He thanked me that day. Before he went away to federal prison.
He couldn’t stop. That’s what he told the few in the courtroom.
And so, he thanked us for doing what his own sheer will couldn’t do: He thanked us for stopping the cycle. He thanked us for sparing his next victim.
No question. There would have been another. And then another. Little girls, still in diapers. Too young to understand. Too tiny to tell.
I wasn’t much older than them. When something similar happened to me. I understand both the impact…and the mercy.
Yes, mercy. There is mercy in your earliest memories being of the ugly. It means you don’t remember when everything went from beautiful to broken. It’s simply what was. And what should never be.
The atmosphere felt heavy after he was taken away. Those of us remaining knew what the press release and headlines likely wouldn’t say. His history had been a horror. That he’d survived, that he’d entered adulthood with any sort of conscience at all, made me marvel.
Where the world would see a monster, those of us up close could see remnants of the tortured boy, whose brokenness paved a path to channel the predator trying to destroy so many.
I wonder, were we, the ones who sent him to federal prison, the only ones who grieved for him and what might have been if hope had stepped in sooner?
Hope. Strangely, that’s what I’d offered when we sat face to face.
This isn’t the end, I told him, before I sent him to a cell. It’s the beginning.
I meant it.
He handed me more evidence. Even though we had more than enough.
In prison he couldn’t be devoured by the demons that destroyed more of him each time he preyed on others. There he could finally get the help he couldn’t find outside.
What might have been different, if life had been different for him? What might have been different, if someone had seen his private pain sooner?
But they didn’t see. Not collectively in community poised to intervene before his circumstances descended into inconceivable inhumanity.
And so, after suffering as a child, he suffered in secret as a grown man. And caused immeasurable suffering for others. Victimizing in hidden places. Sharing illegal images in dark corners.
That is how he was discovered.
Online undercover law enforcement officers sacrifice a part of themselves to seek out and stop predators. Those images are not just pictures. They are a child’s worst moments immortalized. They perpetuate exploitation forever as they are shared over and over. That alone merits pursuit of such cases—the ones built on what some deem “just pictures.”
Trading of those pictures is also an indicator.
Most victims never disclose what happened to them at all. Because they can’t, because they falter from fear, because they believe lies that rationalize, because they don’t want to wear a limiting label, or because they are trying to protect others still in danger, seeing limitations of the system.
And so, while yes, we need to hear those who speak what happened to them, and we need to look for the clues, we also need to be proactive.
When we stop the image trader, most often, in my experience, we also catch a hands-on offender. Or a person who is about to become one. Images feed fantasy and escalate behavior. Until imagination moves to action--accessing a child brought into proximity through family, friendship, volunteerism, or profession. Or purchasing time with one (sex trafficking).
What if we saw him sooner? What if we provided more support and resources for law enforcement operations to break the cycle? What if we helped her, if we helped him, find their voice, their identity, their destiny, before it was too late?
It’s time to rewrite the story and bring a different ending.
Their history doesn’t have to be their destiny. It wasn’t for me.
They will become all they are meant to be when we transform our community, coming together on mission to bring freedom. Who is with me?