Gila County sheriff's detective Tom Rasmussen is not pleased to receive my call.
"You're going to write about this and blow our cover totally up," he complains.
Yes, I am. Cover tends to disappear when you bust someone for Internet sex crimes, especially if that someone works in a state office building.
I had called Rasmussen to inquire about 27-year-old Keith Daniel Wilkins, a Phoenix man who was arrested November 27. Wilkins, who worked for a state contractor in computer support at the Department of Administration, thought he was en route to Globe to meet Tiffany, a 13-year-old girl he had been wooing on the Internet.
But Tiffany was really Rasmussen, a paunchy father of five and lifetime Globe resident.
"This was an Internet sting," Rasmussen says, and his alter-ego, Tiffany, had more potential vultures on the line. Publicity might scare them off.
I file a public records request to see the investigative materials. The next day, I go to Globe to talk with Rasmussen and retrieve the documents. Turn at the Circle K, drive down a pocked, undulating asphalt lane that dips through a wash. I find him in a windlowless office in a building adjacent to the Gila County Jail.
Resigned that his genie is out of the bottle, Rasmussen grows garrulous, perhaps flattered that someone is taking an interest in his work. His palaver reveals him as a man with a mission: to find and punish those who use the Internet to violate and exploit children.
"There are not many other crimes that will supercede child victimization and exploitation," he says.
That's true enough, but is it a significant threat in Globe, Arizona? Is it appropriate for a law enforcement agency with limited resources -- only four detectives -- to troll cyberspace and reel in (some might claim entrap) far-flung perverts?
"My job is to investigate and hopefully have pedophiles and child pornographers prosecuted. I could care less where they're from. There is a world outside Gila County."
Rasmussen sees no irony in the fact that his zeal has brought an unsavory character from the world outside Gila County into his bucolic community.
Keith Daniel Wilkins sits in a tiny room in orange jail garb. He is handcuffed. He wears fashionable glasses with tinted lenses. He speaks well enough, would seem to be of average intelligence, perhaps above average. His left arm is covered with tattoos, which he claims to have drawn himself. Whoever inked them is quite good.
Wilkins was raised by his grandparents. His parents divorced when he was 5, and both live out of state. He's had scrapes with the law before, "a variety of things." One of his friends jacked a car. "I was 18 and stupid," he says.
He's been working for a state contractor as a computer technician for about a year. He'd hoped to get hired directly by the state, but that aspiration has been dashed. Rasmussen has served a search warrant at the Department of Administration, and has seized Wilkins' work computer. The contractor has fired him.
Wilkins is married and has a young child, but he is hardly a traditional husband. In one Internet profile, he tells the world that he has "a nice thick 8-inch cock. Looking for couples and females to join me and my wife in some sexual adventures . . . and friendship."
On another Web page, he has posted a portrait of him, his attractive young wife and their handsome son. It would seem to be a picture of domestic bliss.
He calls his predicament "ridiculous." He claims he didn't know that Tiffany was 13, though he admitted to Rasmussen that he did review her profile, which clearly states her age. Wilkins tells me he was chatting with other women at the time he was communicating with Tiffany, and he mistook her for a woman of age.
"I figured she was 18, 19," Wilkins says.
He says he and Tiffany "talked about everything from going to the movies, to my wife and sexual things, but it's the same conversation I have with everybody that I talk to on the Internet. I mean, there's nothing wrong with talking about those things. I have with a lot of people and I've never been arrested for it."
Gila County alleges that Wilkins tried to act on "those things." Prosecutors have accused him of one count of second-degree attempted child molestation, one count of sexual exploitation of a minor under 15 and four counts of attempting to furnish obscene or harmful items to a minor. All are felonies. He originally was charged with nearly 100 counts and had his bail set at $2.85 million. When Gila County prosecutors winnowed down the charges, his bail was reduced to $200,000. He isn't sure when, or if, he'll be out of jail, where he is in lockdown 23 hours a day.
"If I have to pay $20,000 to get out of jail by Christmas and put my son's first bike together, you know, I mean, that's priceless," he says.
I suppose it's possible to have tender Yuletide thoughts of your son and still lust after pubescent girls, but I can't help but note the incongruity.
Wilkins grasps my point. "People look at porn," he says. "They wouldn't have adult bookstores, they would not have Castle Boutique . . . if nobody ever bought any of it.
"Sure, that doesn't tie into being around the Christmas tree, but that's personal. That's my private life."
He hastens to add that he's not involved in child pornography, something that the investigative record bears out. Little else that he says does check out.
He tells me none of his correspondence with Tiffany occurred on state time or a state computer. In his chat exchanges with Tiffany, he makes repeated references to being at work, his boss interrupting their discourse.
He tells me he was arrested on Seventh Street in Phoenix on his way to work, not in Gila County.
That's a fabrication.
Detective Rasmussen says Wilkins "whispered" to Tiffany -- sent her a message invisible to others in their chat room -- not long after Tiffany appeared online. Rasmussen e-mailed Wilkins all-American images of a real 13-year-old girl -- he won't identify the girl in the photos, which bear a patina of age.
When Wilkins offered to send Tiffany nude images of himself, she replied: "sure send them to me. I cant wait to see them."
Wilkins deluged her with nearly 100 pornographic images, including several of himself, and of him and his wife engaged in a sex act. Tiffany responded that the images were "cool."
Tiffany played the coy but curious ingénue bored with small-town life. She never wrote that she wanted to have sex, but she didn't discourage Wilkins when he told her, in graphic terms, what he wanted to do with her. For example, when she asked him his intentions, he replied, "Lick your pussy and make you cum on my tongue."
Tiffany asked him to describe his fantasies, and Wilkins replied, "being with a girl your age is one of them . . . teaching you stuff." During another chat, he tells her, "I don't mind your age."
Wilkins asked for Tiffany's phone number. She put him off by explaining that her family has caller ID, and her mother would find out. When he persisted in speaking with Tiffany, Rasmussen had a young woman posing as Tiffany call Wilkins at work.
Wilkins offered to drive to Globe and meet Tiffany, then backed off because he would have difficulty explaining to his wife where all the gasoline went. So he and Tiffany agreed to meet at a highway pullout between Superior and Miami. She was to get a ride there with a friend.
Wilkins knew he was treading on dangerous ground, writing to Tiffany: "I just hope you really arent like a 40 year old cop or something."
He was close. Rasmussen is 36.
It's fitting that the apprehension of Keith Wilkins took on a Keystone Kops, which-way-did-they-go air.
Rasmussen deployed three cars. One detective was parked on U.S. 60 at Superior to watch for Wilkins' car, a blue Honda Accord. Two deputies were posted east of a place called "Top of the World," where Tiffany and Wilkins were to meet.
Rasmussen and fellow detective Chad Chesley were "rovers" along the highway, riding in Rasmussen's unmarked Jeep, which is equipped with a siren and emergency lights in the grille.
At about 7:30 a.m. on November 27, Chesley reported, he and Rasmussen saw a blue Accord containing a lone male heading east on U.S. 60 toward Globe. They followed, but were "quite a ways back and behind other traffic." Suddenly, the Accord passed them going westbound, back toward Phoenix. The startled detectives turned around but again passed by the car, which had by then parked in a pullout. The officers turned around yet again and pulled into the highway pullout. Wilkins took off westbound, and Rasmussen followed, activating his lights and siren.
Though he did not attempt to flee, Wilkins did not pull over for seven or eight miles. He drove right through Superior with the officers in pursuit.
Wilkins claims he did not pull over because of Rasmussen's unmarked vehicle. He wasn't sure they were real cops. He dialed 911 on his cell phone and was told that legitimate police offers were pursuing him. He stopped and was taken into custody at gunpoint.
When Rasmussen questioned Wilkins at the sheriff's office, he asked the suspect what he was thinking during the legal-speed pursuit.
"Tell me this is not happening," Wilkins responded.
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If Rasmussen has his way, it will be happening to more potential cyber-molesters.
"If law enforcement agencies do not get involved in investigation of crimes on computers, they are going to be left in the dust," the detective avers.
And Wilkins' advice?
"Be wise and be knowledgeable of who you're talking to on the Internet. And what you're talking about." View the chat session...