Justin Berry was a 13-year-old child with the typical problems kids deal with at that age. He wasn't very popular and was trying to find somewhere to fit in. He eventually found his place through the Internet. But Berry would take a journey that, in his words, was full of corruption and shame.
Berry told his story to lawmakers in a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill on the sexual exploitation of children over the Internet. He came with a warning.
"My experience is not as isolated as you might hope," Berry told the House committee.
"This is not, as so many want to believe, the story of a few bad kids whose parents paid no attention. There are hundreds of kids in the United States alone who are right now wrapped up in this horror."
Berry, now 19 years old, speaks of that horror from personal experience.
Berry was 13 when he received a free webcam as a gift for joining Earthlink, an Internet service provider. He placed his image online in the hopes of attracting friends, maybe even a girlfriend. He didn't have much luck, but within minutes of posting his image he received a response from an older man. Then another man. And then another.
At first Berry saw nothing wrong with communicating with these older men. He relished the attention. The men lavished Berry with praise for his "good looks" and even started sending him presents. This communication began a five-year cycle in which Berry would be molested and coerced into performing sex acts in front of the webcam. At first, Berry was offered $50 to take off his shirt. It quickly escalated beyond any parent's imagination.
"I was paid by more than 1,000 men to strip naked, masturbate and even have sex with female prostitutes while on camera," said Berry.
Over the next five years, Berry was also offered trips by predators who had watched him through his webcam and then arranged meetings in person.
Berry testified that a man named Ken Gourlay tricked Berry and his mother into sending the teen to a computer camp in Michigan. Once at the camp, Berry testified, Gourlay picked him up and took Berry to his home, where Gourlay molested Berry for what Berry said was the first of many times.
Gourlay was sworn in to testify but declined to answer any questions, citing his Fifth Amendment rights.
Damaging Kids 'For Years to Come'
Dr. Sharon Cooper, a forensic pediatrician and adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told committee members that the children exploited often are having an emotional void filled by all the attention. But the exploitation actually damages the children for years to come.
"Child pornography constitutes insult to injury to a victim," said Cooper.
"The injury is child sexual abuse. The insult is the memorialization of that child's sexual abuse for time untold. It is very important for us to recognize that child pornography is a phenomenon that we must pay close attention to and seek to eradicate."
There clearly is a huge market for adults seeking images of child sexual abuse. According to congressional sources, in 2004 the global commercial revenue for selling music online was $3 billion. Sales of child sexual abuse images in the same year totaled an estimated $20 billion.
Berry's testimony was meant as a wake-up call for parents and law enforcement. Right now, Berry says the predators have the upper hand.
"They have little fear as law enforcement efforts to prosecute these people are, based on my case, riddled with mistakes and bureaucracy," he told lawmakers.
Unless something changes, the child predators will win often enough that dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of children will be lost forever."