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Hot Pursuit

James McLaughlin is one of the most successful online detectives in America. Talking dirty and flirting openly in Internet chat rooms, he lures potential sexual predators to their arrest. But do his tactics cross the line?

It's a Tuesday morning in downtown Keene, New Hampshire, where the aroma of coffee floats from quaint cafes and hymns ring over the city's quiet square from the steeple of Grace United Methodist Church. Just steps off the main drag, inside a small, second-floor office, James McLaughlin logs on to his computer and enters a chat room for men who want to have sex with boys.

He's zapping messages to a 34-year-old Oregon resident named Bob. Thanks to a webcam, all who sign on to the Yahoo! room "Dads 4 Boy Sex" can see that Bob is wearing eyeglasses, a wedding ring, and nothing else. Bob takes a quick shine to McLaughlin, because the veteran police detective has signed on as a 14-year-old boy named "Adam."

McLaughlin types out a sexually suggestive message, one of about two dozen he will fire off to Bob in the language he knows a teenager would use. "Adam" tells Bob that he hasn't had sex yet with a man but wants to. He asks Bob to e-mail nude pictures of other kids and -- ping -- one arrives in his in-box. The detective e-mails back a picture of a 14-year-old boy. It's not of himself, though Bob wouldn't know that. And McLaughlin has his newest target for arrest.

"It's interesting sitting here watching this guy," he says. "There he is. He's married, and he's at home masturbating and looking for young boys."

McLaughlin isn't surprised by any of this. He deals with guys like Bob all the time, because the Internet has changed the nature of pornography. Teenagers no longer sneak peeks at their fathers' Playboys. Instead, they can stare at hard-core smut online or, unsolicited, in their e-mail boxes. Interest piqued, they enter a chat room. An adult stranger sends a quick hello. Suddenly, a normal curiosity has blossomed into every parent's nightmare.

That's where McLaughlin comes in. He's a new breed of investigator, an undercover cop who doesn't need a disguise, only a computer, a phony Internet profile, and the teenage lingo that entices suspects interested in illegal sex.

What unfolds is an almost absurdist exhibit of extremes. Offenders take outlandish risks, making explicit advances toward girls and boys, sending illegal pictures from their e-mail accounts. They'll even send pictures of themselves and offer their home address, job title, phone number. On the other side of the screen are the cops who spend countless hours soliciting kiddie porn or watching men expose themselves. Then, after building cases by hooking their suspects through dirty-talk chats, they move in for the arrest.

There is a developing federal blueprint for this kind of work. Five years ago, the US Department of Justice created the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, sinking $25 million -- $12 million in the last year alone -- into a program to educate more than 50,000 people across the United States in ways to nab suspected pedophiles. Since 1998, ICAC cops have busted 1,500 people.

McLaughlin focuses specifically on men interested in boys. After initially participating in the ICAC program, he decided to work on his own as a Keene police detective. McLaughlin himself has racked up nearly 400 arrests, making him one of the best, and most publicized, "dirty cops" in the nation.

He's arrested police officers, a US Air Force captain, a priest, a social worker, and 17 teachers. His record includes several high-profile arrests as well, among them Joseph Doyle, a former Natick High School hockey coach and teacher, in May and Christopher J. Rozema, a one-time volunteer with the Molly Bish Foundation, in July.

What the accused have in common is their attraction to McLaughlin. Not the pudgy, 48-year-old married police detective from New Hampshire, but one of his two naive, sandy-haired alter egos. "Adam" and "Brad" are both 14, like to swim, play sports, and ride a bike. They also confess to having recently started masturbating and contemplating sex with an older man.

That morning in McLaughlin's office, the detective had said we'd be talking to a possible pedophile within minutes. The public Internet chat rooms he visits are created in a flash by users and can disappear just as quickly. So while Internet companies will address specific complaints about these sites, they don't monitor or regulate their activity. We sign on to the Yahoo! room at 11:01. By 11:08, Bob is using his black jockey shorts as a towel.

McLaughlin tells me that he missed his chance to get any identifying information this session. These guys will give up all kinds of details while they're aroused, he says. McLaughlin saves the exchanges and any photographs sent to him for trial evidence. But once his suspects are satisfied, they clam up. It's OK, though, the detective says. He'll get another chance. Bob tells "Adam" that he has added him to his "buddy list." That sends a signal to Bob's computer whenever "Adam" is online.

"Bye, dear," Bob writes in his final message. "I'm on most mornings." And then he's gone.

I have come to New Hampshire to see McLaughlin at work. The Doyle case piqued my interest. For two weeks, Joseph Doyle and McLaughlin -- posing as "Brad" -- exchanged dozens of e-mails. Doyle asked to meet "Brad" at the YMCA in Keene. When he arrived, McLaughlin was there instead and arrested him. Doyle pleaded not guilty and is out on bail.

I couldn't understand why a 44-year-old married father of two would write to "Brad" 10 times a day and confess to a stranger, a child, that he felt urges with some of his players at school, according to court papers. Who was this detective who targets men trying to have sex with boys? And what kind of person spends his days in chat rooms, writing messages so obscene they could make Larry Flynt blush?

So much has gone into the creation of McLaughlin's online identity. There were the government-run training sessions early on, designed to teach detectives how to think like a pedophile and talk like a kid. There are the degrees he has earned: police science from Mount Wachusett Community College, psychology from Keene State College, a master's in criminal justice from Fitchburg State College, plus 70 additional educational programs on child abuse and exploitation.

As 14-year-old "Adam" or "Brad," McLaughlin is an open book, willing to talk explicitly to strangers about his sexual fantasies. He'll reveal his fetishes, his desire to be with an older man or a younger boy or two people at once -- depending on his e-mail partner's preferences.

What James Francis McLaughlin will not reveal -- not to his online prey, not to the reporters who call him, not even to his parents -- is what truly makes him tick. He is, in many ways, as hard to pin down as his teen-bait persona. He'll let me sit alongside him, day after day, as he talks dirty with strangers from around the country. Yet he turns down numerous requests to visit him at home or to accompany him on one of the daily 15-mile bike rides he takes to keep sane. He'll allow me to join him at lunch with a pair of good buddies from the police station, but he won't let me attend a family reunion hosted by one of his sisters at Shirley Lake.

He doesn't avoid the subject when I press. He says this is his policy, that what he does for a living stays downtown in Keene and separate from his home, 10 miles or so south in Fitzwilliam.

This much is known. He was born in Leominster, the third of seven children. His Italian mother, Frances, ran the household while his Irish father, John, a two-term mayor and 25-year veteran of the City Council, spent most nights out at work. They weren't rich, and they weren't poor. McLaughlin -- they called him "Jamie" at home -- always did his chores, helped take care of the younger children, and shared a bedroom with two brothers. He was a good boy, his mother says, only occasionally requiring that she set him straight with a slap on the forehead with her wooden spoon.

John and Frances describe their boy as low-key and at times mischievous. As a young child, he once bit into an electrical cord and blackened his teeth. Another time, he snacked his way through a jar of baby aspirin and had to have his stomach pumped at an emergency room. He was a Boy Scout, attaining the rank of Eagle, then serving as troop counselor during summers when he was a student at Leominster High School. He earned money for his first car, much of it coming from drying the hides of muskrats and mink that he trapped and skinned in the woods of Lunenburg.

When he got older, McLaughlin was a Marine and then a cop. Just three years after he joined the Keene police force as a patrolman in 1981, he was tapped to work on sex-assault cases, which led to his work with abused and exploited children.

Then, now, always, he has kept information about himself quiet. He is very close to his parents, yet they have to follow the newspapers to read about what he's up to. "He doesn't tell you too much," says John McLaughlin. "He was here one day, and he got up to leave, and we said, 'Where are you going?' He said, 'Searstown' " -- a local mall -- " 'I've got to do a little shopping.' It came out in the papers that he arrested someone who worked there."

Anna, McLaughlin's 47-year-old wife and a real estate agent, likes to say that her husband is comfortable in his own skin. "Jim's a very private person. Before I met him, he lived up at the end of a road, in a little house all by himself," she says. "He doesn't need a lot of action."

It is Zaza, his stepdaughter since she was 3, who provides the best insight into McLaughlin. Or at least she's the one willing to share. Now 20, she studies art at a local college and regards McLaughlin as the one to go to when she needs advice on relationships. He's also the one who cooks dinner and tidies the house. And he loves to bake; blueberry pies are his specialty.

There's a strict side to McLaughlin, too, she says. He doesn't approve of drinking alcohol, for example, and doesn't like it when Anna buys scratch tickets. He also didn't approve, Zaza suspects, when her boyfriend got a tattoo.

Zaza used to think it was a drag that her stepfather was in the business of catching sickos. Once, she wanted to go to the local YMCA with friends. He wouldn't let her because he had nabbed a pedophile there. Another time, she wanted to go to a friend's house for a sleepover. McLaughlin stepped in again, this time because the family was new to town, and there was an older brother in the house whom he didn't know.

Now she's proud of her stepfather and has been reading the local newspaper to clip any articles that mention him. She's putting together a scrapbook that she hopes her parents will keep on their coffee table so that when people come over, they'll know all about what her dad's done.

McLaughlin is not everybody's hero. His detractors say it's no surprise that his bust rate is so much higher than that of other kiddie-porn cops in the country. To them, McLaughlin is a rogue, so blinded by his mission that he'll do whatever it takes to make a case. He will ask his prey to reveal their deepest, darkest fantasies, and then, after months of suggestive banter from his own keyboard, McLaughlin will take that rope of desire and hang them with it.

"You might chat and find someone else who is into that," says David N. Greenfield, a Connecticut psychologist whose book Virtual Addiction McLaughlin admires and has on a shelf at work. "And that's very powerful and very affirming, especially for someone who feels shame."

Greenfield suggests that what McLaughlin does is akin to plugging in to a man's dreams to check whether his fantasies feature his wife. Often they don't, which Greenfield says is a harsh but real truth. We all have deviant thoughts, he says, and that could include feeling attraction toward children or teenagers. Some people will act on those desires, others won't. What the Internet does, though, is open a door and make it somehow seem safe to explore.

That's when McLaughlin makes his move. He invites his enchanted Internet prey to a small community in New Hampshire. They agree on a date, a place -- hotel room, restaurant parking lot, health club -- and a detailed, scripted erotic game plan. Then, when the guy actually shows, he's greeted not by his 14-year-old Netpal but by handcuffs.

"One has to wonder whether this is a form of entrapment," says Greenfield, "if you're creating a crime that otherwise would not have occurred."

Louis P. Aloise, a defense attorney in Worcester, offers a critique of McLaughlin that isn't so measured. "In my view, he's a zealot," says Aloise, who defended two men whom McLaughlin had arrested. "If you ask him, I'm sure what he'd tell you is: 'Look, I am just luring out these creeps.' But I am sure there are times when the person never ever would have done what he did if McLaughlin wasn't so aggressive. He establishes an intentional relationship, and he fosters it and nourishes it. It's no different than a woman or a man pursuing a relationship. And there are times when I think he goes too far." Aloise has never alleged entrapment in his court arguments.

Residents whisper complaints, too. John A. Bell, a Keene attorney who has defended clients against charges brought by McLaughlin, says some people wonder why one of their police officers spends taxpayer money tracking criminals who live someplace else. Then, worse, he invites them to town for a visit. "The city of Keene is not too happy that he's drawing alleged pedophiles here. That's unsettling," says Bell. "I can understand Jim McLaughlin's point, but I can also understand the point of the parents who don't want their kids going around there when the police are laying a trap."

Measuring McLaughlin within the law enforcement establishment is far more complicated. There are those who praise him as a pioneer. Hal G. Brown, a captain of the Keene police, is the man who pulled McLaughlin off patrol 15 years ago to become a detective. He says the department is behind McLaughlin whether his dragnets involve locals or not. Then there are colleagues who simply won't discuss him. They will talk off the record but decline to say anything when their names will be attached.

Brad Russ, former police chief in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and now a trainer for the federal Internet Crimes Against Children programs, wouldn't comment on McLaughlin specifically. But he was willing to make a statement about cops who he thinks are dangerous because they operate outside the ICAC system and, in doing so, put some people at risk.

"What we're trying to do is not encourage every law enforcement agency to do undercover investigation, because that can create issues for us all down the road," Russ says. "There are the boundaries within which we can operate. They could create bad case law for all of us if they don't follow certain protocols."

As an example, he says his trainees would be told never to lead a subject into the topic of sex. "You can't, say, be posing as a 15-year-old and throw something out like, 'I'm really questioning my sexual orientation, and I wonder if someone out there can help me with that.' That's really leading and, in my opinion, entrapment," says Russ. "So many offenders are slam-dunk cases. You don't have to push the envelope to get them."

On a hot day in mid-August, I drive 12 miles north of Keene along a quiet country road to the Cheshire County Jail. McLaughlin has sent about 25 people there over the last three years to await trial. A 43-year-old Connecticut man named Joe is one of them. Joe has been charged with attempted sexual assault on a minor and illegal use of a computer service, according to McLaughlin.

Joe and I meet in a comfortable office far away from his cell. He asks that I not use his last name, because he says he wants to reclaim a private life when he gets out. Tall and thin, with dark hair and pocked skin, he reveals first that he has a foot fetish, meaning he feels aroused when he touches or tickles feet. He's willing to settle for women's feet, but more than that, he fantasizes about boys' feet -- specifically, pubescent boys'.

His relationship with McLaughlin started on March 26, 2003, according to court papers, when he sent an e-mail to "Adam" at the suggestion of a friend who had corresponded with the supposed boy. "I'm into tickling, a LOT," Joe wrote. "He says you want to be tickled, a LOT. I'm an adult, though I act like I'm 13. Would you be interested in being tickle buddies? Tell me about yourself, what you like, what your fantasies are, where you're ticklish. Anything you want to share!"

Over the next month, the two chatted or sent e-mails frequently, sometimes with pages-long messages that discussed cars, how tough it is to be gay, the deaths of their fathers (imagined, in Adam's case), and bowling. But mostly, they talked about feet, tickling, and sex.

An excerpt: "You ever teach a guy his first time?" Adam asks Joe around 3 p.m. on March 30.

"Well, I haven't had much experience with guys believe it or not -- not sexually -- a lot of tickling yes, but I'm more than willing to help a young guy along," answers Joe, adding: "We can both learn some things as we go -- are you into tickling as much as just being with a guy?"

Adam responds: "Well I am a total virgin so far -- you into a guy my age for sex or just tickling?"

In the e-mails, Joe admits to masturbating an adult male once and once masturbating himself while looking at a picture that Adam had sent of himself. Adam asks several times for pictures of children engaged in sex, or at least children being tickled. Joe doesn't have sex photos, he says, but he offers to go find some -- and does. He also sends pictures of fully clothed kids being tickled.

By March 31, the pair are starting to talk about a meeting. Joe floats the idea of a "capture, strip, tickle torture session" in which they will pretend that Adam has broken into Joe's hotel room with the intention of stealing something, and, as punishment, Joe will tickle him until he gasps for breath and urinates. Adam agrees to this, adding that he'd like to do "sex stuff" as well, including "jerking" and "oral stuff."

On May 2, a Friday, after weeks of highly charged communication and an exhaustively planned tickle scenario -- including scripts of dialogue -- Joe gets into his Toyota and heads northeast to the Holiday Express in Keene. He's booked a room with two double beds and a TV with movie channels. He checks in at 3 p.m. and starts setting up when there's a call from downstairs that a teenager is on his way up. Minutes later, there's a knock on the door, and when Joe opens it, McLaughlin is standing there with two other cops.

"I couldn't talk, I couldn't think," Joe tells me. "My entire life just shriveled up at that moment. I've lost everything." He's not married but has a girlfriend who so far is sticking by him. Just before he started corresponding with Adam, he was laid off from his $60,000 computer programming job for the state of Connecticut. That led, he says, to his spending too much time on the Internet and, ultimately, to the mess he's in now.

Regardless, he must have known this was wrong, I say. And he agrees. On the drive to Keene that day, he says, "I actually had a little conversation with myself: 'Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this?' It seemed like the chance of a lifetime to explore something that's always been part of you, but has gone unexplored, with someone who is willing. It's wrong no matter which way you turn it, but that's basically it."

Joe, who had no prior criminal record but pleaded guilty in October because he says it meant reduced jail time, isn't angry with McLaughlin for deceiving him. The detective has "done good things. He takes some potentially hazardous people off the streets," Joe says. "But there are people who sit in their little corner of fantasy and would never leave that room and stray out of that little fantasy world. And he brings them out of that into a world of reality and nails them. That's probably something you'll find common to anyone else who has dealt with him."

On that same Friday in May that McLaughlin was driving Joe to be booked at the police station in New Hampshire, officers in Connecticut were knocking on the door of his home, where his mother also lives. Inside, they found nearly 400 videotapes dating back 10 years, many sexual in nature, of local boys ranging in age from 10 to 16 years old. Several warrants have been issued there for Joe's arrest -- for injury to a child, sexual assault on a child, and voyeurism. He'll be charged once his case in Keene is resolved.

It's a Friday in early fall, and McLaughlin is chatting with the wife of a man he just busted for having thousands of images of boys in sexual poses. The couple happens to live in Keene, so when the wife locked herself out of the house, she had to go downtown to get the keys from her husband, who is in jail. McLaughlin asks her if she knew something was wrong. She tells him she likes watching videos of men masturbating. It never dawned on her to think it odd that her husband also liked to watch them.

This is McLaughlin's landscape. For years, he has been amassing a catalog of the ugliest examples of human behavior. His brain is cluttered with stories, so many that sometimes they tumble out. The Keene man who was having sex with his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter. The Wakefield, New Hampshire, man who was arrested trying to meet McLaughlin's young alter ego so he could administer an enema before sex. The Wisconsin man who was aroused by fantasies of dead children in sexual poses (he was living above a funeral home). All the officers who work on crimes against children can go on like this. But McLaughlin's list is longer than the rest.

We're sitting in Papagallos, a pleasant Italian restaurant just south of Keene's city center. I tell McLaughlin that people say he's so successful because he breaks too many rules. He already knows.

"I'll tell you the truth," he says. "I've had this conversation with these people directly. I tell them that there's no such thing as bad case law. If you think about it, what they're saying is unethical. What they're saying is, 'Let's remain under the radar screen and keep this going' vs. 'Wait a minute, if there's any procedure that's unconstitutional, the courts should tell us that we can't do this.' You go and go and go, and the courts will review our work and tell us what we should and what we shouldn't do."

This is the McLaughlin way: Be as aggressive as possible until you're told to knock it off. He has volumes about entrapment law sitting on his shelf, and he swears he's read every page. He also points to the fact that after 400 arrests, he has a nearly 100 percent success rate for conviction. Part of that is due to an inordinate number of guys pleading guilty because the evidence is voluminous and damning. Only five of his cases have gone to trial. In two of those, the defense attorney claimed entrapment, but both arguments were dismissed by the judge.

Our plates of cheese-and-spinach ravioli are almost finished, so I ask what this job has done to him, if it's changed him. To answer, McLaughlin tells a story. "I'm in a video store," he begins, "and a guy comes in with a 12-year-old boy. They call each other by their first names. So in my mind, I'm thinking, 'What's this relationship?' Then the man tells the boy to pick out anything he wants, and that they should take the trail home, not the road. And finally, the guy says to the kid that he doesn't have to go home until tomorrow at 3.

"Your average person would not even hear that, wouldn't even think anything," says McLaughlin. "But all of a sudden, my trip to the video store has become invaded. And then I try to say to myself, 'It's OK.' "

He ended up ignoring the situation, but something about it continued to bother him. So much so that he's been thinking it's time to finally get up from his desk in that small, second-floor office near the main drag in Keene and walk away. "I think I truly want to get out of this field," he says, which startles me. "I've put away hundreds and hundreds of people. I think I've done my share."

Carlene Hempel is a freelance writer living in Arlington.

James McLaughlin, an undercover cop who does not need to wear a disguise, in his office in Keene, New Hampshire. James McLaughlin, an undercover cop who does not need to wear a disguise, in his office in Keene, New Hampshire. (Photos / Christopher Churchill)
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