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Looking for Dr. Albom

NBC's Chris Hansen talks about the investigation into Cambodia's child sex industry, and confronting one American "tourist."
/ Source: NBC News correspondent

It was in the early stages of researching this story nearly a year ago that producer Richard Greenberg showed me some truly alarming videotape he'd obtained from a human rights group called the International Justice Mission. We didn't know it at the time, but that tape would trigger one of the most extensive international searches I'd ever been involved with as a Dateline correspondent.

The videotape, shot with a hidden camera by an IJM investigator, showed a man bragging about how he came to Cambodia to have sex with young girls. He was standing on a dingy street corner in a small village called Svay Pak, which is located about a 20-minute drive from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Svay Pak is one of hundreds of villages in Cambodia that specialize in the child sex trade. Here we would learn that girls as young as five years old and many teenagers were being sold for sex. As hard as that was to comprehend at first, it was even harder to fathom that one of the customers who said he preferred teenagers was a doctor from the United States.

But that's exactly who the man on the videotape was: Dr. Jerry Albom, a radiologist from Oklahoma. Dr. Albom thinks he's talking to another sex tourist as his gives advice to a human rights investigator with the hidden camera. Dr. Albom pulls the man over to a darkened corner and tells him: "Usually I buy out three girls for fifty bucks, Take 'em for the whole night". Then he offers pointers on how a sex tourist should cover his trail: "If you have friends who are educated, who read, ... they may know this place has a reputation. You don't want to implicate yourself in that." Dr. Albom suggests it best to tell the folks at home you're going somewhere else instead: "So you just tell ’em you're going to Bangkok and you come here very discreetly ... and, uh, you just try and — try to keep a low profile. That's all." The doctor admits that one slip can get you into trouble, like the time he snapped a picture of one of the girls here: "And I showed the picture of her to a guy, to a friend in the United States. I got accused of pedophilia." And then, as if to make himself sound like a humanitarian, he says he doesn't go for the youngest of girls; he prefers teenagers: "I mean 15, 16 and older. Maybe a 14-year-old might sneak in if you can't tell the age, but you know I don't take the little, the really little ones."

You can imagine our reaction. It was as if this man were talking about being on a fishing trip and not keeping his catch if it was smaller than the legal limit. But whether he thought of it this way or not, Dr. Albom was really talking about raping children. We knew we had to confront him with the videotape and ask him some questions of our own. This would be no easy task.

We knew Dr. Albom spent a great deal of time in Cambodia, in fact we saw him there several times and got a sense for his routine. He appeared to visit the country at least four times a year. He was a regular at a bar in Phnom Penh called Martini's, which is frequented by prostitutes. By the time we were ready to confront Dr. Albom, we figured Cambodia is where we'd go to do it. But as we were making travel plans to go there again we got an important tip that paid off. Someone who had talked to the doctor told us that he'd just left Cambodia and was heading toward the tiny island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. We quickly shifted gears and on a Sunday afternoon took off from New York for Tokyo and then to Guam, arriving two days later at about 1:30 in the morning. We'd learned that Dr. Albom was on the island substituting for another radiologist in a medical practice. After a few hours sleep and a bit of detective work, we located the doctor's office, pulled into the parking lot and waited to see if he would in fact show up. A few minutes after 8 a.m., we saw him pull into an underground parking garage. We now knew where we'd confront him in 24 hours.

Our cameraman Mitch Wagenberg arrived in Guam that evening. After briefing him, the three of us, jetlagged as we were, tried to get a bit of sleep before we'd talk to the doctor. By dawn we were in position, waiting in a van in the underground parking lot. Right on schedule, shortly after 8 the doctor pulled in. Dr. Albom seemed friendly enough as I approached him and introduced myself. He admitted going to Cambodia, saying he enjoyed the people and the culture. Then I asked him about his involvement with underage prostitutes. He denied knowingly having sex with any woman younger than 18. Unfortunately for him, we had that videotape of him saying otherwise. I played the tape for him. He could not deny it was him on the tape. His excuse now? That he was "drunk or slipped a pill."

Nine hours later we were on a plane heading back to New York. Altogether we spent 36 hours in the air for what ended up being about a 15-minute interview. But a critical interview it was. One we are told the U.S. government is very interested to see as they weigh possible criminal charges against Dr. Albom.