Homeland Security Investigations Agent Admits Using Dark Web to Download Child Porn

Homeland Security Investigations Agent Admits Using Dark Web to Download Child Porn

One of two federal agents caught in their agency’s own investigation into users of a dark web child abuse forum pleaded guilty to two different child pornography charges, according to the recently updated court docket.

Richard Nikolai Gratkowski, a former Homeland Security Investigations agent, had been working for Homeland Security Investigations for almost 10 years at the time of his arrest. His area of expertise was gang investigations. Gratkowski, a 40-year-old Texas resident, was arrested in January 2018 after his own agency had sent information about Gratkowski to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even though the man was not involved in Homeland Security Investigations’ dark web cases, investigating one of their own agents would still have been considered a conflict of interest.

The FBI followed up on the information collected by Homeland Security Investigations during one of the more recent operations that targeted the users of multiple dark web child abuse forums. Even though very little information about the actual operation has been revealed with a direct connection to the operation, a number of recent cases linked to a much larger Homeland Security Investigations operation have been adding some pieces of information to the puzzle. As with any ongoing investigation, law enforcement has opted to provide as little information as possible in an effort to preserve the investigation’s integrity.

We do know that this case involved something rarely seen in many of the larger dark web child abuse forum investigations: a forum that required users pay for a membership through Bitcoin. Homeland Security Investigations has been targeting several dark web forums during their 2017 and 2018 investigation. The information available indicates that one of those forums had a “pay-to-play” membership requirement. That forum, investigators revealed, had at least 117,000 illegal pictures and videos depicting “graphic” child abuse. Not only did Homeland Security Investigations discover that one of their agents in Texas—Gratkowski—had been a registered member of the forum, they also learned that another federal agent in Texas had been using the same forum at roughly the same time. The second suspect had, up until the date of his arrest, been working for the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol as a United States Border Patrol (USBP) officer. Paul Casey Whipple of Hondo, Texas, was arrested after content uploaded to the dark web forum was linked back to Whipple. Federal agents arrested him for a more serious production of child pornography charges and he has not yet pleaded guilty or been to trial.

Gratkowski was arrested after the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation division linked payments from the federal agent’s USAA bank account to a cryptocurrency exchange. The defendant had used the exchange to purchase Bitcoin and then sent the Bitcoin either directly to the dark web child abuse forum’s wallet or indirectly through a method that the IRS’ investigators and FBI Special Agents had little difficulty connecting with the bank accounts and cryptocurrency exchange accounts in Gratkowski’s name. During the investigation, they learned that Gratkowski had paid for a different forum account under a different username at some point in 2016. That forum account was connected to additional accounts on two other dark web forums and to a Kik Messenger account used to access private groups for sharing illegal child abuse content.

A federal court heard a testimony about the case from one of the FBI agents involved. FBI Special Agent Larry Baker, in a courtroom in San Antonio, testified that after the FBI had collected enough information to conduct a search warrant, a judge had granted one for Gratkowski’s apartment. Gratkowski had cleaned house weeks beforehand, though. The FBI could not find any illegal content on either of the HSI agent’s iPhones or computer hard drives. The FBI agent pointed out that the devices and hard drives had been forensically erased before he had arrived. Despite the FBI’s lack of evidence that Gratkowski had downloaded child pornography, Special Agent Baker got a full confession from the man. Gratkowski later told them where they could possibly find a recoverable hard drive at a dumpster not too far from where he had been living. On that drive, the FBI Special Agent said, forensic analysts recovered evidence that Gratkowski had saved links to the child porn forums in question but failed to find any child abuse content.

Gratkowski has been in jail since his arrest. He attempted to convince a judge that he had been using the dark web child exploitation forums to find videos of adult women dressed as children and that he was not actually a pedophile. The judge all but laughed at the claim. He has now pleaded guilty to one count of possession of child pornography and one count of accessing child pornography with intent to view.

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