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I-Team Exclusive: An inside look at the team fighting child exploitation in Riverside County

Reports of crimes against children in Riverside County are up tenfold since the beginning of the pandemic according to Wade Walsvick, Supervising Investigator for the Riverside County Child Exploitation Team/RCCET. 

The Child Exploitation Team is led by the District Attorney's Office Bureau of Investigation and is tasked with investigating CyberTips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

The multi-agency task force was formed in June of 2020. Less than a year later, County Supervisors unanimously voted to approve a budget to expand the Riverside County Child Exploitation Team.  There is now an office in the Coachella Valley.     

“Crimes against children in Riverside County is a big problem and unfortunately, a growing problem during the pandemic," said Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin.

Here's a look at the numbers: 

  • From January 2019 to January 2020 the DA's office received 1383 tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
  • From February 2020 to December of the same year there were 2470 tips received.

And, the newest data received shows they've already nearly matched the number of tips received in 2020 this year.  From January to August of 2021 they've received 2424. 

"The families, the people of the Coachella Valley are just as vulnerable as everywhere else, if not more. And so we want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect children and families of this valley"

- DA Mike Hestrin

Children are spending more time on-line and so are predators. 

“The vast majority of the suspects we encounter have a primary focus, a sexual focus towards children, so the overwhelming majority of them will also have either committed offenses on kids or are committing offenses,” says Walsvick. 

I-Team Reporter Karen Devine had the opportunity to see first hand RCCET at work as they along with their law enforcement partners from local, state and federal divisions raided the apartment of a known registered sex offender in Palm Springs. 

Matthew Pettineo was taken into custody and charged.  Prosecutors say he had images of child exploitation. 

"Our primary focus for us is to focus as a victim, victim centered approach with respect to our investigation.  So, that's exactly what we're focused on every time we come out on the scene," says Walsvick.

The Riverside County multi-agency task force includes a black lab named Chewie. At the raid Chewie assisted investigators by sniffing out electronic storage devices. He's an ESD K9, the only one in Riverside County.

Check Out: A canine is the new member of the DA’s Bureau of Investigation in Riverside County

Joel Pabelico, Senior Investigator with the Riverside County District Attorney's office and Chewie's handler, told Devine there's a chemical scent on all storage devices in the United States to prevent them from overheating.  That's what Chewie is trained to alert to. 

“The devices can be anywhere from like an SD card, a USB, iPads, smart watches, external hard drives, and computers," said Pabelico.

While predators are lurking in the on-line shadows, RCCET is there too. Computer forensic examiners are finding people sharing, selling and creating images of child pornography. 

“It's traded actively in the on the dark web and on places, secret places on the internet.  Many times what they find is that those who trade and have child pornography also are going after children, real children," said Hestrin.

The team also targets predators they call "Travelers."  They are people looking to meet minors on-line first, and then in the real world. Investigators act like an underage person in a chat room or app. when the "traveler” sets a place and time to meet for sexual activity, the suspect arrives to find law enforcement ready to make an arrest.

Ever since it's inception in mid-2020, the team has arrested 13 alleged "travelers" and rescued 23 underage victims. There have also been a dramatic increase in warrants and arrests for exploitation.

Denise Rodriguez Bowman, the Director of Forensic Services and Victim Advocacy at the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center in Rancho Mirage says:

"The expansion of RCCET to the valley is a win for keeping kids safe. We have partnerships with all law enforcement, and  it's what is needed for children and adolescents who experience abuse, exploitation, trafficking and kidnapping.  They used to have to be driven to Moreno Valley for these services."

It's truly a team effort between agencies that deal with crimes against children. When the perpetrator is arrested, charged and convicted, the victim feels validated because many times the victim feels it's their fault, according to Rosemary Marta, MTF Clinician, Barbara Sinatra Children's Center.

"So when there are strong convictions it’s very validating and reaffirms the esteem of the client and their families," said Marta.

Marta says the number of calls and clients at the Children's Center have increased significantly since the pandemic began. She attributes that to a number of things including, more kids connected to the internet.  But, she says, while Zoom is a protected space, cell phones are not.  

“So we stress with the parents, if you give your child the phone, you have to provide a lot of oversight.  You can’t just give a phone and turn a blind eye.  You have to be a partner with that phone for protection of your child,” Marta said.

Bottom line, parents and guardians need to keep a watchful eye on their children and take notice of behavioral changes.  Don't be afraid to ask for help.  

“These are serious crimes and there’s nothing really more important than making sure our children are not preyed upon by these kinds of criminals, said Hestrin."

If you have or know of a child you believe may need some help, we've included some links for services

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Karen Devine

Karen Devine is celebrating her 29th year delivering the local news as an anchor and reporter in the Palm Springs television market. Learn more about Karen here.

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