugs or whatever," he said. "You don't think about that. You just think about what you're into."
An FBI study found that collectors of child pornography had spent, on average, about five years on their obsession. By the time he was arrested, Elder had been collecting for at least six years.
He says he was amazed at how easy it was to find child pornography online.
"There's so much free stuff it's not even funny. I had just a drop in the bucket compared to what's out there, and it's free for the taking."
Over time, many offenders become bored with one type of image and progress to more and more explicit material, Canning said.
"It's like they carry a lantern with them, gradually moving toward the darker, more deviant images," said Mike Bourke, who treats sex offenders at the Butner federal penitentiary in North Carolina.
Collectors are often drawn to others on the Internet who share their obsession, experts say. The sense of community allows them to justify their actions.
"The Net allows them to have room in pseudo-anonymous settings to unfold their deviant wings," Bourke said.
Elder says he communicated with a handful of people in what he called a "real underground, back-door thing."
Collecting became "like an addiction. I didn't know how to handle it. I felt so trapped," he said.
A study at Butner found that 80 percent to 85 percent of inmates in the sex offender treatment program there who were convicted of possession or distribution of child pornography had at some point also molested children.
Elder would be no different. As time went on, he began to want more than just explicit pictures of children. He became a molester.
One of his two victims was the 7-year-old son of an acquaintance who left her boy in Elder's care. His urges got the best of him. He compared the situation to being an alcoholic who is "put on a deserted island with a bottle of booze."
Elder sexually abused the boy repeatedly. He videotaped it.
In October 2004, Elder got a knock at his door. Federal agents had tracked him through a credit card he had used to purchase child pornography online.
When he was caught, he said, "I felt that I would finally get the help that I needed."
But for nearly two years, Elder has been held in solitary confinement in the Roanoke City Jail. Most of the time he's alone with his guilt and his anguish over his sentence. Although a judge ordered that Elder be given treatment, he has not had any to date.
Despite a psychological report that indicated he was unlikely to re-offend, Elder received what will likely amount to a life sentence.
He is trying to appeal. He expected punishment, but not to be put away for the rest of his life.
"I was hoping they'd see it differently and give me what I need and help me," he said. "I still think I can be salvaged. They made me out to be this monster."
During the interview, Elder repeatedly apologized for what he'd done to the boy in his care. "It's terrible. I'm sorry. I pray the world will forgive me."