Rouse's response became the first phase of one of Australia's most wide-ranging and successful police actions. Described by Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty as "probably one of the largest national law enforcement operations in our history," Operation Auxin - now in its fourth month - has identified more than 200 Australian men as voyeurs and collectors of some of the worst child pornography police have seen. Hundreds of others are still under investigation, and Rouse has no illusions about the scale of the task. "There's a larger group of these predators out in the community," he says. "This is just scratching the surface."
Teachers, police officers, businessmen, tradesmen, a child-care center owner and religious ministers figure among those accused of buying the images. Several more are believed to have been producing their own child pornography in backyard studios; six have committed suicide after being charged or questioned about their involvement. Away from their computers, the suspects led outwardly normal lives as fathers, husbands, brothers and boyfriends. Deep in what they thought was the anonymity of cyberspace, however, they were amassing huge libraries of images. But theirs were not the only eyes scanning the websites.
Early last year, U.S. Customs agents based in Newark, New Jersey, infiltrated a network of child pornography websites run by criminals in Belarus, a country in the former Soviet bloc. The agents had compiled a record of more than 70,622 transactions from voyeurs around the world who had logged on to buy the pornography using their credit cards. The Americans passed details of the transactions thought to have originated in Australia to the Australian High Tech Crime Centre, hosted by the Australian Federal Police; the AHTCC traced addresses for the suspects on the list, confirmed their identities and forwarded the information to child protection officers around the country. Rouse, operational head of the Queensland Police Service's anti-pedophile unit, Task Force Argos, was one of those recipients. A nine-year veteran of child protection investigations and a father himself, Rouse traces his dedication to catching and convicting pedophiles to a photograph he saw early in his law-enforcement career. It pictured a child tied to a chair and being raped by a dog. "The look of terror in her eyes was something I will never forget," says Rouse. "It has been burned into my retinas." His fellow Argos officers share their boss's mindset. They wear small gold lapel badges in the shape of a scorpion, the natural predator, they say, of the rock spider - the term Australian criminals use to express their contempt for pedophiles.
Rouse's first reaction when the list landed on his desk at police headquarters in Brisbane was to hope it might help solve one of the state's most baffling crimes. Daniel James Morcombe was last seen on his way to catch a bus near his home on the Sunshine Coast on Dec. 7, 2003. The boy had told his family he was going to a shopping center in the coastal town of Maroochydore to buy Christmas presents for them. He never got on the bus. Rouse mapped the homes of suspects living close to where Daniel was last seen. Twenty targets were identified, launching Rouse's team into action.
On July 7, Rouse set up an office in the Maroochydore Criminal Investigation Branch operations room to coordinate a series of raids. He brought with him 93 officers, all trained in interviewing techniques and aware of the possible links to Daniel Morcombe's disappearance. Next morning, at exactly 6 a.m., four-man police teams began knocking on doors across the district. The stunned suspects were presented with search warrants as officers went looking for computer equipment.
Back in the CIB office, Rouse was studying a chart pinned to a whiteboard. The first column contained suspects' names and photos. Then came their addresses, maps and general information about them. As the minutes passed, Rouse waited nervously by the phones in the operations room. "I wanted to get every single one of them," he says, "but my concerns were for the well-being of my guys going through doors." Gradually his teams started calling in. "We didn't have one incident," says Rouse. "We didn't have one officer injured, or any complaints from the suspects about the way they were handled."
So complete was the surprise that one suspect was caught in the act of downloading child pornography. At another house detectives had to wait for the sun to come up to switch on the suspect's computer to search for evidence. His home ran on solar power. As each man was interviewed, and incriminating material located in his home, Rouse went to the whiteboard and wrote "positive" above his name or photo. At the end of the day he had 11 positive suspects, who would later face 1,329 charges. The only disappointment for Rouse was the failure of any of them to provide clues about Morcombe's disappearance (the boy has still not been found). But the operation was a model for other state police forces. On Sept. 7, police in Western Australia and the Northern Territory mounted their own raids. Rouse and his team launched a second phase, hunting down men spread out across remote parts of Queensland. Then on Sept. 27, police forces across Australia began arresting suspects in city centers. The targets were so numerous the raids took two days to complete.
Justice Minister Senator Chris Ellison says he is unaware of any other national operation that resulted in so many arrests and warrants issued simultaneously. "The extent of people who were allegedly involved in child pornography has shocked me," he says. "We understood people were using the Internet for child pornography. We knew it was a problem. But when you have it in such tangible form it is something else."
The varied backgrounds of the suspects hint at the scale of the problem. Among those arrested was a Queensland man alleged to have been using local children to make his own pornography; also under investigation were four Queensland police officers, one of whom killed himself after being served with a summons. A New South Wales teacher allegedly set up a video camera behind a mirror in a children's changing room; in Victoria the owner of three child-care centers was charged; and in Perth detectives discovered more than 350,000 images and hundreds of videotapes of child pornography in the home of a self-employed computer expert. The man, Raymond John Belcher, 36, has pleaded guilty to the charges and will be sentenced early next year. Despite the success of Operation Auxin, detectives like Rouse are far from complacent. He fears they have barely dented the numbers of such criminals. "Every year we prosecute 150 of these types," he says. "We catch them through other methodology - not by using their credit cards, as they were found this time." To avoid detection, pedophiles are likely to keep changing their tactics. But Rouse and his colleagues will be trying to anticipate their moves - and continuing to scour the most harrowing corners of the Internet for the evidence with which to bring them down.