Sunday, December 12, 1999

Mom crusades against sickos on the Internet




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Linda Clements suspected something was wrong. “I had a mother's gut feeling.” She just had no idea how wrong.

        A sexual predator had been coming into the Clements home for months, stalking 15-year-old Sarah via the family computer. Linda shows me a picture of her daughter, taken just before the girl met the man in an online chat room. Sarah is looking directly into the camera. Her gaze is open, her face scrubbed. Very, very nice eyes.

        The light went out of Sarah's eyes for a while. “But it is coming back,” says her mother. The teen helped put the man behind bars. “She decided not to be a victim anymore.”

        William Meister Jr., now serving nine years in prison, is 38 years old, a convicted con man. At first, Linda says “he passed himself off as a teen-ager.” Sarah believed him. This was, after all, a man capable of getting adults to give him their money.

Wired teens
        He has been jailed several times over the years for fraudulent moneymaking schemes and has 21 convictions that include forging his mother's name on checks.

        The young girl was no match for him.

        The exchange went from the Internet to the telephone to a personal meeting. The man admitted he planned to sell nude pictures of her. Prosecutors say he set up a Web site, intending to sell pictures of other children, as well.

        “This guy's a creep,” Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen says bluntly. “We hit him with everything but the kitchen sink. And that family was great. Really helped us do our job. Crimes like this are beginning to become more of a problem.”

        No wonder.

        A 1998 survey by Simmons Research found that two-thirds of teen-agers use online services, more than 40 percent spending two to four hours online every day. There are more than 10,000 pornographic sites on the Web, and in 1995, a study by Carnegie Mellon University found 917,410 sexually explicit pictures, short stories and film clips online. About 500 new sites open every day.

        Spend any time at all surfing and you're bound to stumble onto some of them. As will your children.

        “Child predators are forming an online community that is unparalleled in history,” says Dr. Nancy Faulkner, executive director of Safeguarding Our Children. “Pedophile chat rooms, forums and newsgroups are filled with information.”

Youthful grace, courage
        What MADD founder Candy Lightner did to drunken drivers, Linda Clements hopes to do to those who prey on children on the Internet. She keeps paper and pen on the nightstand by her bed. A year after the crime against her daughter began to unfold, she still has trouble sleeping.

        Rather than fighting her insomnia, “I get up and try to do something useful.”

        The speech and language pathologist has built a library. A cancer survivor, Linda says that's how she deals with crisis. “Just like with cancer, the more I know, the better I handle it.”

        She started Advocacy for Children's Internet Safety (561-1176 and e-mail Lwhiteclements@aol.com), an organization that offers information to parents and teachers, as well as support to families of children who have been victims of Internet crime.

        But what about Sarah? Is she comfortable with her mother's very public crusade? In fact, Sarah led the way. The youngster helped prosecutors, testified and attended all court sessions.

        “She was fabulous,” Linda Clements says. “She had the grace and courage to walk up there and tell the truth.”

        These two — this angry and determined mother and her shamefully victimized daughter — could have clammed up. Nobody would blame them if they'd decided to keep their heads down and hope the nightmare would just go away. Disappear. Evaporate. So what if the same thing might happen to somebody else? Some other child? Well, they can't change the world. Can they?

        They can.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com