Hunting for predators
PARKERSBURG — Travis Wolfe had been a Parkersburg Police patrolman for about two years in 2001 when he overheard detectives talking about a case involving computer hard drives.
They told their superior it would cost about $800 apiece for a private company to forensically search the drives for evidence. Wolfe, a 1993 graduate of Williamstown High School who had just gotten a home computer the year before and describes himself as “kind of a tech nerd,” thought he might be able to help with such cases in-house.
Then-Detective Bureau commander Jeff Dyke took him up on it.
“It was just a knee-jerk reaction that kind of turned into my calling, I guess,” Wolfe said.
Today, he’s a detective in the department, focusing on computer crime, particularly child pornography and solicitation. He’s also been deputized by the West Virginia State Police and the U.S. Marshal’s Service, serves on the West Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, is attached to the FBI’s Pittsburgh Violent Crimes Against Children task force and works cases for the United States District Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia. Investigations have taken him, and Trooper J.M. Demeyer with the Parkersburg detachment of the West Virginia State Police, around the Mountain State.
Mike Stuart, recently sworn in as U.S. Attorney for West Virginia’s Southern District, called Wolfe one of the preeminent law enforcement professionals working cybercrimes in the state.
“He’s critical to our efforts, and we appreciate every day his work on behalf of the people of West Virginia,” Stuart said.
Parkersburg Police Chief Joe Martin described Wolfe as “the smartest guy I know.”
In 2010, Wood County had the most child pornography downloads in the state, he said.
“There wasn’t a lot of expertise at the time to deal with those types of crimes,” Martin said.
Wolfe was dedicated increasingly to dealing with those cases.
“It’s paid off hugely for us, but sadly … his talents are needed all over the state of West Virginia,” Martin said.
Wolfe and Demeyer, who was assigned to the state Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force three years ago, work many cases in Parkersburg and beyond from start to finish.
“There are very few people that do what we do,” Wolfe said.
In 2017, they made 10 arrests on state charges and 12 on federal charges. They currently have half a dozen ongoing federal cases and are assisting other agencies on multiple investigations.
While they get tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – including a 2016 incident in which Wood County high school students received emails with links to explicit photos – in many instances, Wolfe and Demeyer are monitoring specific areas of the Internet, looking for suspicious activity involving child pornography or solicitation of minors.
“For the most part, those are cases that we go out and proactively seek,” Wolfe said.
They declined to discuss their methods in great detail, wanting to avoid tipping off suspects.
Once Wolfe and Demeyer locate a suspect, they work to identify the individual and usually execute the search warrant to retrieve computers and devices that may contain evidence.
“We’ve done search warrants and arrest warrants in Mingo County, W.Va.; Dorothy, W.Va; Charleston,” Demeyer said. “We definitely are not always just in Parkersburg.”
They will interview suspects and bring the seized equipment back to the Parkersburg Police Department to perform forensic investigations. Martin set aside an office in the department at the Municipal Building for their work last year.
“We needed a space designated solely for them,” he said, noting he wanted to limit exposure to the evidence in their investigations so no one, particularly civilian employees, saw it who didn’t have to.
The equipment in the office came from federal funds through the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, as well as the Parkersburg Police Department.
Wolfe said it can take four to five months to scour the hard drives and devices of suspects – and that’s if he’s only focusing on one case. Cases in which the suspect is potentially a “hands-on offender” take priority, he said.
While there are software and hardware products designed to thwart forensic investigations, Wolfe said that with enough time he can find what he’s looking for – even if the user thinks it’s been deleted.
“It’s still there for the most part,” he said.
The technology Wolfe uses today and the designated office are a far cry from his early days in digital forensics.
“When I first started these cases, I was hauling my computers around in the trunk of my car,” he said, noting he was still doing regular road-duty assignments as well.
The Parkersburg Police Department has sent Wolfe to extensive training through the National White Collar Crime Center and other organizations. He said he’s logged more than 900 hours of digital forensics training and more than 400 hours of child solicitation and victimization training.
Demeyer has been with the WVSP for eight years. Attending a class on child pornography investigations “piqued my interest. I enjoy computers and helping children,” she said.
In addition to continuing training on forensics, preserving evidence and interviewing suspects and victims, Demeyer is also learning on the job from Wolfe.
“Travis has taught me literally everything I know and is a role model to me,” she said.
Wolfe said they have an effective partnership.
“I think (my skills) are more on the technical, nerdy side,” he said. “She is very charismatic and able to elicit confessions from people they might not give otherwise.”
Both Wolfe and Demeyer agree doing their jobs takes a toll.
The case isn’t closed when one pornographic image is found. Federal and state sentencing enhancements kick in if a suspect is in possession of more than 600 such images – images most people couldn’t, or wouldn’t want to, imagine. Each one must be catalogued and linked to the suspect.
“You have to feel like you’re making a difference or you couldn’t do this,” Wolfe said. “We just do it because we enjoy helping children.”
The mug shots of 23 suspects who have been convicted or arrested hang on a bulletin board in the office. Wolfe said that’s one way he and Demeyer remind themselves why they do what they do.
“A lot of those guys up there have prior hands-on offenses that they may have, for lack of a better term, slipped through the cracks,” Wolfe said.
When Wolfe moved to the Detective Bureau in 2012, he had the same case load as other detectives. About two years ago, the department mostly stopped assigning him cases outside his area of specialization.
Martin said he prefers that Wolfe focus on local cases when he can, but his work is important, wherever it’s being done.
“That’s his sole mission right now, is to identify, locate and arrest any child predator,” the chief said. “There’s nothing more precious and innocent than a child. … It’s important for us to pursue these kinds of predators and get them off the streets.”
Wolfe and Demeyer said they receive great support from Martin; Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Johnston; and Lisa Sutton, executive director of the Children’s Listening Place, where possible victims are interviewed.
The duo are willing to speak to different organizations as part of a proactive approach to avoid potential problems, offering tips for protecting children and monitoring their online activity.
“We go to schools, churches, any community meetings and talk about what we do,” Demeyer said.
Interested parties can contact the Parkersburg Police Department at 304-424-8444 and ask for Wolfe.