Reporter Goes Inside 'Operation Twisted Traveler': Coordinated International Crackdown on Alleged Sex Predators
Thursday, September 17, 2009
By DAN HARRIS, ALMIN KARAMHMEDOVIC and AUDE SOICHET
ABC News Nightline (USA)
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA, Sept. 16, 2009 — Snaking through the streets of Cambodia's capital city, we're on the tail of suspected American pedophile Harvey Johnson. The 57-year-old failed real estate developer from Arizona has been teaching English out of his house in Phnom Penh for two years. His position has given him ample opportunity to get close to children, authorities say.
Cambodia has long been a top destination for pedophiles from the United States and all over the world, according to law enforcement officials and humanitarian groups.
Unbeknown to Johnson, he has been under surveillance by a local nonprofit group called APLE, which has made it its mission to identify suspected foreign pedophiles and to help gather enough evidence for the police to make an arrest.
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Johnson is accused of using his position as an English teacher to molest several underage girls. APLE investigators tell ABC News they first noticed Johnson in October 2007 when they claim he was behaving suspiciously with children in public.
"He was seen touching; he was seen caressing those children. That's why we opened a case against him," APLE agent Samleang Seila tells us.
APLE used an undercover "spy agent" to befriend Johnson. Its hidden cameras caught Johnson allegedly selling child pornography to the agent. The agent recorded hours of conversations in which APLE claimed Johnson talked freely about molesting young girls.
"Slipped my little finger right up her," he told the APLE agent in a hidden audio recording. "But it was snug. She's very small."
After nearly two years of building its case, APLE agents told us that they believed they'd finally provided the police with enough evidence to get an arrest warrant.
In the final days of its investigation, it agreed to give ABC News extraordinary, behind-the-scenes access.
Day One: Staking Out Alleged Pedophile
APLE officials took us to Johnson's home, where agent Rattana Rong told us that four female students had allegedly entered Johnson's home.
Investigators, who told us they had been following Johnson night and day, seemed to have surveillance down to a science. There were agents staked out in strategic locations -- some posing as motor bike taxi drivers, another as a vendor of cold drinks -- and two more agents are planted in Johnson's neighbor's house.
To our surprise, we spotted Johnson himself, sitting at an outdoor restaurant, and he struck up a conversation with us.
"How long are you in town?" he asked.
"Just a couple of weeks," I replied.
"Oh, a couple of weeks?"
"You're just enjoying all the sights ... and diversions."
He gives us pointers on where to stay and what to see, mentioning Martinis -- a bar in the city we are told is notorious for being a place where visitors can solicit prostitutes. Johnson gave us his phone number, and we left before he got suspicious.
APLE is now part of a coordinated international crackdown, involving the Cambodian and American police, the FBI and ICE international law enforcement, called "Operation Twisted Traveler."
One of the suspected pedophiles APLE recently helped to bust was Michael Dodd, a registered sex offender in Florida. Dodd was accused of attempting to arrange his marriage with a 14-year-old girl. We found him awaiting trial, along with the girl's mother.
Dodd was caught on undercover video by APLE's spy agent, complaining to his victim's mother that the girl was being insufficiently affectionate with him, despite the amount of money he had given the family.
"I want to ask her a question directly. Nan, do you love me?" Dodd said on camera.
"Is there a word for mannequin? When I kiss her I feel like I'm kissing a statue. There's no reciprocity. She's just like a limp pillow," he said.
After the trial, as Dodd was taken back to prison to await his verdict, he spoke to us.
"So the allegation against you is that you essentially took advantage of a vulnerable family, paying them off to have access to their very young daughter," I said.
"Yeah, that's what they're accusing me of, sure," he replied.
"And you're saying there's nothing to it?"
"No because there's love. I love her. I'm crazy about her."
"How you can be in love with her? You're roughly 60 years old. She doesn't speak your language. She's very young," I said.
"Well, look at this, you know, our previous generations, before we were born, before they made the age limits, there wasn't such a -- I'm sorry," he said, before he's taken away by cops.
Outside the courthouse, we meet Dodd's alleged victim.
"Do you think Michael Dodd behaved inappropriately with you?" I asked her. "Did he sexually abuse you?"
"Yes," the translator said as the little girl nodded.
We watch as the girl is completely shunned by members of her own family, who blamed her for getting her mother in trouble. She was allowed to hug her younger brother.
Meeting Accused Pedophile
We were some of the first journalists the Cambodian government had ever allowed inside Preysar prison -- the largest in Cambodia. We talk to other alleged American sex offenders who've been busted by APLE and other organizations.
We approached Erik Peters, a convicted sex offender back in California, who's accused of abusing several young boys here in Cambodia. They testified that Peters allegedly touched them inappropriately, sodomized them and took pictures of the acts.
"We just want to ask you about the charges against you," I said.
"Sorry, I can't speak," he told me.
"You can't speak about it at all?"
"No, if you want to talk about human rights abuses or something ..." he said.
"Are there human rights abuses?" I asked.
"Well, that would have to be interviewed at a safer location. I can't speak about it right now."
We ask Peters about the charges against he, which he denied.
"Absolutely untrue," he told us.
Peters and many other American pedophiles are accused of using a similar technique -- called "grooming" -- where they pay families in order to abuse their children. Johnson had allegedly been using the "grooming" technique as well. He's accused of talking about it openly with APLE's spy agent with his young students in the room.
"Frankly, I'm playing this for the long haul. All of these are gonna be 15 within two years, except the little one," APLE claimed Johnson said on its hidden audio recording.
Confronting an Alleged Pedophile
Day seven in Cambodia and we're called to Johnson's neighbor's house, where agents from APLE and ICE have gathered to wait. We're told the arrest is imminent.
But Johnson is having breakfast at a restaurant down the street, which is the same place we saw him a couple of days ago, when undercover police roll up and surround Johnson.
Suddenly, officers rush in and make their arrest. Johnson looks surprised, but stays surprisingly calm as he's asked to come down to the station.
At the station, we confront him.
"Harvey, I'm Dan Harris from ABC News. The police said you've been abusing girls here in Cambodia for the past couple of years."
"I've only been here two years. I have no idea what they're talking about," he replied.
"Yeah, they've been following you for two years. A group called APLE, which is an NGO that investigates sex tourists," I explained. "They've been following you for two years, and they said that you've been abusing girls and that they have proof of that."
"I don't know what they're talking about," he said.
Johnson claimed that there's no truth to that accusation. He denied having abused any girls in Cambodia, saying that as a teacher, young girls frequently visited his home.
"They also have you on an audio tape, you saying that you had inserted your finger into one of the girls," I told him.
"I don't know what they're talking about," he said.
"But it's your voice."
"I don't know what they're talking about."
After presenting Johnson with a warrant from anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection, the police walked him down the street to their vehicles as a crowd gathered.
Johnson told us he had no idea that APLE had been following him for the past two years.
"They've been on you pretty much every minute for two years," I said.
"I don't know what they're talking about," he said.
"You didn't know, though, I mean they had agents in the house next door to yours. They've been following you everywhere you go. You had no idea?"
"Does it surprise you?"
"Shocked. Yeah. I know a lot of people. I teach. I teach older people, I teach children. I have &"
"So you're confident this will turn into nothing?"
"Sure," he said, "sure."
They took Johnson to the police station where's he was questioned and placed in a jail cell. The next morning, police returned with Johnson to search his home, where they found stacks of porn, lubricant, Viagra and children's toys. They found cameras in his bedroom and confiscated several computers and hard drives.
When we asked him about the porn and video cameras in his bedroom, Johnson said they didn't belong to him.
"No, they're the man who owns the house," he said. "There were a lot of cameras."
He was now armed with a defense: that the girls who are accusing him of molestation are doing so to cover up for stealing his camera weeks before.
"I think she's making it all up. I think frankly, I think it was a set up," he said. "There were a lot of bad things that came down about that camera. About the telephone that was stolen. I had to make threats that I was gonna bring in the police."
Back at the police station, Johnson's alleged victims -- many in ponytails and pajamas -- had been called in to give statements. Even the APLE agents, hardened by years of investigating alleged pedophiles, seem genuinely shaken by the testimony of one of the girls, who said Johnson threatened her into engaging in sex acts.
"I have young daughter, and I am very emotionally touched and I am really sad when I hear any girl talking about sexual abuse," said APLE agent Samlean Seila. "I'm really concerned about my daughter, and I don't want my daughter to be sexually abused like that so it's really touching me."
The girl's mother said she was totally unaware of the alleged abuse -- until now.
"When I found out, I wanted to die," she said. "I only allowed my daughter to study with Harvey because we thought he was a good person, and my family is poor." And Johnson's alleged victims are just some of the thousands of Cambodian children believed to have had their innocence stolen.
Negotiating for a Young Girl
We learned it could be astonishingly easy to essentially buy a young girl from her family in Cambodia. We meet a 15-year-old girl selling water on the street. She introduced us to her mother. In broad daylight, she said, she's willing to make a deal.
They are speaking in Khmer. APLE investigators translated for us.
"So are you saying that if I wanted to marry your daughter that would be OK?" I asked.
"It's OK, it's OK," she said.
When we come back later, we put the final touches on the negotiation.
"Can I get a sense of how much that would be? Are we talking two to three hundred dollars a month?" I asked.
"It's up to you," she told us.
"Has your daughter been with a man before? Has her daughter been with any men before me?"
"No, no, no. If you don't trust, you can take her to the hospital ... for medical examination," the mother said.
Breaking the Cycle of Sexual Exploitation
How could a mother so casually agree to sell her child into sexual servitude? Poverty is part of the answer. However, evangelicals we spoke to believe there's something more at work in Cambodia: the ghosts of history.
In the 1970s, this country saw the largest genocide since the Holocaust. Under the rule of Pol Pot, Cambodia's educated, wealthy and religious communities were all wiped out. Children were forced to spy on and even execute their parents. Nearly 3 million people died.
American Pastor Don Brewster pointed out that those children were now today's parents. He said Cambodia now suffers from a "moral vacuum."
"It's materialism and greed," Brewster told us. "In a country that's so poor that has hardly any television anyways, these families will take a loan to buy a TV, which they know they can never pay. They can't feed themselves, never mind buy a TV, but they know, 'Hey I've got my ace in the hole, I can sell my daughter.'"
Brewster left his congregation in California to move to Cambodia four years ago, where he fights child sex trafficking full-time. His group, Agape Restoration Center, has opened a community center in the place of a former brothel.
"You look at those kids in there, those young girls," he said, "probably 90 percent of them are gonna be trafficked tonight ... and every night."
Brewster also runs a shelter for former child prostitutes like Bella, who told us she was forced to have sex every day.
A group called the International Justice Mission rescued Bella and brought her to the shelter, where she can attempt to regain a piece of her childhood.
"I can study and I can get love and I can have ...," she said, before breaking down in tears.
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