Filed at 8:08 p.m. EST
NEW BRITAIN, Conn. (AP) -- Heinz J. Schaefers climbed into the bathtub of his Connecticut apartment, slit his wrists and bled to death on Sept. 6. His world had ended five days earlier, at precisely 10 p.m.
At that hour, federal agents raided the microbiologist's suburban home, seizing computer equipment, floppy disks, CD-ROMs and modems. Similar raids were carried out simultaneously in 31 other U.S. cities and 11 other countries. Authorities had cracked the largest, most sophisticated online child pornography ring yet -- a perverse enterprise called "w0nderland."
Its ranks, described by one official as "its own little sick society, with its own rules," allegedly included Schaefers, one of more than 100 suspects arrested worldwide.
"They are people that you could live next door to," said Jackie Bennett, spokeswoman for Britain's National Crime Squad. “What they've actually been doing is horrendous."
Bennett's investigators, under the auspices of Interpol, coordinated the worldwide sweep dubbed "Operation Cheshire Cat" in the United States and "Operation Cathedral" in the United Kingdom.
Schaefers, a 35-year-old German immigrant who had worked at a Connecticut health center since June 1997, allegedly traded tens of thousands of kiddie porn pictures with his co-conspirators, swapping them like baseball cards. Once the details became public, he opted for death over disgrace.
He didn't die alone. Three other suspected w0nderland members made the same choice within four days of the Sept. 1 raid: a lethal combination of booze and drugs in Maine, a length of hose and an exhaust pipe in Texas, a shotgun blast in Colorado.
The Maine suspect, a retired Air Force pilot, was typing on his computer when authorities burst in. When he died two days later, his pressed uniform hung in the closet, ready for his funeral. A copy of the book ``Final Exit" rested nearby.
"Suicide in these cases is not an unusual event," said Gene Weinschenk, head of the U.S. Customs CyberSmuggling Center. "When the bright light shines on them, many of them want to just blow up their lives."
Less than two months after the raid, those explosions have resonated from coast to coast: the suicides, 10 other U.S. arrests, promising careers ruined for a North Carolina medical student, a Brooklyn law school student, a Georgia teacher.
Charges against another 20 suspects are possible; a ripple effect as forensic experts pore over the suspects' computers could result in charges for the next several years, officials said.
And there are hundreds of anonymous victims who may never be found: the children whose photos were traded by the twisted brotherhood of w0nderland. "Each of those pictures," said Customs spokeswoman Layne Lathram, "is a permanent record of a child being abused."
The members of w0nderland were literally the folks next door:
They hailed from towns like Broken Arrow, Okla.; Skowhegan, Maine; Alpharetta, Ga.; West Orange, N.J. Three of its U.S. members were women. All of its members had at least 10,000 pornographic images of children on their computers, as required for club admission.
w0nderland's name stemmed from "Alice in Wonderland" author Lewis Carroll's reputed penchant for photographing young girls, but this went far beyond that pursuit. Its members shared pornography involving children as young as 18 months.
"The stuff that my offices are having to sift through are horrific," Bennett said. "How people can derive pleasure from that is beyond me."
The group took elaborate measures to hide its obsession, operating with a sophistication never before seen, investigators said.
"They held town hall meetings in cyberspace to vote on membership," Lathram says. "They had this whole perverted little community."
w0nderland existed in the shadowy world of Internet Relay Chat, an unmoderated part of the Internet where people can chat and exchange files anonymously.
For less than $100 a month, w0nderland members apparently bought access to this club and would go online, enter a private chat room and agree to exchange photos. The photos were encrypted with codes from the former Soviet KGB to prevent outsiders from gaining access to them, Wienschenk said.
w0nderland operated in secrecy this way for at least two years, although investigators are unsure when the ring originated.
To join, potential members needed a current member to vouch for them. Candidates had their hard drives searched by the w0nderland hierarchy to verify their cache of kiddie porn. The club had its own pecking order: Producers of new pictures were acclaimed; so were the techies who devised ways to hide the collections of pedophelia.
Police were tipped off to the club's existence by following the electronic trail from a child abuse allegation made in June 1996 in San Jose, Calif.
A mother of a 10-year-old contacted police after her daughter complained she had been molested by Ronald Allen Riva, 38, of Salinas, Calif., at a slumber party for Riva's daughter. He was accused of posing the girl for other members of the Orchid Club, a smaller ring, who watched via live video on the Internet. Riva is serving a life sentence without parole.
When police seized his computer equipment, they discovered three Britons were members of the Orchid Club. U.S. Customs officials tipped off police in Sussex, England, who raided the house of one of the members. Analysis of his computer system revealed the existence of the far larger and more sophisticated w0nderland club.
``Sussex police quickly realized there was no way they could cope with this," said Bennett. ``They then contacted us."
Bennett's National Crime Squad took over, passing information on to police in several other countries. Over five months, from April until the September raid, the National Crime Squad, U.S. Customs and police forces from other countries, states and cities coordinated through Interpol.
The investigation turned up 34 American suspects -- barely one-third of the aliases found on the Brits' computers. Authorities, unwilling to reveal techniques that could be used in future probes, refused to detail how they tracked the suspects.
Search warrants were obtained, and coordinated raids were conducted worldwide Sept. 1, 10 p.m. EDT.
"We had to get it on the same day," Bennett said. "We didn't want these people to wipe their databases."
Some suspects used crude methods to escape the raids. Police hitting a Brooklyn apartment found its resident had torn the hard drive out of his computer with his bare hands.
"There was a gaping hole where the hard drive used to be, and blood everywhere," said a Customs agent.
It was a futile attempt. The hard drive was recovered in a neighboring yard.
In all, 11 people were arrested in Britain; 32 addresses were raided in 22 states in the United States, 18 in Germany, 16 in Italy, eight in Norway; and one or two each in Finland, Belgium, Austria, France, Sweden and Portugal. There were also targets in Australia.
Investigators identified w0nderland members in 33 other countries, Bennett said. But police agencies in some countries did not follow up on the leads provided, and possessing child pornography is not a crime in several others.
After his arrest, Schaefers was put on leave from work. His name, and the allegations, appeared in the local paper. Fellow club members shared his dilemma about their futures; eventually, four of them reached the same deadly conclusion.
In Plano, Texas, an alleged w0nderland member drove to the local Wal-Mart to buy some hose and duct tape. He taped the hose around his car's exhaust pipe, put the other end in his car, and killed himself on Sept. 2. He left a suicide note for his wife, acknowledging his participation in the club, said Weinschenk. His identity remains secret, part of a sealed indictment. In Kennebunk, Maine, retired Air Force pilot Kenneth Nighbert opened a bottle of booze to wash down a fistful of sleeping pills. The 49-year-old man put a plastic bag over his head and died peacefully at home.
In Fort Collins, Colo., Richard B. Thomes, 36, considered the likely charges against him and killed himself with a single shotgun blast on the afternoon of Sept. 6.
"When they're exposed, the reality of how society will view them leads them to choose their paths," said Todd Mitchell of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "In their eyes, it's the only way out."
Officials acknowledge that w0nderland is likely just the tip of a pornographic iceberg. The Internet has at least 19 online discussion groups dedicated to child pornography. They range from erotic stories about adults and children, to arranging trades of photos and some actual uploading of photos.
And that doesn't include the stealth operations, like w0nderland, lurking in cyberspace.
"Child pornography was reduced to a small stream in the 1980s," Weinschenk said. "And then here comes the Internet, and we're looking at the mighty Mississippi."
Arrests in Internet child pornography cases have steadily increased: 48 in 1995, 136 in 1996, 173 in 1997, and 197 so far this year. But authorities got off to a late start. The Customs CyberSmuggling operation only opened a year ago, and authorities acknowledge they are behind.
"There's much more activity than we're aware of," said Glenn Nick, the Customs case agent for w0nderland. "And they are going to get more sophisticated, get hidden deeper."
Mitchell said Customs monitored the traffic in child pornography in the days after the raid was announced and found the raid did little to scare traders away.
"They're rolling the dice and betting they won't get caught," he said.
Weinschenk fears the ranks of active pedophiles may be increasing due to the ease of surfing the Net. "In the 1980s, you had to take the risk of going to a seedy part of town," he said. "Now you can close the door to your den and have access to millions of people willing to trade this stuff."
As for the children, "there are so many pictures -- millions -- that it becomes impossible at a certain point to figure out who they are, or even what country they're from," Weinschenk of U.S. Customs said.
Schaefers, after the raid, actually went on the Internet to spread word of his arrest, Weinschenk said. His non-w0nderland computer friends quickly spurned him, taking away Schaefers' one refuge.
Schaefers was dead for two days before authorities, fearing that he fled the country for his native Germany, found his body in the apartment.
He left no note, no final words. He did leave his computer, and officials hope that may lead them deeper into the world of w0nderland.