Tucked like a thumbprint inside a bend in the Meramec River southwest of St. Louis, Miramiguoa Park is a remarkably secluded piece of real estate. Surrounded on three sides by the river, the sparsely populated — 127 residents at last count — 200-acre village guards its landward flank with the entirety of Meramec State Park, whose woodlands and bluffs stretch south and west through the Franklin County Ozarks. Only about 50 miles from downtown St. Louis as the crow flies, Miramiguoa is half again more distant to reach by car. To get there one must stay on Interstate 44 all the way to Sullivan, then exit and double back through five miles of state forestland. At winter's dusk, the leafless trees on the hilltops cast jagged silhouettes against the pale sky, and you might catch a smoky whiff of recently chopped timber.
You wouldn't think so to look at it, but for a brief time in 2009, one little house in Miramiguoa was the focus of significant attention. Back then an incongruous sticker festooned a pane of glass in the front door: the goofy, good-natured visage of the cartoon canine Scooby-Doo.
The man who rented the place wasn't well known to neighbors. No one appeared to take much note of him or the young boy with whom he sometimes came and went.
On the chilly afternoon of Oct. 23, 2009, a team of five state and federal law enforcement agents drove into Miramiguoa Park and took up positions that offered clear views of the cottage. Two more officers parked up the road, just outside the village. For several weeks the lawmen had been looking into a tip from the Los Angeles Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Now they were waiting for the man inside the house to come out.
Brian Mize, 38, is a bona fide, card-carrying computer geek.
A St. Louis–based forensic investigator who serves as a special federal officer with the FBI's cybercrime squad, Mize also finds time to teach Internet investigation techniques at the St. Louis County Police Academy (and, on the bureau's behalf, around the world) and to attend local and national hacker conferences undercover.
One of Mize's investigative specialties is child pornography. His résumé dates back to the VHS days and includes the infamous Michael Devlin case, wherein a suburban pizza-parlor manager kidnapped a rural Missouri boy, whom he held hostage and molested for four years. (That ordeal ended in 2007, when agents investigating a recent abduction apprehended Devlin and were shocked to find not only the boy they were looking for but also one who'd been missing since 2003 and had been all but given up for dead.) Mize often educates parents and teachers about how much easier child molestation has become in the digital era, when so many young children are equipped with smartphones.
The nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that it received 17.3 million pornographic images and videos last year through its Victim Identification Program — twice as many as the program amassed in 2008.
"It's no longer a 6-foot cord attached to the wall. Bad guys have unprecedented access to communication with kids and it's made things more dangerous," says Mize, sitting at a desk in his office in Clayton, Mo., surrounded by the electronic tools of his trade.
Beneath his desk is a behemothic computer that would dwarf a typical workstation. Known as FRED, an acronym for "Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device," the hunk of hardware is designed to create bit-for-bit copies of each piece of electronic evidence investigators seize in a case and to facilitate the process of decrypting data that have been rendered unreadable and password-protected.
FRED's capabilities — and Mize's — were put to the test in the fall of 2009, after an FBI colleague summoned him to a house in the backwoods of southern Franklin County.
A year earlier, in October 2008, FBI agents in Los Angeles got a tip from the bureau's legal attaché in Copenhagen indicating that two men, Harout Hagop Sarafian of North Hollywood and Woodrow Tracy of Sun Valley, had traveled to Romania the previous year in order to have sex with young boys.
After obtaining federal warrants, L.A.'s Sexual Assault and Felony Enforcement Team [SAFE], a task force composed of federal prosecutors and law enforcement officers at the local, state and federal levels — arrested both men and seized computer equipment that turned out to contain an abundance of child pornography.
Both Sarafian and Tracy eventually confessed to investigators that they belonged to a group that called itself "Lost Boy," an international network of pedophiles who exchanged copious quantities of child pornography, including photos and videos depicting men sexually molesting young boys. Lost Boy operated a password-protected online forum that allowed members to post digital images and discuss each other's contributions; the group also made use of a popular file-sharing site, alerting fellow members by posting samples on the Lost Boy forum along with links to the downloadable files.