By ROB MARGETTA, Standard-Times staff writer
NEW BEDFORD -- A Level 3 sex offender -- who spent a year in prison for two previous sex assaults -- has been charged with forcibly raping a 13-year-old girl he befriended in an online chat room.
After communicating with the girl for several weeks, William H. Garfield, 32, of 321 Union St., was able to persuade the girl to allow him into her home, where he assaulted her sometime within the past week, police said.
The rape is an example of what law enforcement officials and academics called a growing problem across America -- sexual predators finding their victims on the Internet. (this goes for ADULTS being targetted also!!)
"My fear is that we don't know how prevalent they are because they're not reported," Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh said. "I think there are huge amounts that go unreported. ... If I had 20 police officers on computers, I could probably pick up 20 perverts an hour."
Mr. Garfield was convicted of two counts of indecent assault and battery on a person 14 or older in 1993, according to the state Sex Offender Registry Board. He was sentenced to a year for the crimes.
The state lists him as a Level 3 sex offender -- the category reserved for those
deemed most dangerous and most likely to reoffend.
Lt. Richard Spirlet, a spokesman for the New Bedford police, said the victim in the latest case against Mr. Garfield met him in a chat room in mid-November. Police didn't want to release the exact date the assault took place in order to protect the victim's identity, Lt. Spirlet said. He said the victim's mother realized there was something amiss with her daughter shortly after the rape occurred. The girl told her mother about the attack, and the mother contacted police Sunday, Lt. Spirlet said.
"If it wasn't for the mother, we wouldn't have found out about it," he said.
Mr. Garfield was arrested Monday. He was arraigned the same day on one count of rape of a child with force and held on $50,000 cash bail. According to court records, his history of sex offenses heavily influenced the bail amount, New Bedford District Court Judge David Turcotte set.
Mr. Walsh said one particularly troublesome problem with Internet-related sex crimes is that victims are often reluctant to come forward.
He used a recent case his office prosecuted as an example of an "embarrassment factor" that often arises in such cases. The Rev. Stephen A. Fernandes, a Catholic priest and the former pastor of a New Bedford church, posed as a young woman using an instant messaging service, and convinced a 16-year-old boy to masturbate on camera and send him the video file. The Rev. Fernandes pleaded guilty to collecting hundreds of child pornography images and received eight months in jail, but Mr. Walsh said the 16-year-old was hesitant to speak to investigators in the case. "That kid was embarrassed to daylights," he said.
Internet sex crimes have recently become an issue of concern both nationally and locally; last year, a Falmouth man was charged with raping a teenager he met in a chat room. In October, Yahoo said it would bar chat rooms that promote sex between minors and adults and restrict all chat rooms to users 18 and older.
Ann Wolbert Burgess, a professor of psychiatric and mental health at Boston College, whose areas of study include cyberstalking and Internet sex crimes, said that online predators are well-practiced in seducing underaged victims.
"They're very sophisticated about when adults are around," she said. "Parents have to be vigilant."
John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said sex offenders have found a powerful new tool in cyberspace. "While we know it has done great things for democracy and society, does it also do more for criminals?" he said. "I think the answer is yes."
The problem areas of the Internet aren't just the chat rooms and message boards, he said. Every day children are posting information that can lead predators to them on services such as Myspace.com, Friendster and blogging services. The Web sites were created to give people ways to keep in touch with each other, look each other up, or post thoughts online.
"What you're doing is creating stalker.com, effectively," Mr. Palfrey said. He said users often post information thinking that only friends will see it, not realizing that anyone can.
"I think anything personal that you wouldn't want everyone to see on the front page of the New York Times is too much," he said.