On Feb. 24, 2016, Rio Grande Valley Child Exploitation Taskforce agents descended on a home in Harlingen and ended a nightmare.
During that raid, agents arrested 27-year-old Kevin Kaster, seized the man’s desktop computer and discovered 22 videos of child pornography.
Sadly, that was only the beginning of the heinous crimes investigators uncovered.
As the investigation progressed, authorities learned that Kaster was sexually abusing a close minor relative who lived in the same home, including creating child pornography of the victim that he shared online.
A massive total of three terabytes of child pornography eventually was recovered from Kaster’s computer.
Kaster was charged in federal court for the child pornography and in state district court for sexually assaulting the close minor relative, who was 8 years old when the abuse began, court documents show.
In a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Kaster admitted that he had 985 images of child pornography, including 43 images of the minor relative.
In state district court, Kaster pleaded guilty to indecency with a child and received a 20-year sentence, and to continuing sexual abuse of a minor, receiving a 60-year sentence to prison.
While the sentences add up to 100 years, they will be served concurrently, meaning he could be in his 80s when he’s released.
This is the strategy taken by the Rio Grande Valley Child Exploitation Taskforce to stamp down on crimes against children.
One month before Kaster’s arrest, members of Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office, the Brownsville and Harlingen police departments, the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office and the Brownsville Independent School District Police Department gathered at a news conference to announce the creation of the taskforce.
During the two years that have passed since its inception, the group has reached a remarkable and meaningful achievement: It has rescued 55 children from the hands of sexual predators.
The taskforce’s work is producing results in an era where crimes against children are increasing because of access to cellphones, the internet and social media.
Eddie Hurtado, the HSI supervisory agent in charge, said when he arrived in January of 2015 in the Rio GrandeValley, that there were just three agents working child exploitation cases.
“Every five years our executive associate director in WashingtonD.C. outlines the way forward for investigations. He prioritizes cases. For the last several years, child exploitation … has been one of the top five priorities,” Hurtado said. “When I got here in January of 2015, we had about three agents working child exploitation, which wasn’t in line with those guidelines.”
So Hurtado got to talking with HSI Special Agent Joseph Guy Baker, one of the original investigators in the Rio GrandeValley who worked child exploitation.
Baker investigated disgraced former Pan Am Airways CEO Robert Hedrick, who is serving a 30-year sentence after being convicted of possessing 2,400 images and 18 videos of child pornography that contained 549 known child victims.
Baker told Hurtado that if more agents were available, they could execute search warrants every week.
“That’s when I came up with the concept of the taskforce,” Hurtado said. “I approached (Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz) with the idea and, of course, he was immediately supportive.”
Instead of one investigator and one assistant district attorney, Saenz assigned several assistant district attorneys to prosecute the cases.
Now, the taskforce has nine special agents, seven taskforce officers and numerous investigators.
“And the more and more work that we are doing, the word is getting out and we have agencies actually reaching out to us,” Hurtado said.
Recent new partners include the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Raymondville Police Department and the Texas Department of Family Protective Services.
There is no doubt that taskforce members are hard at work catching predators.
They work online and pose as children trying to catch sexual predators who browse social media to groom kids in order to either try to get children to share nude photos with them, which they then distribute online, or to meet in person.
Members of the taskforce execute search warrants and track IP addresses that have downloaded child porn. They testify in court during hearings and trials. They conduct forensic operations on seized electronics.
But the taskforce also spends a significant amount of time in the Rio GrandeValley, educating children on the dangers that lurk behind the click of a mouse on social media through the iGuardian program.
“It’s a program that brings awareness and education to the dangers and risks of using the internet, and to teach kids, parents, teachers, how to identify the red flags associated with these dangers,” Hurtado said.
And they’ll talk to anyone who sends them an invite.
“We have an hour-long presentation. We have trading cards that we give to the kids. We do it in Spanish and English,” Hurtado said. “On these trading cards, it’s the heroes portrayed as the iGuardians and they’re law enforcement officers, you know, detectives, investigators, and on the back of the card, the card has internet safety tips.”
Hurtado said the taskforce has conducted around 5,000 presentations, which he said is a conservative estimate.
And sometimes, the iGuardian presentation does much more than just educate.
“On a couple occasions we come out and give a presentation, and kids actually come out to us and make an outcry,” Hurtado said. “It empowers them. It gives them the courage to come out and say something.”
While the Rio Grande Valley Child Exploitation Taskforce, and law enforcement across the region, works to stop sexual predators, authorities can’t do it alone, and CameronCounty residents can make a difference.
For instance, on Feb. 19, 43-year-old Harlingen resident Jorge Alberto Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty to 15 counts charged in an indictment that includes charges of continuous sexual abuse of a child and sexual performance of a child, was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
That wouldn’t have been possible without a tip from two concerned citizens.
Saenz, Cameron County District Attorney, said that this case broke when Rodriguez’s roommate and his girlfriend found a seemingly harmless USB drive with which they were unfamiliar on the floor of the trailer in which Rodriguez lived.
One of them put it in their pocket and forgot about it, Saenz said, explaining that later on they plugged it into a computer to see what it contained.
The pair was horrified to find child pornography that included images of one of Rodriguez’s minor relatives, Saenz said. The concerned citizens promptly drove to the Harlingen Police Department and explained what they had found.
Now, Rodriguez, who is not eligible for parole, will be in prison until 2062, and the minor relative won’t be victimized by him anymore, Saenz said.
And CameronCounty residents don’t have to stumble on evidence of a crime to help authorities.
“We’ve been talking about law enforcement, law enforcement, but families also share the responsibility. And I feel like there’s been a deterioration of basic fundamental family responsibility in this component,” Saenz said.
Parents need to be more involved with their children and educate them as to why they should not take nude photos and send them to someone, even if peer pressure around the subject exists, Saenz explained.
“Get involved. Stay involved. I mean, with all due respect, you share some responsibility in this,” Saenz said. “These are your kids. You have to start supervision. You have to lay down the law. It’s a partnership with law enforcement and parents.”
Nonetheless, the Rio Grande Valley Child Exploitation Taskforce will continue its tireless work of tracking down predators online and on the streets, finding them, arresting them and trying to leverage state and federal resources to get the maximum amount possible of prison time for perpetrators.
“Next time you think you’re getting away with something, and that you think you’re talking to a minor, think twice,” Hurtado said. “You could be talking to undercover agents.”