Dirty Little Secret

Ever taken a shot to the gut? Maybe a soccer ball caught you flush or a bad spill off a bike knocked the wind out of you. Suddenly, you're on the ground, curled up like a fetus, wheezing for air. Scary, isn't it? Especially that split second when the dizziness hits and you really start to panic.

This is a story about one crushing blow delivered by a man from Newton, and the people he's left doubled over in pain — from his fiancée to his parents and kid brother to his professors and Air Force buddies. They all thought they knew him. No, scratch that: They did know him. He was the kid built like a fire hydrant, with the neat brown hair and clean-shaven face, the one who played the piano, sang a cappella, swam like a dolphin, volunteered with kids, and could set up a Web site faster than you could butter your toast. They did know him. They just didn't know all of him.

First Lieutenant Sean Galliher of the 517th Airlift Squadron was a military man. But he didn't die in battle. For reasons only he knew, his end came alone; he was too ashamed to face his accusers. There was no picture of him on the evening news in full military uniform because his last breath didn't come in the cockpit of his C-130 Hercules. Death for this young man from an idyllic Boston suburb came in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Anchorage, Alaska, his morning newspaper still outside his door and two orange cats roaming around his living room. It came with him not in his uniform but in his civvies — black turtleneck, blue jeans, and white socks. It came with his limp body hanging from his bedroom door, a black computer cable wrapped and knotted tightly around his neck.

The two e-mails land in my inbox minutes apart, sent by a nonprofit group called WiredPatrol, a sort of neighborhood watchdog for the Internet. “I'm very happy to help you out,” the first one starts. “Here are a couple sites you might find of interest.” The links to three strangely titled Web sites are listed, but before I can click away, the second message lands. “I'd suggest, when you're finished, that you clean the computer you used by deleting all cookies, temporary Internet files, and history. You don't want anyone else who may access your computer to view these sites.” Detailed instructions explain how to permanently spike the links. Not just trash them, but erase them as if they were never here. It looks complicated. But that's for later. It's the first e-mail that should explain what led investigators, on a brisk Alaskan night, to raid Galliher's apartment — and to his suicide two days later.

A few years back, a Web site was launched showing pictures of kids. Naked kids. It wouldn't crop up in an ordinary Yahoo search: You had to know where to hunt for it deep in the folds of the Internet. Yet in its first three months, the site recorded 256,000 hits — almost 3,000 a day, with 4.2 million images downloaded, or 50,000 images a day. Only when investigators were able to trace its origin and arrest six people was it shut down. Who looks? Typically, either loners who tell no one what they're doing or those who seek to hook up with secret communities that validate urges society never will. Beyond that, there is no “typical” pedophile, no profile, only trends. An increasing number of young men in their twenties are being arrested for it; one in every four pedophiles was molested himself as a child.

Just looking at these pictures isn't a crime. The crime is clicking “download” to move an image to your hard drive — that's possession of child porn — or attaching one to an e-mail and sending it, which is distribution. But until you've seen child pornography — cops call it KP, for kiddie porn — it's impossible to imagine it. Adjectives are worthless. You see it and feel dirty. That bitter taste will surface, the one that fills your mouth just before you vomit. These aren't borderline adults staring out of the computer screen, teenagers made up to look 18. These are kids, a few boys, mostly girls, no hips, no breasts, no curves. One of them is just standing there, nude, a few bales of hay behind her, as if she's about to tend the stable, a big smile radiating from her face. Another is lying on a bed, nude, looking back over her shoulder at the camera. A third is on her knees, nude, beside a man's legs — also nude. Some of them are being raped. It looks consensual, but they can't be older than 12 or 13. There's one picture called “Me and My Girls,” which looks like any vacation snapshot of a smiling father and his two daughters standing knee deep in a beautiful, secluded pond — except they're all nude, the bearded guy with the basketball belly and the reed-thin girls on either side of him.

This is what officials say they found on Galliher's computer — and what they were about to arrest him for having. His hard drive had been wiped clean when investigators got it, but they were able to recall some of the images that had been stored. Why he did it is not nearly as important to investigators as how he got these pictures, and that's what is now at the heart of an international investigation that began one night last November. Police in a small city in western Germany, suspicious that a 40-year-old man was distributing child porn, barged in on him while he was sitting in front his computer, online in his private chat room with 10 other people. Straight out of a script from Law & Order, he turned rat, having been convicted once before of spreading child porn. He confessed that he had launched the chat room, which he called the Round Table, to exchange child porn over the Internet, and that a dozen people from around the world were participating, each using passwords and sophisticated encryption tools to hide from the Web police. In order to remain a part of the group, members had to occasionally provide the others with child pornography photos. He didn't care how they got them, or whether the photos were of kids actually being molested or harmless snapshots that had been altered. He was simply building an archive, though as Detective Superintendent Mick Deats at the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit in London, which arrested two men in the Round Table case, says: “Every image represents a child being abused. They're creating a demand for new images and creating more victims.”

The German man gave police the nicknames used by the others in the Round Table. He didn't know their real names, or that there was a nurse, an artist, a network administrator for a publishing house, or a U.S. Air Force pilot among them. But he knew enough to spark a worldwide probe, called Operation Artus, that would ultimately lead investigators to a gated apartment complex near an Alaskan Air Force base.

“Mr. Galliher was leading a double life with this,” says Steve Skrocki, an assistant U.S. attorney in Anchorage, who says the evidence proves that Galliher was an active member of the Round Table. “While this is extremely unfortunate, and tragic to his family and friends, the investigation results are quite clear. We were left with no doubt in our minds that he was involved in the collection and distribution of child pornography. No doubt.”

If only it were that simple. Because for those who knew Sean Galliher, there is so much doubt.

Sean Parrish Galliher was born on February 18, 1977, at the Boston Hospital for Women to Michelle Susan LaBrecque Galliher, a 24-year-old secretary, and Parrish McLaren Galliher, a 23-year-old research technician. They were living on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston when their first child arrived, and he arrived quickly, almost nine months to the day from their wedding at St. James Church in Stratford, Connecticut. Four years after Sean's birth, his brother, Eric, was born, and two and a half years after that, in August 1983, the Gallihers divorced, blaming “an irretrievable breakdown” of their seven-year marriage, according to court records. Michelle LaBrecque is now a lawyer who practices in South Natick; Parrish Galliher, an executive with Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Both have since remarried. Both declined to comment for this story.

Suddenly faced, at 30, with having to single-handedly raise two boys aged 6 and 2, Michelle threw herself into her career. In 1987, four years after becoming a single mother, and 12 years after she had graduated magna cum laude from Boston University, she earned the same honors from Boston College Law School and went into family law practice, an area with which she was by now intimately familiar. She worked with battered wives and single mothers struggling with questions about child support, visitation rights, and custody agreements. She also took on troubling cases, representing the parents of a comatose woman who gave birth to a premature baby after allegedly being raped in a nursing home, for example.

LaBrecque's own children thrived, taking up photography and learning their way around computers. Sean played the piano and trombone and started singing in choral groups and swimming competitively. By the winter of 1992, he was a sophomore, swimming the 100-meter freestyle for Newton North. “He had a big, broad smile,” remembers Jim Marini, the principal at Newton North back then and now associate superintendent for secondary schools. “He was involved in a lot of school activities — Mr. High School USA.” When the swim season began, the team had a problem: too few divers. Meets are won by combining each team's fastest swim times with the best dives, so a weakness in diving can crush a team's hopes. Jonathan Taqqu, who was also on the swim team, remembers what happened as the need for divers grew. “Sean tried diving,” he says. “There was a need for the team, and he did it. It was indicative of his mentality.”

The two of them spent a lot of time in the water together — as teammates at Newton North and as lifeguards at the little municipal beach on Crystal Lake. He was a lifeguard there and a swim instructor, and he and Taqqu used their computer skills to set up a Crystal Lake Web site. “I remember we'd all sit around on a couch in the lifeguard room, and we just had great laughs,” Taqqu says.

It was also in high school that Galliher and Britt-Anya Bursell became friends. By the time they finished college, they would be engaged. They made no mention of each other under their high school yearbook pictures, however. Under his coat-and-tie photo, Galliher thanked “Mom and the best friends in the world” and quoted one of Stephen King's darkest tomes, The Stand, a book about the destruction of the world's population. It was a curious choice for such a cheerful kid, but it's Bursell's words from Shakespeare that now look eerie: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” From high school, Bursell went to UMass, while Galliher headed off to Syracuse to study mechanical engineering. And pursue a new dream.

Juggling the demands of the Reserve Officer Training Corps with a mechanical engineering workload requires maturity and discipline few 18-year-olds possess, but the leadership skills Galliher sprouted in high school blossomed in college. His major called for a brutal mix of courses, from calculus to thermodynamics to aerospace engineering, but he also found time for a technical writing course, for swing and ballroom dance classes, and to teach local swim teams.

“Sean was a very good student. He worked for the department doing some computer consulting,” remembers Eric Spina, who chaired Syracuse's mechanical, aerospace, and manufacturing engineering department in the late 1990s and is now associate dean of the engineering college. “A standup kid — bright, intelligent, well spoken. He seemed to be a leader among the students.”

It was no different outside of class. As the ROTC officers began reviewing their cadets for grades, leadership, and fitness, Galliher stood out. “He was one of our sharp young cadets,” says Colonel Mark D. Perodeau, commander and professor of aerospace studies for Syracuse's Air Force ROTC unit. Galliher was selected for pilot training, as sure a sign as any of how impressed the Air Force was with his potential, given that only 500 out of 2,000 cadets commissioned each year nationwide are chosen for it.

By joining the military, Galliher was committing not only to a four-year stint after graduating, but also to a lifestyle of conformity and rules, from how to make your bed, store your shoes, and fold your shirt to how to salute an officer. The so-called Air Force Core Values are more than a set of rules: They're a way of life that leaves no room for misinterpretation. “Integrity first,” the code says. “It's the inner voice, the source of self-control, the basis for the trust imperative in today's military.” One line, in particular, speaks to the behavior cadets must show: “It's doing the right thing when nobody's looking.”

Galliher graduated cum laude in 1999 and shipped off to Texas for pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base, where he was like a kid at an amusement park. “Our first major milestone is on June 30,” he wrote on a Web site he ran for his fellow pilots, “when the Air Force tells us what kind of aircraft system we will be flying. Between now and then, formation flight training is the rule of the day. It is probably one of the most challenging skills to learn.” He posted pictures of the planes they'd be flying, describing some as “awesome,” and explained the training in detail: how they'd learn to fly level in bad weather and as little as three feet apart. “The days are long and packed with simulator rides, academic classes, and flights out and around southern Texas, which for those of you in the North, had its first 110-degree day two weeks ago,” he wrote. He was tapped to fly a large four-propeller, tactical cargo plane called the C-130 Hercules, used to drop troops and equipment into war zones or, if necessary, land on isolated dirt strips. And he got his squadron assignment.

Last November, Sean Galliher, a stocky 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, arrived for duty at Elmendorf Air Force Base, a huge installation with 64,000 people. It was by no means the most desirable pick of the lot, surrounded as it is by mountains and vast tundra, but to someone who lived for the outdoors, it was hardly a consolation prize. With no living quarters on the base for single officers — Galliher's fiancée was back in Massachusetts — he found a place 10 minutes away at the Highlands Apartments complex. He set up his new home in apartment J108, including the computer that would allow him to stay in touch with family and friends back home. “He seemed to be well liked in his squadron,” Major John Kennedy at Elmendorf says now. “I was never aware of any problems he had.”

Detective lieutenant John J. McLean rolls his chair up to his Compaq laptop. Time to go hunting. A big-bellied Irish redhead, McLean is a cop whose beat is patrolling cyberspace, and in his dingy second-floor office in downtown Medford, filled with metal desks and file cabinets, the fruits of his efforts are stacked along the walls like stuffed deer heads. A dozen computers line the shelves, all seized as evidence. His laptop beeps loudly, and he taps in a few secret codes before he goes into an Internet relay chat channel, or IRC. These are the back alleys of the Web, where users break out into private rooms on all sorts of subjects — often sex. Experts say the IRC is the most dangerous place on the Internet because it's where kids go to explore and predators go to hunt, and the two inevitably cross paths like Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. What draws adults to kids and sex is still something of a mystery — some call it a disease, others a fetish. But officials are usually less concerned with the why than the how: how the pictures and movies get here and whether the children shown were molested.

“In my experience,” says one investigator on Galliher's case, “motive is different with every suspect. But one thing in common is the gratification they get from the images.”

McLean, who spearheads a regional computer crime unit for northeastern Massachusetts, points out the chat rooms for teen sex, cybersex, preteens, and family sex, before he enters a room called “Cute Asians,” using his undercover name. He begins to peek at the servers of people inside to see the images they've got. The smart ones here have masked their identities — not just their names, but also their service providers, so cops can't track them down so easily. “There's a perceived level of anonymity online,” McLean says. “You're not 100 percent anonymous, but you can be close.”

He's been inside the “Cute Asians” room barely a minute when he strikes up a dialogue with another user.

“Hi,” he writes.

“How are you?” comes the response.

“'Kay. Skipped school. Sick.” McLean wants to sound like a teenager. “Are you from Boston, too?” he writes.

“No, sorry.”



Probably a lie, but who knows. The dialogue dies — anyone who's savvy reveals nothing online — and McLean moves on. It's taken police years to catch up with the cyberworld techies, but now that they have, he says, they have to become more proactive, go out and find the porn and shut it down. Since the early 1990s, pedophiles, child molesters, and sexual deviants have increasingly turned to the computer to find porn. They use film-free digital cameras, CD-ROMs, and cutting-edge digital CD reproduction equipment. That's what Operation Artus involved, and, like many child pornography cases, its roots were in western Europe.

It took five months for the case to unfold, but when it did it happened in a blink. On the evening of March 19, agents in the United States and around the world, from England to Canada, France to Switzerland, Spain to Japan, fanned out with search warrants. Because child porn is international contraband, with the Internet serving as the cargo ship that carries it across the oceans, Interpol led the probe. Forty-six suspects were targeted in 11 countries, including eight in the United States, in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Nevada, Oregon, and Alaska. When the raid was over, 12 computers, 600 CDs, floppy disks, and external drives, 200 videos, one digital camcorder, a book on how to seduce children, and thousands of images of children being sexually abused had been seized. Twelve people were arrested immediately as the warrants were being served.

When they got to Galliher, Skrocki, the assistant U.S. attorney, says, “We asked him if there was anything he wanted to say.” He said nothing, and a few hours later, Anchorage police and the U.S. Attorney's Office were carting away his computer. He was never arrested. “The analysis of his computer left no doubt,” Skrocki says, refusing to elaborate on what specifically was found.

Why would a young man engaged to be married, a highly touted Air Force pilot with an engineering degree, spend his spare time camped in front of his computer sending and receiving pictures of kids having sex? Skrocki answers after a long pause. “The investigation revealed no evidence of hacking or of a third person collecting images.” Courts have sealed details of the closed case because of the broader ongoing porn investigation, but Skrocki says in Galliher's case, as in most child porn cases in his district, investigators did not find an explanation for “why he made this turn.”

“Was he troubled?” Skrocki adds. “Yes, he was.”

No one knew just how troubled.

Word of the investigation spread quickly through the Air Force base and Galliher's apartment complex, and early in the afternoon of March 22, George Crowley, a friend of Galliher's, went over to the Highlands office. Crowley urged Debbie Wilder, the property manager, to go into Galliher's apartment because he hadn't been returning calls. At 2:19 p.m., Wilder found Galliher's body hanging from the bedroom door, a small blue chair tipped over in front of him, the computer cable over his black turtleneck stretched from his neck lengthwise around the door twice and then around both doorknobs three times. An Ace bandage covered his left wrist, and smears of blood were on the toilet, in the sink, and on the floor. He had tried to cut his wrist.

For investigators, the suicide was more frustrating than an acquittal would have been, because death leaves lingering questions. “It's tragic,” says Michael Fleming, a spokesman for U.S. Customs. “None of us in Customs has a sense of relief or satisfaction or anything less than concern for his family.”

The reaction of suicide after being charged with child porn is not unusual, says Parry Aftab of WiredPatrol, which uncovers 600 child porn Web sites each week, some depicting children as young as two, which it reports to authorities. “In the old days, people would plead guilty just to avoid the stigma.” A 1998 case called Operation Wonderland, the largest child porn case to date, saw four suicides in the days after arrests were made in 12 countries.

“The allegation is taboo,” says Michael Netherland, assistant director of the CyberSmuggling Center for U.S. Customs. “These people operate in the shadows. And when this comes to light, it's very stressful and they see suicide as the only way out.”

Since Wonderland, the laws regarding child pornography have changed to eliminate the possibility that police might arrest someone who has only a few images on his computer and might not actually be trafficking in kiddie porn. That's why, Aftab says, she has little doubt that Galliher was doing what authorities suspected when they raided his apartment and took his computer. “There is no way they would have taken on someone in the military unless they were sure he could have been convicted,” she says. But she's quick to add: “You're innocent until proven guilty, and this young man is still innocent and maybe really is innocent. I hope this boy wasn't innocent, but it's so sad that he thought there was no choice.”

When the news got back to Newton, it was talked about only in whispers. No one cared that the Customs CyberSmuggling Center, which since 1992 has arrested more than 1,200 people for child porn-related charges, has never lost a case. They were burying a soldier, a hero who'd come home, and his funeral had all the trimmings — flags, military uniforms, and a flyover by a C-130. The eulogies were warm, recalling Galliher's love of community, the water, his family, and his fiancée. He was remembered for what he did, not what he was accused of doing. But for some, the questions hurt.

“There is definitely a frustration that our fond memories are tainted now,” Jonathan Taqqu says a few weeks after the funeral. “But the fond memories are what I'll remember.”

Jim Marini, the ex-principal at Newton North, doesn't see the sense in trying to understand a dark side he never saw. He talks about the thousands of students he's come to know over the years, who have passed through the halls of his school, graduated, and disappeared. “You never know what happens to people in life,” he says. As for Galliher, he says, “It didn't fit for me, to the point where we don't talk about that. What is that all about? I can say with all honesty, it's about what a great kid he was.”

And Sean Galliher was a great kid, as far as Marini knows. He may just not have known all of him.