Working off clues from a blurry image of an 11-year-old girl wearing pajamas in the back of a car, federal agents scrambled to find the pedophile who posted the image on the Internet and asked how he should rape the little girl.
Determined Homeland Security agents in Washington, D.C., analyzed the photo for any possible clues that could lead them to the girl's location. Agents were ultimately able to beat the odds and save the girl in an operation they called "Sunflower."
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In a narrow, windowless office outside Washington, DC, Special Agent Jim Cole sits at a bank of computer screens. The room is modest but the technology Cole is using is second to none.
He showed CNN's Freedom Project how Homeland Security Investigations agents chase down child pornographers. The tone in his voice changes when he begins to tell us about the 11-year-old girl and the special case, which the agency has termed "Sunflower."
"This Sunflower series [of photos] was being posted by an individual who was looking for information on how best to rape this little girl and get away with it."
Shockingly, the pedophile actually began getting advice about raping the child.
"The advice he was getting online ranged from drugging her to brutally attacking her," Cole said. "It was progressing so we were extremely concerned for her welfare."
Cole, who has two daughters of his own, explained the blurry highway road sign in the picture provided the first and best clue. And at that, he and his fellow agents got to work.
The sunflower logo on the highway sign led agents to believe the girl was in Kansas, where the sunflower is the state flower.
"We began looking at the road sign. It really looked to most of us like a highway 203, and there was a highway 203 in Kansas, [but] when we got there, got off the plane the agent from Kansas said 'it's not 203, we just drove the whole highway, the sign's not there,'" Cole said.
Racing against the clock, Cole and the other agents started driving down every highway in Kansas that began with the number two.
And then, Bingo.
"At the very end of the highway where it teed into another highway, we found the sign. I jumped out of the vehicle on a very busy highway and almost got hit by a car," the agent recalled.
Cole then involved the local sheriff's department, who actually recognized a swimming pool in another one of the photos.
"They conducted a raid; arresting the suspect before the exploitation could escalate to the point of rape," CNN reports.
When they found the 11-year-old girl, she was still wearing the same pajamas as she was in the photos.
The girl is reportedly safe now and with her parents.
The suspect turned out to be only 16-years-old. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve 48 months in a juvenile facility.
"As satisfying as the arrests in Operation Sunflower have been, today is obviously a day of mixed emotions because this operation is ultimately a tale of the perverse, pervasive and violent exploitation of children - very young children to satisfy the dark pleasures of a group of twisted adults," Former ICE Director John Morton said.
According to CNN, "in the first six months of 2013, HSI agents have rescued 337 child victims, and they've taken 964 alleged child predators off the street."
(H/T: Daily Mail)
Screengrabs from CNN via Daily Mail