The 41-year-old construction worker arrived at the Honolulu meeting spot bearing gifts: a doll and two bottles of nail polish, one pink.
The gifts were intended for three strangers — girls ages 6, 9 and 13 — whom the man had arranged via an online forum to meet on that March night for sex.
But unbeknownst to Ryan Cowley, the meeting was a setup.
The person Cowley had exchanged texts with to arrange the meeting, exchange photos and discuss what he wanted to do was actually an undercover agent who had created an online profile to lure adults trolling for juvenile sex hookups.
Once Cowley arrived at the meeting place, he was arrested.
Cowley was one of eight men that state and federal authorities caught in a joint undercover operation in March — the first one in Hawaii to target adults seeking children online for sexual encounters.
Cowley pleaded guilty in May in U.S. District Court to coercing and enticing a minor for sex, using the internet and a cell phone. He faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years imprisonment when sentenced later this month.
The sting was one of the latest indications that law enforcement agencies in Hawaii are stepping up efforts to combat child sex exploitation in the islands.
“I’m hoping that word gets out very quickly that if you’re going online in Hawaii and you’re trying to prey on children, there will be significant consequences, and we’re going after you,” said Kenji Price, U.S. attorney for Hawaii, whose office participated in the March sting.
Price’s office so far this year has charged 14 defendants in child exploitation cases, one more than the combined total for the three prior years. Four resulted from the sting.
The state Attorney General’s Office likewise charged four people from that crackdown.
The AG’s office subsequently participated in another undercover operation with the military and is planning more stings to continue targeting adult demand for juvenile sex, according to Kevin Takata, a deputy attorney general and administrator of the Hawaii Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
“This is not a one-and-done operation,” Takata said. “As long as there is a demand to have sex with juveniles over the internet, these operations will continue.”
The Navy also is focusing on the problem.
As of mid-August, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Hawaii had initiated 10 investigations involving active-duty Navy members suspected of exploiting juveniles. The alleged wrongdoing ranges from possessing or sharing child pornography to using indecent language with minors to try to engage in sex, according to an NCIS statement.
No one has a good handle on how extensive child sex exploitation is in Hawaii, and there is no reliable data showing the scope of the problem.
But service providers, law enforcement officials and others agree that the relatively low number of prosecutions does not come close to reflecting the extent of the problem, particularly because it is an under- reported problem and minors also end up as sex trafficking victims.
With Hawaii’s high rate of youth runaways and homelessness, both considered high-risk factors for trafficking, the number of exploited youth likely is in the thousands, said Jessica Munoz, president of Hoola Na Pua, a nonprofit that helps young trafficking victims.
“Once they’re on the streets, they’re easy prey for being exploited,” Munoz told a City Council committee recently.
Trafficking key factors
Hawaii has several key factors that typically exist where trafficking is a big problem, according to experts.
It has a major military presence, a large tourism industry and is the location for many conventions and other events that attract numerous people, including visitors.
“People want to do on vacation what they never would do at home,” said John Tobon, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Hawaii.
But as some prosecutions and a university study showed, the demand also is fueled by local residents.
Among those charged in recent juvenile enticement cases were a retired Honolulu police officer, a manager of a Windward Oahu store that catered to teens, and a professional photographer who did studio shoots with young models. The store manager was a registered sex offender, according to court documents.
An Arizona State University study of online sex demand in Hawaii found that nearly three-fourths of those who responded to decoy ads on a popular adult-oriented website were from the state’s 808 area code.
“It’s a demand driven industry, plain and simple,” said Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, which was a partner in the study.
Demand is high in the islands in part because perpetrators believe they face minimal risk of arrest, Jabola-Carolus said. “There’s no fear of being caught.”
At the same time, Hawaii lags other areas, such as Washington state and Texas, that are considered to have model anti-trafficking programs, according to advocates.
Washington, for instance, operates a diversion court for adult victims of sex trafficking and has a statewide human trafficking coordinator who works with law enforcement agencies to promote cooperative efforts.
“I think we’re about 20 years behind the curve,” Jabola- Carolus said.
Despite the need for improvement, advocates say they are pleased with recent initiatives, including the recent stings.
Law enforcement agencies also have begun meeting with local service providers at least monthly to help build trust and to discuss, among other things, investigative practices that avoid causing more trauma for victims.
“We punish the illicit activity without punishing the people who are victimized by that activity,” Tobon said at the Council committee meeting.
Task force funding
Another recent development: the Legislature last year approved an annual grant of $500,000 for the internet crimes task force, enabling the group to fund the March sting and to plan others, according to Takata.
Previously, the panel was getting only a small amount of federal money, which covered the salaries of two or three people and the ability to pursue an occasional child porn case, he said.
With the state money, the task force was able to send two people to Washington to observe their undercover operations and bring several from there to Hawaii to help plan the March sting. About 12 different agencies, including the Honolulu Police Department, were involved in the sting, which was carried out over a weekend.
The rise of the internet has meant that many more people have the ability to troll for sex online, creating challenges for law enforcement because of the prevalence of the illicit behavior.
But once investigators determine what cases become priorities, they are able to use the technology, including computer forensics, to effectively pursue cases despite perpetrators’ efforts to remain anonymous, Tobon said.
“It is becoming easier and easier for us to identify people online,” he added.
Asked what the most challenging aspects are of child sexual exploitation cases, HPD said gaining the victim’s cooperation “is extremely challenging,” adding, “Most victims don’t see themselves as victims and are very reluctant to talk to law enforcement.”
The court documents that were filed as part of the federal prosecutions from the March sting illustrated some of the techniques used in undercover operations — and some of the challenges authorities face pursuing cases that unfold in the digital world.
The agents posed as either minors or as an adult with minors in their charge and used phrases in their profiles known to attract would-be targets.
In some cases, the defendants appeared wary of disclosing too much or being too explicit in their messages, fearing the person on the other end was an officer. Eventually they let their guards down.
In the Cowley case, the undercover officer created a profile of an adult named Sam with “girls to share.” The profile stated that she was looking for like-minded people who were “into sexual scenarios involving a ‘daddy’ and little girl arrangement,” according to the court documents.
At one point, the documents show, Cowley texted Sam to say he was a good guy, treated people with respect and that he was sexually open. “(I) love them young, they are so pure and innocent and beautiful,” he wrote, according to the documents.
When Cowley is sentenced Oct. 22, he faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life behind bars. He also faces a fine of up to $250,000.
Leeward Community College Title IX Coordinator Farshad Talebi, who before moving to Hawaii in May 2018 was instrumental in shaping Washington’s anti- trafficking initiatives, lauded law enforcement agencies here for cracking down on adults targeting Hawaii juveniles.
Takata, the deputy attorney general, said Talebi contacted him after moving to Hawaii and played a key role in getting the March sting off the ground.
But while applauding that effort, Talebi said sex exploitation should be addressed more broadly, focusing on demand regardless of the ages of the victims.
“If you separate it like that, you’re never going to put a dent in demand,” Talebi said. “It’s one phenomenon. It’s the same dynamics. The most powerful, privileged people exploiting the most vulnerable.”