Inside the special law enforcement unit that brings down child predators

George Woolston
Detective Sgt. Dave Kohler demonstrates a chip-off extraction, a last resort method used to retrieve data at the expense of the rest of the phone, at the High-Tech Crimes Unit of the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office in Pemberton.

PEMBERTON TOWNSHIP — A special Burlington County law enforcement unit is using its new high-tech digs to find child predators, track down murderers and put other criminals behind bars.

The Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office High-Tech Crimes Unit is the main agency behind Operation Safe Quarantine, an ongoing multi-agency investigation that has led to charges for seven men since mid-agency.

The unit, however, does more than investigate cyber crimes, and has been busy since it moved into its new home at the county prosecutor office’s new forensic services center last year.

“We support every single county municipality for data forensics,” Detective Sgt. David Kohler, the unit’s supervisor, said.

That means the unit uses technology to access the data on electronic devices, whether they are password protected or not, and puts it into a readable format for investigation.

It's made up of three detectives from the county prosecutor’s office and a prosecutor’s agent assigned specifically to gaining access to cell phones, computers and other electronic devices that store data.

It is also home to one agent from the United States Homeland Security Investigations’ Cherry Hill office and a Cinnaminson Police Department detective.

Detectives and agents will perform digital forensics on almost any investigation being conducted by the prosecutor’s office — everything from murder, to the exploitation of children, to white collar crime.

Its origins go back to 2007, when now-Cinnaminson police Chief Richard Calabrese was the first Burlington County detective assigned to New Jersey’s high-tech crime task force.

“They sent me all over the country to learn computer forensics,” Calabrese said. "And as I progressed in the ranks, I knew the importance of (digital forensics) … 85% of crime touches some type of electronic device, so you have to be professional at (digital forensics).”

It is now led by Kohler, the second Burlington County detective to follow in Calabrese’s footsteps.

The unit works to access phones, where text messages can be key evidence in an investigation into a drug death; computer hard drives, where child predators store child porn images; and, a more recent development, car computers that can track almost every movement a vehicle makes down to when and where a car door was opened, which comes in handy during a murder investigation.

“We do somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 phones a year,” Kohler said.

Child porn investigations often start with a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children about illegal images uploaded to the internet.

The national agency determines the location of the IP address associated with the illegal activity, and once it’s determined it originated in New Jersey, the tip is sent to the New Jersey State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

The tip is then assigned to the local agency where the activity took place, and if the high-tech crimes unit determines it to be credible, often a warrant is received to search the person’s home and seize their electronic devices.

That’s where the unit’s lab comes into play.

In a recent investigation into child porn possession, “We got a search warrant, we hit the house, and we seize 50 pieces of evidence, give or take. And we identified over 35 of them that had child sexual abuse material. And from there, we then start our examination. Now we have about 26 terabytes worth of data regarding child sexual abuse.”

One detective assigned to the unit, Kevin Sobotka, said part of the job once access is gained to the device is looking through and identifying any images of child sexual abuse first-hand.

“It's our responsibility to go through the devices. We have to tag every single image or video to get a count for court purposes,” Sobotka said. “It’s not an easy job, but you try to leave it here at work and just know that you're doing good work and for good reason.”

For Calabrese, the importance of these investigations does not just lay with making sure there is enough evidence to bring to court, but also in breaking the cycle of child exploitation and the dissemination of “these sickening materials.”

“It is imperative that all law enforcement agencies take an active role in helping to combat these types of crimes. That cannot be emphasized enough,” Calabrese said.