Greenville County Sheriff’s Office’s newest K-9, Queue, is trained to detect electronic devices, including storage cards. Photo by Will Crooks.

The number of child exploitation cases in South Carolina and the nation is rising, and the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office has a unique weapon to help it catch the perpetrators.

Queue, a 2-year-old black English Labrador retriever, is trained to detect electronic storage devices, some as small as a thumbnail, that could contain evidence of criminal activity.

Queue is the newest member of the Sheriff’s Office’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit and is one of about two dozen law enforcement K-9s nationwide — and the first in South Carolina — specifically trained to detect electronic devices that could be hidden and missed during searches conducted by human law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement officers said a single SD card could contain up to 244,000 images of child pornography.

Toni Clark, founder of Greenville-based Defenders for Children, the organization that paid for Queue and the training, wants to place an electronic device-detecting K-9 in Anderson or Pickens County and eventually have the dogs in every area of the state.

“We can’t afford to miss one device,” she said.

Nose for the job

Queue uses her heightened sense of smell to detect a chemical baked onto computer circuits in electronic storage devices to prevent devices from overheating.

While dogs have been used to detect drugs, bombs, and accelerants in arson cases for years, using them to locate electronic storage devices is relatively new. In 2016, the Connecticut State Police trained the first electronic storage device dog after a chemist there was able to isolate the chemical.

Todd Jordan, CEO of Jordan Detection K9 and Queue’s trainer, is a firefighter in Indiana who trains arson dogs. He had been talking to friends who were police officers and members of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force who said they knew they missed finding devices when they conducted searches. Jordan had heard that a chemist had isolated a chemical in electronic devices and that dogs were being trained to detect its smell. He began training Bear, a black lab, to detect the minute odor.

One day, he was asked to bring Bear to a house near Indianapolis. The dog uncovered a hidden flash drive that was key to the investigation of former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle, who pleaded guilty to child porn and sexual misconduct charges. Jordan-trained dogs also worked on the case of U.S. Olympic gymnastics coach Marvin Sharp and helped on a serial killer case.

Before Queue returned to Greenville with handler Sgt. Mike Rainey last month, he had gone on seven searches in Indiana, Jordan said.

“I can’t wait to hear about Queue’s successes in South Carolina,” he said.

Growing problem

Chip Payne, commander of the South Carolina Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said child pornography and sexual exploitation of children are a growing problem all over the state.

“The problem is prolific statewide,” he said. “The problem is tremendous.”

South Carolina received a U.S. Department of Justice grant in 1998 to establish one of the first 10 Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces in the nation. Now, there are 61 task forces in the country.

In South Carolina, the task force made 45 arrests in fiscal year 2013. That increased to 210 arrests in 2017, Payne said. During that time, the state task force expanded from 40 members to 110 members. The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office has always been a member, Payne said.

In 2017-18, the Sheriff’s Office ICAC unit executed 47 search warrants, Rainey said.

Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown said it’s clear there’s a problem.

“With the past experiences of doing predator stings, it’s very obvious we don’t get everybody,” he said. Having Queue will help, he said.

Clark said devices used for storing child pornography need to be found not only to help prosecute the offenders but to help the child victims, as well. Victims range in age from infants to teens, she said.

She said she read about electronic storage device detection dogs on the Internet and decided Greenville needed one when she saw a dog in action in Atlanta. Clark said she put a micro SD card in a container of makeup and put the container in her purse. The dog found it immediately.

“That convinced me,” she said.

Payne said that when Queue is not searching for devices in child exploitation cases, she can serve as a therapy dog for officers in the Internet Crimes Against Children unit.

“They see the worst of the worst,” he said. “What they see will give you a sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs. But that same feeling is what drives them to get the perpetrators off the street.”

Payne said parents need to realize that sexual exploitation of children is not something that just happens in other places and they need to know what their children are doing. He cited a recent case where a man who had been communicating with a teenage girl over the Internet traveled from California and was living in her closet while she was at school.

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