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Dozens arrested in child porn probe

50 more arrests expected by week's end

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Ashcroft, left, and Gebhardt announce the arrests.  


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI said Monday 27 people who have confessed to molesting 36 children have been arrested in a major investigation into child pornography over the Internet.

"When we pursue child pornography, the path often leads to evidence of real sexual predators who have abused real children," said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The investigation, dubbed "Operation Candyman," focused on an e-group, or online "community," whose 7,000 members uploaded, downloaded or traded images of sexually exploited children.

"Forty individuals in 20 states are now in custody, with another 50 expected by week's end," FBI Executive Assistant Director Bruce Gebhardt.

"They include members of the clergy, law enforcement officers, a nurse, a teacher's aide, a school bus driver, and others entrusted with protecting, nurturing and educating the American youth," he said.

Gebhardt said special priority was placed on arresting suspects in positions of trust.

"These individuals must be stopped," Ashcroft said during the news conference at FBI headquarters in Washington.

VIDEO
CNN's Jonathan Aiken reports 'Operation Candyman,' which has led to arrests of dozens of suspects (March 18)

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EXTRA INFORMATION
From the FBI: Operation Candyman page 
 
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Occupations of Candyman suspects 
'Operation Candyman' arrests by city 
 

"There will be no free ride on the Internet for traffickers of child pornography," Ashcroft said, warning those who engage in that activity would be tracked down and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The 14-month investigation of the international ring involved all 56 FBI field offices across the country and law enforcement in other countries.

Officials said the images used by the ring were not child erotica or images of nude children playing.

Mike Heimbach, chief of the FBI's Crimes Against Children unit, described the images as "very explicit ... hard-core sexual exploitation of our children."

Investigators identified 7,000 e-mail addresses linked to the "candyman" e-group, with 4,600 in the United States and 2,400 in other countries. Subpoenas were issued for addresses in the United States.

The FBI office in Houston, which led the investigation, then focused on 1,400 subjects, breaking them down into two groups.

Those suspects were then prioritized by the amount of activity -- how many images they would upload, download or trade.

Within that group, special focus was given to people who held positions of trust -- including clergy, members of law enforcement or the military, teachers' aides and others.

map
Ashcroft shows a map of locations where Candyman probe took place.  

Two of the pornography ring suspects are Roman Catholic priests, the FBI said.

Since January, accusations have led to dozens of priests nationwide being suspended or forced to resign and priests' names being turned over to prosecutors.

The operation was named after an e-group the investigation centered on -- the candyman -- in which individuals communicated about and distributed child pornography.

"As its name indicates, the candyman e-group had a single purpose in mind as well: To exploit and degrade children," Gebhardt said. "The FBI is committed to protecting America's children from pedophiles and pornographers."



 
 
 
 






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