updated 12/9/2010 12:48:34 PM ET 2010-12-09T17:48:34

The tragedy of seven-year-old Somer Thompson's 2009 murder was that it didn't have to happen.

Somer's assailant, Jarred Harrell, 24, was in police custody in 2009. The police also had Harrell's computer, which contained child pornography. But investigators hadn't seen the material, which would have kept him locked up. He was released, and on Oct. 19 Harrel abducted the Florida child on her way home from school.

Two days later Somer's body was found in a Georgia landfill.

Now scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, along with local and national collaborators, are working to save the life of the next Somer Thompson.

With the aid of the Jaguar supercomputer, the second most powerful computer in the world, Oak Ridge scientists hope to find child pornography faster than ever and then trace and arrest pedophiles quickly before they abuse or kill more children.

"These guys are on the verge of changing history," said Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children. "There is no tool to interrupt child sexual abuse on a scale like this."

Every year U.S. law enforcement arrests between 2,000 and 3,000 individuals for charges related to child pornography, said Weeks. That's out of an estimated 300,000 people authorities suspect are engaged in this kind of criminal activity.

There is currently technology, developed last year by ORNL's Thomas Potok and Shaun Gleason, that could have helped investigators find the pornography on Harrel's computer, although they didn't have it. Still the new program, called Artemis, after the Greek goddess of the hunt, has helped make a dent in the local population of pedophiles.

When investigators, such as Tom Evans from the Knoxville Police Department, enters a suspect's home, they carry with them a copy of Artemis, which they run on the suspect's computers to find images with flesh-colored pixels, which could be child pornography.

Artemis has already helped the Knoxville Police Department in the roughly 30 child sex crime related arrests it has made this year, said Evans. "It can lead to a quicker prosecution and a quicker arrest," he said.

While Artemis does in seconds what would ordinarily take hours or even days to find, it only works when police have an actual suspect. And finding a suspect is the hard thing to do, according to Michael Teague, a forensic psychologist and retired Director of Psychological Services for the Raleigh Police Department.

Tips from concerned parents, girlfriends and other citizens go a long way to identifying pedophiles, said Teague. But these people often operate in networks, sharing images and video with one another over the Internet. Finding these people, and especially the people producing the images and video, is more difficult. This is how the Jaguar supercomputer can help.

"With the current process, it could take weeks for law enforcement to track someone down," said Robert Patton, a scientist at Oak Ridge who, along with Carlos Rojas, runs the Jaguar and pedophile project. "Right now we could probably do it in a few days. What we want is to do it in a few hours."

What Patton means is that from the time a child pornographer uploads a series of new pictures or video onto a network, the Jaguar supercomputer could find that file, see who has downloaded it, and track it down to an actual physical address source, all in a few hours.

Once police have that information they could raid the home, arrest the pedophile, and, hopefully, save the life of a child.

"The quickness is what would be so important," said Teague.

These criminals have molested and abused a child or children; kidnap or murder is not beyond them, as Somer Thompson's case so tragically illustrated. If a child becomes uncooperative or tries to run away it is easier to kill the child or move than risk being caught.

While Artemis has been running for a while now, Jaguar most likely won't catch pedophiles until the latter end of next year, said Patton. Right now they are running simulations and testing the programs on Jaguar before they use it in the real world. But the investigators hope that soon Jaguar will chase down pedophiles and prevent the death of the next Somer Thompson.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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