By Thomas Fields-Meyer
Updated September 16, 2002 12:00 PM

For Jim McLaughlin, it was a particularly bizarre moment in a career already on the edge of darkness. As a cop who specializes in hunting down sex offenders, McLaughlin was staking out a skateboard park near his office in Keene, N.H., where he had lured a 42-year-old man by posing as a teenager on the Internet. What McLaughlin didn’t realize until the perp showed up that day in 1999, however, was that he had already met his would-be predator, later convicted on child-porn charges, face-to-face. “I know who you are,” said the offender, the former director of a Boy Scout camp where McLaughlin had worked as a counselor. “I wrote you a letter of recommendation when you were looking for a police job.” He added ruefully, “I’m assuming you got the job.”

His assumption was only half the story: McLaughlin, 46, is not only a cop with two decades of experience but also one of the country’s foremost authorities on criminals—both adults and other teens—who seek to sexually exploit children. From his computer 3 at the Keene police station in rural New Hampshire, McLaughlin’s reach is seemingly limitless and always on target. To date he has collected evidence used to prosecute 280 sex offenders in 43 states and 15 countries, and every single one has been convicted. “We have people traveling across jurisdictions and boundaries to molest our children,” says Det. Richard Hunt, a Colorado Springs detective who has worked extensively with McLaughlin. “Jim’s work has been groundbreaking in fighting that crime.”

McLaughlin credits his success as a cybersleuth to thousands of hours spent trolling chat rooms where criminals gather to swap porn and make clandestine contacts with children. When it comes to impersonating vulnerable teens, mostly male but also female, he makes use of an uncanny knack for teenage lingo and behavior patterns. “He knows how to be attractive to predators and when to say no,” says another colleague, Keene psychologist Burt Hollenbeck Jr. “It makes them confident it’s a child they’re talking to.”

McLaughlin’s motivation is simple: the desire to protect kids. It’s an urge that stems in part from his early years as the third of seven children of a corporate manager and onetime mayor of Leominster, Mass., and his homemaker wife. “My family was big on service to community,” he says. “Really big.” Inspired by his parents, McLaughlin joined the Marine Corps, where he served as an MP at Quantico, Va., and investigated his first homicide, the rape and murder of a female captain by a sergeant. “It made me want to research what goes on in the minds of people who commit sex crimes,” he says.

After leaving the service in 1981, McLaughlin turned down police jobs in several cities before accepting one in Keene, which reminded him of his childhood home across the Massachusetts border. In 1983 he attended a program on sex crimes where two child-sex-abuse victims told such harrowing tales that McLaughlin soon decided to change the course of his career: “I was devastated to think their entire lives were compromised by what offenders had done to them.” Determined to fight the exploitation, he went back to school, earning degrees in psychology and criminal justice. He met his future wife, Anna Schierioth, a widowed real estate agent, on a blind date set up by another cop in 1985. McLaughlin married Anna two years later, becoming stepfather to her daughter Zaza, now 17.

Back in 1988, when he became a detective, McLaughlin started pursuing sex offenders largely by mail. One correspondent, an ex-con, bicycled 1,000 miles, from Illinois to Vermont, thinking he was going to meet a teen for sex. “He’d be sending me postcards all along the way,” recalls McLaughlin, who says the man was arrested 15 miles outside Keene. When his wife brought home the family’s first computer in 1995, McLaughlin followed a hunch and logged on to a chat room for youngsters in Keene, presenting himself as a flirtatious teenage girl. “People were sending me airline tickets, cash for bus tickets, sending me cameras to take naked pictures of myself,” he says. “I was never so popular in my life.”

Since then, widespread access to the Internet has only made children more vulnerable, say McLaughlin and his colleagues. Coupled with the disturbing nature of the crimes, that makes for a stressful work life, he admits. “It’s extremely damaging when you talk to someone who is doing damaging things to children,” says McLaughlin, who makes a point of avoiding discussing work while at home. Still, Anna, 45, knows enough to consider her husband one of the good guys. “I’m very proud of him,” she says. “He’s made changes in people’s lives and made people accountable.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Anne Driscoll in Keen