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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — He molested his teenage stepdaughter and downloaded dozens of child-porn images to his computer.

For his crimes, the Yokota airman in February earned five years in the brig.

His wasn’t the first — nor is it the last — child sexual-abuse case at Yokota.

In fact, military prosecutors here say they are preparing more cases for court.

But the problem isn’t Yokota’s alone: The Internet has spawned an onslaught of U.S. online-pedophilia and child pornography-possession cases.

And military criminal investigators in Japan are battling a similar trend.

“We see it on a smaller scale because of our numbers,” said Special Agent Brian Taylor, a computer crimes investigator for the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, 62nd Field Investigations Squadron, Yokota Air Base.

In the past 18 months, the Air Force has investigated more than 400 child exploitation cases — 36 in the Western Pacific region, said Special Agent Shan Nuckols, an OSI forensic sciences consultant with the 62nd FIS. These include child-pornography possession and online pedophilia — where adults seek underage victims through the Internet.

Nuckols can’t offer statistics indicating a rise in child cyberspace crimes, since the Air Force only recently started tracking the cases separately.

But “we have seen an increase on track with the rest of the civilian agencies,” Nuckols said.

And those numbers are telling:

• In 1998, the FBI opened 700 cases of online pedophilia. Two years later, it grew to 2,856.• In 1992, U.S. Customs made 57 arrests for possession of child pornography; in 2000, the agency made 320 arrests.• In the past year, the FBI has seen a 52 percent increase in child-pornography investigations.• Military investigators point the finger at the Internet boom.

“With the advent of the Internet, all of a sudden you have an explosion of these types of cases,” said Special Agent Yas Yoneda, acting supervisory agent for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service at Yokosuka Naval Base.

Anyone with access to a computer and the Internet can download pornographic images of children from across the globe, Yoneda said.

“Computers rejuvenated the child porn industry by giving collectors greater access to the images and by making it more affordable,” Nuckols said. “Before the Internet, it would have taken many years and thousands of dollars to collect the massive amount of images we now see on one hard drive.”

What particularly concerns military investigators is the potential link between child pornography and sexual abuse.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule that says a child pornographer will seek victims, but it’s happened. Both the Air Force and Navy have investigated child pornographers who have sexually molested or tried to abuse a child.

In a recent case at Yokosuka, a 48-year-old servicemember passed himself off online as a 19-year-old and enticed two teenage girls to meet him “at a military installation,” Yoneda said. The girls were smart enough to walk away. The man was court-martialed for possession of child pornography.

“In the course of the investigation, we found the e-mail correspondence” with the two teens, Yoneda said.

Added Nuckols: “We have had some Air Force cases where the offenders were first investigated for child pornography, but we also found out that they had live victims.”

Both OSI and NCIS have programs to arm parents and children with the knowledge to protect themselves from sexual predators.

The NCIS’ “Safe Kids” is a computer crime-prevention initiative that teaches parents how to keep children safe online.

For example, parents learn that it’s a bad idea to set children up with Internet access in the privacy of their bedroom.

Instead, put the computer in the kitchen — somewhere out in the open. “Show interest. Ask what they are doing,” Yoneda said.

OSI, in coordination with the 374th Airlift Wing legal office at Yokota, recently briefed local residents on the same topic.

Taylor, the computer crimes investigator, said Internet chat rooms are risky for kids, especially those for children only. It’s a venue for pedophiles searching for victims, he said. Parents may set rules for chat rooms or install software that monitors Internet activity.

OSI’s most important message is that children can be vulnerable to sexual abuse almost anywhere.

“The base gives you a false sense of security,” Taylor said. “We want to emphasize, ‘Don’t get trapped into thinking we’re immune from it.’”

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