FBI Takes Active Role In NM Child Exploitation Cases

Los Alamos Daily Post

In Los Alamos County very few crimes related to the online exploitation of children appear in the local police blotter and people tend to think crimes of this nature occur mostly in big cities in other parts of the country.

Participants in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Albuquerque Division Annual Citizens Academy were reminded March 29 of the extent of the online threat to children in New Mexico by Special Agent Ross Zuercher who described some recent cases in which the FBI was involved.

One of the cases Zuercher discussed was that of Alfonso Navarrete, 43, of Albuquerque who was arrested in June and charged with possession of child pornography in Bernalillo. According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico, the FBI began investigating Navarrete a month earlier after receiving information that he allegedly assaulted a minor in Ireland sometime between 2014 and 2015.

FBI special agents and detectives from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) found a computer and thumb drive belonging to Navarrete that contained child pornography when they interviewed him. He eventually pleaded guilty Feb. 22 in U.S. District Court to engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place, production of visual depictions of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct and possession of visual depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

During his plea hearing, Navarrete admitted to illicit sexual conduct with a 12-year-old victim while he was in Ireland. He also admitted to using a cellphone to produce child pornography of a 14-year-old victim in 2013 and transporting the images from Ohio to New Mexico prior to his 2017 arrest and to possessing some 730 images and seven videos of child pornography on a thumb drive.

Navarrete faces a maximum of 30 years in prison for engaging in the illicit sexual contact in Ireland; a mandatory 15 to 30 years in federal prison for producing child pornography; and a maximum of 20 years in federal prison for possessing child pornography.

He faces up to a lifetime of supervised release following any prison sentence imposed and will have to register as a sex offender. No date has yet been set for his sentencing.

Others involved in the Navarrete investigation were the BCSO and the New Mexico Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory in Albuquerque. FBI citizens academy participants had spent one of their evenings at the Laboratory where they became familiar with the work of the facility and had the opportunity for some limited hands-on computer training.

Navarrete’s prosecution was brought under Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse launched in May 2006 by the Department of Justice. Led by the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and the Criminal Division’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Project Safe Childhood marshals federal, state and local resources to better locate, apprehend and prosecute individuals who exploit children via the Internet, as well as to identify and rescue victims.

Zuercher said some 86 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies (including Los Alamos Police Department) are now associated with the New Mexico Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, which is funded by a grant administered by the office of New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas. 

ICAC was another agency that brought Navarrete’s prosecution. Developed nationally in response to the growing problem of cyber enticement and child pornography, ICAC works closely with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to achieve the successful identification, apprehension and prosecution of child molesters, child pornographers, child pornography collectors or distributors, child abusers and preferential sexual offenders who target children.

The Program helps state and local enforcement agencies develop an effective response to technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation and Internet crimes against children by providing forensic and investigative components, training and technical assistance, victim services and community education. The ICAC national network has 61 coordinated task forces involving more than 4,500 federal, state and local enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. In 1998, ICAC Task Forces conducted more than 61,000 investigations and 77,800 forensic exams resulting more than 9,300 arrests.

Los Alamos Police Cmdr. Oliver Morris says the LAPD has worked with ICAC for nearly 10 years and that the LAPD Investigations Section has participated in free training offered by ICAC that has enabled them to be more proficient in investigating child sexual exploitation and Internet crimes against children.

Morris said when he was in the Investigations Section, he worked closely with Spec. Agent Owen Pena and Spec. Agent Lance Fails on a 2013 case, which ended with the defendant being sentenced to nine years for each of three counts of sexual exploitation of children – manufacture, three years for one count of sexual exploitation of children – possession and 1.5 years for one count of sexual exploitation of children – distribution.

LAPD also has become part of Operation Broken Heart, a coordinated investigative operation to intensify efforts to identify and arrest suspected child sexual predators.