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updated 3/4/2008 5:46:33 PM ET 2008-03-04T22:46:33

After James Freeman was vetted and approved for membership in what police describe as a highly sophisticated child porn network, he expressed his appreciation by posting two folders online: one labeled "mild," the other "wild."

"All I can say is that they are worth the download," wrote Freeman, known in the global porn ring as "Mystikal," according to court documents. "My thanks to you and all the others that together make this the greatest group of pedos ever to gather in one place."

Freeman was one of 12 Americans indicted last week in a worldwide investigation that ultimately charged 22 people with participating in the porn ring — and intentionally blocking police from investigating it.

In all, more than 400,000 pictures, video files and other images showing children engaged in sexual behavior were produced, traded and distributed globally in the online pornography ring, according to U.S. and international authorities. The sting, which started in Australia, also netted accused pornographers in England, Canada and Germany.

Some victims were as young as five years old. Others were preyed upon for innocent characteristics such as wearing their hair in pigtails.

Authorities won't say how they eventually broke through several layers of encryption, background checks and other security measures the pornographers used to protect their online user group from being accessed. The porn ring was run like a business, FBI executive assistant director J. Stephen Tidwell said Tuesday, with the lewd images used as currency instead of cash.

"This is beyond a quantum exponential leap for us to see folks that have gone to this much trouble to produce this kind of volume of horrific exploitation of children," Tidwell said in an interview.

So far, authorities have identified and rescued 20 of the children who were exploited, he said, adding: "But with 400,000 (images) we're going to be at this for years, trying got find the victims."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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