January 10, 2019

Warning: This story contains content some readers may find disturbing.

Rodney Barras thought he was texting with Aurora, a 15-year-old girl who answered his online ad seeking "a young open-minded native girl that could use some extra income."

Aurora was actually a male police officer.

A search warrant application obtained by CBC News reveals how that officer hunted a suspected sex predator by posing as a teenager.

The document contains a transcript of an online conversation between the "girl" and 57-year-old Barras, who was jailed in 2017 after pleading guilty to charges of communicating with someone he thought was a child for the purpose of facilitating a sexual offence and possession of child pornography.

The conversation was part of a larger behavioural pattern for Barras.

Barras first came to CBC's attention in 2015 while running a Regina-based pen pal website for female American inmates called Babes Behind Bars. A CBC investigation discovered that Barras had a history of sexually abusing children in both Canada and the U.S.

Barras subsequently changed his last name to Clarke. However, it appears the high-profile exposure didn't stop him from pursuing children.

Geoff Leo explains his 2015 investigation into Babes Behind Bars, Rodney Barras's former website, and how that led to revelations about Barras's past.

'Absolutely textbook'

A former Regina police officer who used to conduct similar investigations told CBC News that Barras's case is an "absolutely textbook" example of how online predators operate — and should serve as a chilling warning.

Curtis Kemp, who used to conduct online sexual exploitation investigations for the Regina Police Service, said that while many parents warn their children about contact with strangers, online sex predators often work around this by making the child think they are friends.

"[The child] wouldn't consider them a stranger anymore because they will have ingratiated themselves for so long and groomed [the child] for so long," said Kemp.

"Offenders of this type, their patience is absolutely endless — endless. They will groom a young person for days, weeks, months, years."

- Curtis Kemp, former Regina police officer

In the past, parents could serve as gatekeepers to their child's relationships by intercepting phone calls, Kemp said. Now social media has eliminated that "middleman" role.

"There's no filter now," said Kemp. "The solitary access to children is such a scary concept. The fact [is] that once you get inside their silo, you're completely inside them. You're inside their head."

And that transcript of Barras's interaction with the undercover officer demonstrates that approach, he said.

The conversation begins

The search warrant application obtained by CBC News shows that in June 2016, police came across an ad Barras had placed on Craigslist "looking for a young open-minded native girl that could use some extra income on an ongoing basis. Even better if you have a friend to bring along that will join in!"

That kicked off the undercover investigation in which a male RCMP officer posed as a 15-year-old girl named Aurora and responded to the ad.

"Hi… i'm curious but scared as I have never done anything like this before… is 15 ok cause that is how old I am. I'm not native but I am Metis. I hope that is alright," wrote Aurora.

The document contains dozens of emails and text messages that Barras exchanged with the undercover officer.

"I'm looking for a simple arrangement for a young lady to come over now and again and take care of business for me," Barras wrote. "You have complete privacy and discretion as well as safety since it would be at my own home and not in some parked car or hotel room."

Building trust

Over nearly a three-week period, Barras exchanged texts and emails with Aurora. He was using a computer in the basement of a home on College Avenue, in the heart of Regina.

The conversation began with seemingly innocent banter.

"I can not talk to much. I am almost in Saskatoon to see Bieber. Very excited. Can't wait," wrote Aurora.

The next day Barras said: "I hope you had fun at the concert last night. And i hope you won't make me sing "Baby" to you when i want to see you lol."

"Lol. He was awesome," Aurora replied.

A delicate balance

Officers doing this work are walking a tightrope, Kemp said.

On the one hand, they must convincingly portray a teenage girl to a target who is always on guard.

"People that exist within this world, that live in these shadows, are extremely hypervigilant," Kemp said.

When he was doing this work in the early days of the internet, 1999-2005, he said he would have several investigations on the go at the same time. It was not uncommon for a target to get spooked and disappear.

On the other hand, Kemp said, it's crucial that officers let the target lead the conversation in order to avoid the appearance of entrapment.

"The passiveness is important from a jurisprudence point of view, in my opinion," Kemp said. "You want to be solicited."

Kemp compared it to fishing.

"You drop a line in. See if they bite. If you don't get a bite, you change the lure. You put another line in. You try another bait," he said.

Kemp said that during his tenure, he consistently portrayed himself as "14-year-old girl living with my aunt and uncle outside of Regina on a farm. And I was from California and I liked horses and dogs, and those sorts of things."

He called his approach "very successful."

Gentle and patient

On several occasions, Barras asked Aurora for a naked picture of herself.

"Honestly I don't feel comfortable sending it to you yet. I don't even know your name. I think I can trust you cause you sound nice but i'm not there yet," she replied.

"Like everything else honey... Its at your speed. I am anxious to see you of course but i can wait til you're cool with it," he said.

"You feeling safe and comfortable around me has to come first. And vice versa of course."

"In the middle of a conversation, what often will happen is a person who is in a position of trust will drop in a word that might be slightly risqué. So the young person feels like, oh, they're being taken into trust. And that's literally how it will begin."

- Curtis Kemp

Kemp said online sexual predators are typically very gentle and happy to move slow.

"Everything is soft and 'Oh, you know, it's just great to talk to you today,' and then just end the conversation."

He said people who prey on children are typically very strategic and comfortable playing the long game.

"Offenders of this type, their patience is absolutely endless — endless. They will groom a young person for days, weeks, months, years."

'Sprinkling breadcrumbs'

Over the next few days, Barras and Aurora discuss her trip to the lake, her dysfunctional relationship with her family and her frustrations with school.

Barras reveals a bit of his life, too. He tells Aurora he's playing a video game in his basement "man-cave" while lounging in his Homer Simpson underwear.

Aurora jokes: "Haha. I watched that show the other day for the first time. Homer is a stud."

"You know it's true," Barras replied. "You were squirming when [he] was on."

"Squirming?" Aurora asked.

"That's a polite way of saying getting turned on," Barras said.

Kemp says this is an example of Barras "sprinkling breadcrumbs" in order to gauge Aurora's response.

"In the middle of a conversation, what often will happen is a person who is in a position of trust will drop in a word that might be slightly risqué," explained Kemp. "So the young person feels like, oh, they're being taken into trust. And that's literally how it will begin."

He said it's a form of grooming and if the young person doesn't act revolted, the behaviour will escalate.

That's just what happened in Barras's case.

'They think they're in love'

The conversation became increasingly intimate and sexual.

Barras called Aurora "beautiful" and "love" and continued pushing for her to send naked pictures.

He also continued to talk about sexual pleasure, ending the conversation by saying: "Was a pleasure talking to you… msg me tomorrow when you're up. Have the sweetest of dreams."

"Do you have a policy with your children where I have 100 per cent access all the time?"

- Curtis Kemp

Kemp said as part of the grooming process, offenders try to create curiosity and desire in their targets.

He explained this can cause the child to reach out to the offender "because they've been titillated by the older person. They've been awakened and they're interested. The other person has done or [said] something that has awakened their interest."

This deepening relationship can be dangerously deceptive for the child, he said.

"They think they're in love with these people sometimes, because this person is so kind; he knows all the right things to say to make them feel good about themselves."

Barras sends photos

At one point, Barras sent Aurora a photo of a balding muscular male, claiming this was a photo of himself. But in a parenthetical note in the warrant application, the officer says the picture "appears to be 10-15 years younger in age."

Barras again encouraged her to send him naked pictures of herself.

Then he sent a photo of an erect male penis, which he also claimed was him.

Barras was ultimately charged in July 2016.

While it may seem like investigators involved in such cases are acting alone as they build rapport, in reality, they are constantly keeping their superiors in the loop, Kemp said.

"Once you were in deep with a case like this, they would be informally kept aware and kept abreast of this case the whole time," he said.

Additionally, he said, prosecutors would be aware of — and closely monitoring — the investigation.

"When the decision is made that you're going to pursue charges, then the Crown says what is next," he explained.

One year later, in July 2017, Barras was sentenced to 18 months in jail for his offences. He served two-thirds of that time and was released into the community in July 2018. He is on probation and forbidden from having access to the internet, possessing pornography or being in public places where children are present.

Kemp said parents in particular should view this case as a warning.

"Are you keeping good track of what your kids are doing online? Do you have a policy with your children where I have 100 per cent access all the time?" he asked.

His suggestion for parents wondering how to monitor their kids?

"I have your email password and I have your phone password. And that's that."