2013 Safety, Security and International Affairs

John MacKinnon and the Operation Holitna Team

Rescued more than 167 victims of child pornography and developed new forensic investigatory techniques to track down the predators that abuse them, resulting in 54 arrests since 2010.

Tracking down child pornographers and locating the young victims is like finding a needle in a haystack, but investigators from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have had tremendous success through a combination of innovative forensic technology and old fashioned detective work.

Led by John MacKinnon, an ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) team in Boston has focused on finding and rescuing exploited child victims by closely analyzing lurid photos and videos for even the smallest clues that might point them to the scene of the crime and the perpetrators. They monitor chat room logs, social media and the Internet, and they take advantage of international networks to post information and seek help as part of their inquiries.

The team’s emphasis is placed on first locating the victims, a strategy that has helped lead investigators to the sexual offenders and opened up new avenues to pursue others who produce and trade child pornography and abuse children. Since 2010, the ICE team’s work has led to the identification of 167 child victims and the arrest of 54 individuals internationally and domestically. This success has resulted in the techniques of the Boston group being adopted agency-wide and by fellow law enforcement organizations in the U.S. and abroad.

“Our goal is to find out who the child is and who took the photo,” said MacKinnon.

“We look at background clues in the photos or videos, such as a milk carton or unique carpet pattern or piece of clothing. If we find out where the objects were made, then we can figure out where a particular picture might have been taken.”

A series of significant cases, named Operation Holitna after an Alaska river with many tributaries, began with the examination of a single image of a terrified boy clutching a stuffed animal. The photo had been sent via the Internet to a federal undercover agent in Boston by a Massachusetts man who thought he was communicating with someone who had a sexual interest in babies and toddlers.

The image was shared with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Interpol—the world’s largest international police organization—and law enforcement agencies in 13 countries. A Dutch police investigator recognized the stuffed bunny as Miffy, a familiar character in a series of Dutch children’s books and traced the boy’s orange sweater to a small Amsterdam store that had sold only 20 others like it.

The boy’s photo was broadcast on a national television program in the Netherlands, and within minutes, friends and relatives called the child’s mother. This led Dutch police to arrest a man who previously had cared for the victim. Investigators later determined that the man, who had worked in day care, sexually molested 87 children under his supervision. Photos and online chats found on computers owned by the Dutch and Massachusetts men led to more than three dozen other suspects in seven countries, including Canada, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Mexico.

In another case, the team studied a video of a man molesting a child that had been posted online. They heard a television campaign advertisement for a local city council member from Bakersfield, Calif. in the background and were able to identify the general time and location of the recording. After examining the carpet’s distinct pattern, they found two companies that made the product and one of them confirmed it had been supplied to a motel in Bakersfield. By subpoenaing records from the motel, the team turned up a registered sex offender from Colorado, who eventually confessed.

Bruce Foucart, an HSI special agent in charge, said that as the group’s supervisor, MacKinnon has oversight over all of the child pornography investigations, is trusted by his staff and “keeps everyone working well together.”

“John and his team are established leaders in using forensic technology to identify victims. They are extremely dedicated and professional.”

This medalist was the recipient of the Safety and Law Enforcement Medal, which was combined with the National Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.