When they arrived at Jared Fogle's home last month, law enforcement officials were armed with more than a search warrant: They rolled up with a mobile forensics laboratory that has revolutionized how Indiana investigates child-exploitation and pornography crimes and helped make the state a national model.
While one investigator questioned the longtime Subway pitchman in one of the vehicle's two rooms, others watched the interview unfold on a screen in another room. At the same time, authorities searched computers, mobile devices and other media recovered from the suburban Indianapolis home.
The custom-built lab allows investigators to feed real-time questions to interviewers based on what they find or what is missing. It also lets them preview data before computers or devices are shut off or erased. It helps identify other devices to look for inside the home. And it saves days, weeks or months of time compared with the old method of taking them to another location before examining them.
Indianapolis police detective Darin Odier said it's imperative that authorities develop new tools to keep up with changing technology, like the way that some people are using streaming video to show sexual abuse rather than storing the footage.
"Just when we think we have some idea of what's going on, the bad guys change the game," Odier said.
But the lab is not the only reason the central Indiana Internet Crimes Against Children task force is widely considered the nation's best. The group that includes local, state and federal agencies has also perfected a method of following cyber trails to find offenders and victims in other states and countries.
They use every available tool—from dogs that sniff out small devices (a dog found a thumb drive in Fogle's home that investigators overlooked) to a new forensics technique of disassembling cellphones that someone has tried to destroy to recover binary data. A team of 15 to 20 people is deployed for each search.
Perhaps most important, though, is a rare interagency cooperation, where turf wars and egos simply don't exist when it comes to child exploitation, said Francey Hakes, a former special assistant to the U.S. attorney general overseeing Justice Department child-exploitation units.
"There is no fighting for credit. There is just so much dedication to finding and rescuing these kids," said Hakes, who now runs an Atlanta consulting firm that advises police on child exploitation.
Fogle on Wednesday agreed to plead guilty to allegations that he paid for sex with girls as young as 16 and received child pornography in a case that could send him to prison for more than a decade.
Court documents allege that Fogle on multiple occasions received sexually explicit images and videos produced by Russell Taylor, who ran the charitable Jared Foundation and whose house was raided by the task force two months before Fogle's. Investigators said they discovered a cache of sexually explicit photos and videos Taylor allegedly produced by secretly filming minor children at his home. That investigation led to Fogle.
Based on her experience, Hakes said, the task force is probably still examining digital media recovered from both men to determine who they were communicating with and which websites they visited or private groups they might have belonged to, among other questions.
"I call it a spider-web investigation," she said. "I guarantee you there will be spinoff investigations across the country and maybe across the world. They are a complete and total leader in that field."
In one such case, investigators recovered images that a Bloomington, Indiana, man named David Bostic had deleted from his computer. Bostic admitted that he had produced porn with children he babysat, including infants. That investigation eventually led to 24 arrests, including in Serbia and the United Kingdom. Bostic is serving a 315-year prison term.
Indiana's track record speaks for itself, task force members and outside experts said.
Much of the credit goes to Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve DeBrota, who began pursuing child pornography cases in 1991 and helped form the task force in 2001, said Indiana State Police Lt. Chuck Cohen, who leads the group. The task force includes the FBI, state police, local police, Postal Service inspectors and the Secret Service, as well as state and federal prosecutors, he said.
"He is the best in the world at these crimes. He's been doing it just about longer than anybody, and he understands technology in a way that others don't," Cohen said.
DeBrota said all of the task force's hard work and experience paid off in the Fogle investigation: "If Mr. Fogle had lived in a lot of other places in this country, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Task force members also say child pornography and exploitation are exploding along with the number of computers, mobile devices and other new technologies.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done as far as emotionally handling everything, but it's far and away the most rewarding thing," said Odier, whose first job with the task force eight years ago was posing as a 14-year-old girl online.
"Rescuing kids and catching monsters," he said. "There's nothing better than that."