PORTLAND — Hundreds of digital storage devices — containing thousands of images of child pornography — sit in a Maine State Police storage closet waiting for a thorough forensic examination, part of a backlog that leaves potential offenders at large.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is proposing legislation to address that backlog and give the state’s Computer Crimes Unit more secure funding going forward.

“There’s no other case in the state where we let evidence sit in the closet with this serious a case and it’s because we don’t have enough detectives to analyze it and go out and make an arrest,” Diamond said Friday. “I challenge anybody to tell me what is more important, what has a higher priority, than rescuing these kids who are being sexually abused on film.”

But there are other needs, just within the state police.

“We have backlogs at the crime lab. We have backlogs at CID (criminal investigations division) with detectives trying to work cases with Maine victims who have been victimized in some way, physically assaulted or sexually assaulted,” said Maj. Chris Groton, head of special services. “The difficulty for us is trying to balance priorities.”

In trying to prioritize computer crimes, police focus first on people who may be actively abusing children and then on those who are viewing child pornography, he said.

“I think there is a difference between somebody who is sexually assaulting and violating somebody in the state of Maine, either for purposes of producing child porn or some other purpose, and somebody who is viewing or trading these images online,” Groton said. “The vast majority of everything we see in Maine is people trading material online. We don’t know where it’s produced.”

There are 470 different data storage devices that need examination, a two-year backlog that is growing, Diamond said.

He plans to seek funding for three detectives, which would cost about $300,000 a year, including benefits, he said. That would augment the four detectives who now staff the unit. He also wants to make the unit a separate bureau within the state police.

Diamond said each piece of evidence potentially represents an offender who may be continuing illegal behavior, putting children at risk and helping to finance an industry that sexually exploits children for profit. The pictures and videos also represent a child who is being exploited, and without going through the stored images, police can’t take steps to identify the victims and rescue them.

But most images are shared hundreds, even thousands of times, making their point of origin — often a foreign country — almost impossible to detect.

It’s rare that the creators of child pornography can be found by examining the images.

Still, Maine has had some success stories, where investigators with the Computer Crimes Unit tracked down the locations where videos were shot based on items that appeared in the background.

One such success involved the so-called Tara series, a collection of videos that showed a 9-year-old girl being sexually abused. Using the pattern on the sheets and decorations on the wall, Maine investigators pinpointed the hotel and eventually caught the abuser in Georgia.

“I think that Tara series is a prime example of what very well could be sitting in that closet,” Diamond said.

Detectives say one reason the backlog has grown is that people have many more computer devices today. In the early days of its work, the unit would seize a single computer from a suspect. Now, however, there are several computers, external storage devices, thumb drives and compact and floppy discs.

“It’s not unusual at all to work a case and you may be bringing back five, six, seven, eight or nine storage devices,” Groton said. “The more work you do, the more backlog you create.”

One case under investigation right now has 27 pieces of media, and each thumb drive and hard drive can take weeks to examine thoroughly.

Groton said in addition to the backlog of evidence, there is a backlog of cases, suspects who need to be investigated, search warrants drafted and evidence seized.

The hard drives come from a variety of sources. Sometimes they are seized as part of a search warrant after members of the unit identify someone online sharing child pornography files. In other cases, local police have seized the computer hardware as part of some other investigation and asked for help analyzing them.

In some cases, suspects have already been charged, but the bulk of the content on their computers has not been analyzed. In other cases, prosecutors have asked that suspects not be charged until the unit has put together a complete case.

Diamond, who in the past chaired the public safety and appropriations committees when Democrats controlled the Legislature, said he has tried to support the unit in past years as well.

Much of the unit has run on funding from federal grants, but that money could run dry. He said last year about $100,000 was taken from the highway fund to make up a shortfall in grant money to keep the unit going through the end of the budget year.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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