(Photo via iStock)

On Tuesday, the greatest child pornography prosecution in history concluded with the sentencing of the Ukrainian child pornographer Maksym Shynkarenko to 30 years in prison.

Shynkarenko, 35, of Kharkov, pleaded guilty to conducting a child exploitation enterprise after being extradited from Thailand in 2012. His demise helped to convict more than 600 American men who bought egregious images of child sexual abuse in 47 states (all but Wyoming, Vermont, and Maine), including police officers and firefighters, teachers, counselors and scout leaders, construction workers and business executives, doctors, lawyers, and the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia.

“What we learned is that child predators are everywhere,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark McCarren of New Jersey, who led the prosecution with his colleague Harvey Bartle IV.

The story of how Newark became the international capital of child predator investigation tells a great deal about the evolution of child pornography and its prosecution.

When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales prioritized Internet crimes against children in 2006, he declared a child exploitation epidemic. In 2008 a U.S. Department of Justice task force counted over 300,000 unique U.S. computers clicking on child pornography. Since then, the number of new images reviewed each year by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has only grown, reaching 22 million in 2013. In FY 2013 Homeland Security Investigations reported more than 2,000 arrests of suspected child predators, and the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys reported 1,998 convictions under child exploitation statutes.

Back in the early 2000s, when commercial child porn websites emerged on a large scale, the New Jersey outposts of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations organized one of the first large-scale responses. “Operation Regpay,” so named for a child porn business in Belarus, ended with 25-year prison terms for the two Belarusian kingpins and hundreds of consumer arrests. As that operation wound down in 2005, the subculture was increasingly turning toward video depictions of actual molestations, with the victims becoming ever younger. HSI looked for the hardest-core porn on the hard drive of a Regpay target with disturbed inclinations, and stumbled on Shynkarenko’s website. The hope was to use the website to find active molesters. “The dream scenario was to bring this guy to justice,” says McCarren.

The Shynkarenko investigation proceeded in three phases. In Operation Emissary I, supervisory special sgents Victoria Becchina and Michael Riccitelli wiretapped the website’s emails with its Siberian money launderer and American subscribers, extracting hundreds of names. In Operation Emissary II, they captured hundreds more user names with the help of credit card processors. The agents were almost ready to declare victory when suddenly, in 2007, the Siberian money launderer’s mother came to New York on vacation and was detained by U.S. authorities. Her son Alex Kondratiev flew to New York and pled guilty to money laundering. In Operation Thin ICE, U.S. authorities developed enough information to find Shynkarenko himself vacationing in Thailand, and after a three-year battle secured his extradition.

Refreshingly, the prosecutors give the HSI agents credit for making New Jersey the global hub of child porn enforcement. The agents say that without the U.S. attorneys, “an extraordinary case becomes an average case.” Professor Mary Leary of Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law praises both teams for creativity and persistence. “The big lesson here,” she says, “is that child pornography can be combated with a combination of law enforcement adapting new technologies and good solid old-fashioned police work.”

A more justified prosecution would be hard to find. “Some people ask, hey, why are we bothering with the possessors on the chain of offenders,” notes Leary. The most basic answer is that abused children feel victimized every time their image is viewed. But this case highlights two more pragmatic answers. First, observes Leary, going after one user can lead to the arrest of major operators. Second, going after one user can lead to mass arrests—and many suspects are likely to be contact offenders. “This case has nothing to do with free speech,” declares Ernie Allen of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. “These are crime scene photos.”

Proof of more active child exploitation was found for about 20 percent of the 600-odd men convicted as a result of Operation Emissary. Prosecutors believe that the real number of contact offenders was much higher. One bad man caught in the dragnet was Florida businessman William Irey, who recorded himself abusing dozens of girls while traveling to brothels in Cambodia. A majority of the Eleventh Circuit, sitting en banc in 2010, called a 17 ½ year term for Irey “substantively unreasonable,” notwithstanding the psychological evidence, and substituted the guideline length of 30 years.

“The steady stream of criminal cases flowing through this court brings us many examples of man’s inhumanity to man,” wrote the Eleventh Circuit majority. “But the sexual crimes that Irey committed against some of the most vulnerable children in the world set him apart. He raped, sodomized and sexually tortured fifty or more little girls, some as young as 4 years of age, on many occasions over a four- or five-year period. He also scripted, cast, starred in, produced and distributed some of the most graphic and disturbing child pornography that has ever turned up on the Internet.”

Beyond putting his nastiest customers behind bars, Operation Emissary also doomed Shynkarenko’s business model. By demonstrating the crucial role played by credit card processors, it helped to inspire a highly effective initiative by U.S. financial intermediaries in 2006 to systematically identify child pornography offenders. “Emissary II was a model for us,” says Ernie Allen, who helped to organize the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography, and later its counterparts in Europe and Asia. Observers agree that these initiatives, combined with aggressive prosecution, have sharply reduced the presence of commercial child pornography sites on the open Internet.

But just as stricter enforcement drove New York City prostitutes to the outer boroughs, so has it driven child pornographers out of sight. The new dominant models are private barter in peer-to-peer networks—or payment with online currency on the anonymous “dark web.” “Serious offenders have only gone deeper underground,” says Grier Weeks of the National Association to Protect Children. “Law enforcement is outspent and outnumbered, and lacks equal technology. It’s losing the fight.” While acknowledging the challenge, U.S. authorities express greater confidence. “As the technology becomes more sophisticated,” says Riccitelli, “so does law enforcement.”

The fight of the future will necessarily be global. Although Shynkarenko’s customers were everywhere, it’s unclear whether criminal leads were seriously pursued outside the U.S. According to a study by the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, 102 nations have passed child exploitation statutes since 2006. As to whether these laws are enforced, there is no data. Allen is optimistic, while Weeks is skeptical.

“If we helped to save even one child, it was worth it,” Riccitelli says of the nine-year investigation. Thanks to the heroics of a few professionals in New Jersey, Operation Emissary surely saved more. To repeat the trick in the future may require a big leap in technology, and a more universal commitment.