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‘Nauseating’: Undercover investigator patrols internet for pedophiles | Winchester Star | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

WINCHESTER — Zack Hawkins has a horrible job.

The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office investigator spends his days online, posing undercover as a pedophile to flush out adults who prey on children. To do his job, Hawkins must view thousands of explicit pictures and videos of children being raped and molested in order to track down the men and women who victimized them.

“It’s not nice work but you get a good sense of accomplishment when you’re done,” said Hawkins, who gave permission for his name to be used. “You have to be part crazy to work some of this stuff, but they’re true victims and, at the end of the day, this is where I see me making the most impact.”

“We’ve literally had parents send pics of their kids trying to solicit a threesome,” Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland said. “It is nauseating.”

A recent example of Hawkins’ efforts involved 67-year-old Brent Walter Murie of Utah, who was arrested last year after the undercover officer set up a chat account on Kik — an instant-messaging app for smartphones and tablets — and let it be known that he had a 9-year-old daughter that he was willing to molest. The daughter was fictional, of course, but Murie and several other pedophiles flocked to Hawkins’ account and started sending graphic photos in hopes that he would share images of the 9-year-old being sexually abused.

Hawkins works undercover not just for the Sheriff’s Office, but also the FBI as a member of the multi-jurisdictional I-81 Human Trafficking and Crimes Against Children Task Force. Being a part of the task force enables him to build criminal cases against pedophiles from around the world, such as Murie in Utah.

Murie first connected with Hawkins on Sept, 9, 2021, and remained engaged with the undercover operative until March 26, 2022. During that time, the two men chatted about a variety of topics but, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia, Murie always guided their conversations back to ways Hawkins could sexually assault the fictional 9-year-old.

“During the conversations,” a media release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia states, “Murie also spontaneously sent [Hawkins] child pornography, including videos of infants and prepubescent children engaged in sexual activity with adults.”

Based on the evidence obtained by Hawkins, Murie was arrested by the FBI on March 30, 2022, in St. George, Utah. A federal grand jury impaneled in Charlottesville by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia issued a nine-count indictment against him on April 27, 2022, charging him with attempted enticement of a minor, attempted production of child pornography and seven counts of distributing child pornography.

On Nov. 29, Murie agreed to a deal with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to two counts of distributing child pornography with the understanding he would serve a minimum of five years in prison.

Murie was sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia to nine years in a federal penitentiary, during which time he will not be eligible for parole. Judge Michael Urbanski recommended that Murie serve his time at a prison close to his home in Cedar City, Utah.

Murie also was ordered by Urbanski to register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life and to pay each of his four victims $3,000 in restitution.

Hawkins said there seems to be a never-ending supply of adults who want to harm children, and thanks to the internet, those predators can be hiding anywhere.

“Any sort of social media application that has a chat group, there are people on there for the solicitation of children,” he said.

“We’ve had lawyers, teachers — any profession you can think of, we’ve had,” Millholland said.

Hawkins has been pursuing child predators for about eight years, the last two with the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office as a member of the I-81 Human Trafficking and Crimes Against Children Task Force. Millholland said that’s a long time to being doing something so difficult that it burns out most law enforcement officers in a short period of time.

“You lose investigators because they can only see so many body parts of men trying to solicit a 13-year-old kid,” Millholland said. “It gets to the point where they go home at night and they’re looking at their own daughters, thinking, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ And we’re talking about fantastic, top-notch investigators.”

Currently, Hawkins is one of three undercover officers at the Sheriff’s Office focused on capturing child predators. Unfortunately, Millholland said he could have five times that many investigators assigned to online solicitation and trafficking cases and they would still have enough work to keep them busy.

One reason for that, Millholland said, is because anyone who seeks child pornography has most likely reached out to several other pedophiles as well. Every image they receive represents another victim, and police must track down every one of those exploited children.

“You take one case that you think you’re going to get done in two or three weeks and, by the time you’re done, you’re months into it,” Millholland said. “We don’t pay them [the investigators] enough.”

When asked what parents and guardians should do to protect their children from predators, Hawkins and Millholland said they must be diligent about monitoring their kids’ online activity. Adults should caution children not to engage in chats with people they don’t know, and to avoid posting pictures of themselves in revealing clothing because those photos could be copied and shared by pedophiles.

“By allowing internet access, you invite the entire world into your home and up your chances of being contacted by a predator by a million times,” Hawkins said. “I’d much rather see a parent overstep and make a child mad than under step and miss something like that.”

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