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During her 11 years trying cases for the Eastern District of Missouri, Costantin has prosecuted hundreds of child molesters. In 2006 she was named the regional coordinator for the U.S. Department of Justice's new Project Safe Childhood program, a national initiative to combat the sexual exploitation of minors. (She stepped down last year in order to assume a new role as supervisor of the district's white-collar crime unit.) It's possible that Costantin has tried more child-pornography cases than anyone else in the nation.
In the 12 months ending in September 2010, the Eastern District of Missouri took on 84 child-exploitation cases — more than any other judicial district in the United States. In each of the two years preceding, the office ranked second.
In September 2009 Costantin received a call from federal agents in St. Louis, indicating that a Los Angeles investigation of an Internet-based network of child-porn aficionados had turned up a possible connection to the St. Louis metropolitan area.
A pedophile living abroad had told the L.A. investigators that a man who went by the screen name "Muddyfeet" was producing copious quantities of child pornography in Missouri. "Muddyfeet" also came up during questioning of a Lost Boy suspect, who attributed a large set of pornographic stills of young boys to a photographer who operated under that alias. A third clue, an archived chat-room exchange between a Lost Boy member and an outside acquaintance who went by the screen name Muddyfeet that was found on a computer seized by the L.A. team as evidence, brought the picture into better focus: The file included an email address, which the agents were able to trace to Franklin County, Mo., and a man named Jeffrey Greenwell.
The information was tantalizing, but Costantin knew better than to be optimistic. It would be difficult, she knew, to secure a search warrant, let alone prosecute anybody, with nothing to go on but an Internet alias, two addresses, a possible name and a handful of photos of unidentified boys being molested.
"In order to get a search warrant, we needed to identify a child," Costantin explains.
At the same time, she was fully cognizant of the urgency involved. Her L.A. counterparts were pursuing an ongoing child-porn enterprise and had good reason to presume that some of the men involved were actively molesting children. As Michael Osborn, the FBI agent who heads the SAFE task force in L.A., notes, "We knew there were hands-on victims out there that we had to ID as quickly as possible. We didn't have a six-month luxury. Every day counted."
The FBI assigned a St. Louis–based agent to track down the lead. For local assistance, the bureau turned to the Franklin County Sheriff's Department.
Lt. Chuck Subke, who runs the county Sheriff's detective division, began by visiting the two addresses linked to Greenwell. One was vacant. The other, about the size of a single-wide mobile home, was tucked at the back end of Meramec State Park, a few hundred yards from the river.
Subke traced the license plates on the two cars he saw parked in front of the little house. Both were registered in Greenwell's name. It appeared he was living there alone.
Next Subke and the FBI agent visited several Franklin County elementary schools, where they asked each principal to go through the handful of photos of fully clothed boys they'd received from L.A., in search of familiar faces. On Oct. 22, 2009, two weeks into a fruitless fishing expedition, they got their first nibble when a principal pointed out one of the boys in his school's hallway — a fourth-grader.
The lawmen contacted the boy's mother, then flew in an FBI investigator from Detroit who specialized in questioning children and adolescents. The investigator, Catherine S. Connell, had spent the past year flying around the nation, interviewing the majority of the victims who'd emerged from the Lost Boy probe.
Speaking with children about molestation is tricky, as evidenced most infamously in the 1980s by the McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach. That fiasco, which cost the U.S. government $15 million and led to the jailing of an innocent man for five years, was brought on by false testimony, embellished to the point of absurdity, that a therapist elicited from hundreds of children.
You don't set out to upset the children you interview, Connell explains, but you don't want them to suppress memories that by their nature are upsetting. Nor do you want to put words in their mouths. "You talk about the truth, and you test whether they can tell the difference between a truth and a lie."
Connell says that when broaching potentially traumatizing subjects with kids, she's careful to be both reassuring and skeptical.