As an investigator with the Newton County Sheriffs Office, Sharron Stewart works with runaways and child molestations and the families of missing persons. She also assists on the more gruesome felonies such as homicides, but it's her part-time position that garners the most attention: her work as an undercover investigator in charge of catching online predators.
The Internet Crimes Against Children task force is a joint effort between the NCSO and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and has been going on for several years. Recently the NCSO also began partnering with the FBI on their task force called Innocent Images - very similar to ICAC, and once a week Stewart travels to Atlanta to work on Innocent Images in hopes that she can help put just one more predator behind bars.
Although the NCSO has been working on catching online predators for years, this has been Stewart's baby for the last five, something that she is passionate about. She has a profile that she doesn't alter. She poses as a middle school-aged female, logs onto chat rooms and then just waits.
"It doesn't take any time," she said. "I'm usually approached almost immediately and 90 percent of the time the first thing they ask is ‘a/s/l' which is age/sex/location. I never approach anyone - I am always approached first. I stick with the same profile - I could tell everyone something different and that's the thing about [chatting] online. You can be anything you want to be."
Stewart chose not to divulge the age she claims to be or any specifics about her online profile. She did say that roughly 2 percent of the people who approach her will say she is too young when she tells them her "age" and will not contact her further. The other 98 percent, however, are not deterred by the young age at all.
"The majority will masturbate online during conversations and I don't really have to say anything at all. I might type ‘cool' or ‘ha, ha, ha,' and they type paragraphs. They know how old I am [supposed to be] and that doesn't matter to them at all."
In order to become equipped to work with ICAC Stewart took a two-week training course and continues to get regular training from the GBI.
"Basically you are taught that you never try to talk on a higher level than who you are chatting with; you never initiate sex or meetings of any kind. And quickly you find out that you don't have to, you just don't."
Stewart's hard work has nabbed dozens of internet predators, though she is hesitant to give an exact number. None of them have been from Covington, though several have been from the state and one was as far away as Alaska. Each case is different, but charges they have faced are sexual exploitation of children, enticing a child for indent purposes, electronically furnishing obscene material to minors, obscene telephone contact with a child, computer or electronic pornography and the Child Exploitation Prevention Act of 2007. People have also been charged with distribution of child pornography on occasion.
Stewart regularly sits in on the interviews with the predators, though she never lets on that she was the person they were chatting with.
"They never seem really surprised," she said. "Most of them will make some kind of disclosure automatically like ‘I thought she was older than that.' They never ask how we found them out. Occasionally they will show remorse, but its more like remorse that they were caught rather than remorse for what they did," she said.
"A lot of them will say they didn't think she was underage, but that's not an excuse. I say I am underage multiple times and they have plenty of opportunities to stop talking to me but they don't.
"And it could start out as chatting but the majority of time it's going to lead to hands-on with the kids. The goal isn't always to meet. Some people I talk to when I interview them I ask why and it's the idea of knowing they can be anonymous. It's just the thought of somebody watching them. They like to know that somebody's watching and all they want to do is masturbate. And you can pretty much tell when you start a conversation if that's all they want to do or if they are willing to travel."
A mother of two, Stewart admits that sometimes it is hard to see the things she is subjected to when working the online cases but that she is able to
detach herself to an extent.
"I don't know how I am able to detach myself, but I do. I guess it's because I feel like if I can be the victim then there is no real victim. I'd rather have to look at it then have another child see it. I am sure there are other victims but if I can help just one then it's all worth it."
Stewart works with organizations and schools to teach people how to keep their kids and their selves safe. She has presentations available for children as young as kindergarten and as old as high school seniors, as well as adults.
"The program [for kids] teaches you to have a trusted adult and to go to them if you feel threatened by something they might see or hear. As a parent I think that it is important to have that open communication with your kids so that they know they can come to you. It's important to tell someone."
Another way to keep kids safe is to consider the placement of the computer.
"Kids are so impressionable and they want to believe what other people tell them," she said. "One of the most important things is where you have your computer. A lot of parents use the computer as a form of babysitting and allow their kids to have it in their room. It needs to be in an open area where they don't have privacy. It isn't about trusting your kids - you can trust your child but you have no idea who is on the other side of that computer."
To leave anonymous tips visit the NCSO Web site at www.newtonsheriffga.org and contact Stewart to set up a presentation at (678) 625-1406.