The unit is on pace to double the number of reports of child exploitation it received in 2021.
VASSALBORO, Maine — In a massive brick compound in Vassalboro, built in the image of a medieval fortress, Maine State Police Sgt. Tom Pickering heads Maine’s 19-person (they’re hiring) computer crimes unit.
Half are civilians; the other half is made up of investigators and special agents. Pickering welcomed us to the office on the top floor of the building, which much more closely resembles a typical office than the towers on the outside.
During our tour, we saw supercomputers used to process data; expansive tool kits used to break open laptops and hard drives; and what’s called a Faraday box, which blocks outside signals from reaching devices placed inside, so a suspect can’t remotely delete data from their confiscated phone.
The tools are like sci-fi. The work: excruciating.
“What the team here at CCU is exposed to on a daily basis, I really don’t have the words to describe that,” Pickering said.
“These are images and videos of children being assaulted, so, that’s extremely difficult,” he continued.
His team is busier than ever. After fielding more than 1,200 reports last year, they’d already received 600 by the first week of April. Pickering described the spike in calls as “unprecedented.”
Last month, we spoke with Yiota Souras from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her wide-reaching nonprofit took in 29.3 million reports of exploitation around the country. It was a 35% increase compared to 2021.
“Our goal there is to make sure that we can then push that report and make it available to law enforcement,” Souras said.
The national center constantly brings reports to Maine State Police. In March, the two organizations helped lead to former Maine gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler’s arrest.
But when their work leads to an arrest and conviction, Pickering’s team doesn’t rest.
“We’re constantly moving on to the next one,” he said.
Is there no time to celebrate a victory?
“No,” he answered. “Everyone here is pretty humble. It’s not something that we celebrate.”
And, so, the work goes on inside their fortress.