PORTSMOUTH — There’s one member of the New Hampshire Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force with a nose for sniffing out electronic devices used to exploit the young and innocent.
Who is this formidable weapon in the battle against child exploitation in the Granite State? For starters, he’s got a good nose, walks on all fours, and his work is based in Portsmouth.
Meet Niko, a nearly 3-year-old, 65-pound yellow lab, the state’s first ICAC electronic storage detection K-9. Brought along to aid in searches across New Hampshire inside homes where there are suspected child sex abuse images and sexual abuse perpetrators, Niko and dogs trained like him are able to detect storage devices like cell phones, computers, flash drives, hard drives, secure digital (SD) cards and micro SD cards.
NH’s only electronics-sniffing dog can find hidden storage devices
Portsmouth Police Department Capt. John Peracchi, the former New Hampshire ICAC commander, said Niko used to conduct his work after his human counterparts would sweep a residence or building for possible storage devices, sometimes tucked away in spots invisible to the naked eye or disguised in items like a pack of gum.
On numerous occasions, Niko has been able to spot storage devices human Task Force members hadn’t found, some of which were later found to contain copious amounts of child exploitation and pornographic material. “It’s to the point now if we go to a house and they’ve finished a room, you don’t want to be the officer who searched the room first, because he will show you up,” Peracchi said of Niko.
The Portsmouth Police Department manages the agency, which is funded through a grant from the United States Department of Justice, and city police department Lt. Eric Kinsman is the current commander of the state ICAC. He explained the program is sent to various spots around the state to assist local law enforcement agencies in child exploitation cases. and the majority of tips given to the 61 ICAC agencies across America come from the Virginia-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Electronic service providers such as Verizon and AT&T, and all social media and phone applications, like Snapchat and TikTok, are federally required to report images, videos and electronic material that remotely resemble child sexual abuse, which is filtered through to the NCMEC. From there, NCMEC analysts will view the report and the Internet Protocol address of the suspect, the recipient or where the files in question were uploaded from, and will reach out to the appropriate ICAC Task Force.
Depending on the nature of the case, sometimes the state ICAC will be deployed. And when it is, that’s when Niko and his incredible sniffing ability come into the picture.
Deputy Matt Fleming of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Niko’s handler, said that Niko is the state’s only Electronic Storage Detection K-9, and just one of 59 dogs in the country with his level of training.
Niko was trained and purchased with the state ICAC’s grant from Jordan Detection K-9, an Indiana business specializing in training dogs to hunt for electronic storage devices. One such K-9 named Bear, who was trained by the business, made crucial discoveries during the extensive search of former Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle’s Indiana home in 2015, which ultimately led to his conviction for child pornography.
Since his career began in May 2020, Niko has been deployed on 104 different occasions to homes across New Hampshire, many of which led to child rescues from situations where they were sexually abused.
Trained in comfort therapy, Niko helps children and investigators
It’s not uncommon for Fleming and Niko to conduct several searches a week, sometimes while affected minors are still on the premises. “The houses we go into, many times, have children in them. So, once we’re done doing his work, we can then allow him to interact with children because his demeanor is such that it’s not a concern,” Fleming said. “And, you know, there’s nothing better than having a dog be there to interact with children who are going through one of the worst days, if not the worst day in their life.”
Niko’s ability to uplift spirits isn’t only limited to those impacted by crime. Fleming will sometimes bring him into the offices of investigators assigned to search warrants. As they review the contents of the recovered electronic storage devices, in some instances viewing harrowing footage or images, Niko will approach them, sensing their exasperation, and rest his head in their laps.
At Jordan Detection K-9, Niko was also trained in comfort therapy. “It has an incredible impact in terms of wellness,” Kinsman said of his visits. “It’s not uncommon to see Niko walk up to an examiner and kind of nudge him on the lap a little bit. They can break free from the computer, they can wrestle him on the ground, they can walk around with him, take him for a walk. To have that mental relief for those examiners is important. It’s huge.”
In the back of a Portsmouth Police Department conference room on Friday morning, unbeknownst to Niko, Fleming had set up a small course to highlight the dog’s ability to track odors and locate electronic storage devices.
With the simple command, “Let’s go to work” repeated by Fleming a few times, Niko snapped to attention, walking with his handler toward the back of the room. Fleming instructed him to begin working, and Niko walked back and forth the width of the back of the conference room, smelling the surroundings for possible devices.
As Fleming repeatedly told the K-9 to “seek,” Niko sat down in certain areas a few times and gazed back up at his handler. “Show me,” Fleming would say, and the dog would lurch toward the spot where he’d been sniffing.
Tucked away in the exercise were three flash drives, which could each hold hundreds, if not thousands, of child exploitation images, and Niko found them within a matter of seconds. “Go be a dog,” Fleming said to Niko after his discoveries, and the pooch happily bounded off toward a pink chew toy across the room, then received congratulatory head scratches and belly rubs.
K-9 Niko’s accomplishments
Niko is, literally, one of the top dogs in the country, as far as electronic storage device location goes, Fleming said, because he’s performed more search warrants than any other K-9 in America in the shortest period of time.
“Which is quite an honor, but also sad at the same time,” he added.
Without disclosing too many details as to the nature of the ongoing case, Fleming said Niko was brought to a western New Hampshire residence for a search warrant, where he located a container that had a laptop buried in it. On that computer, upon examination, there were over 28,000 videos of child exploitation recovered.
A few months ago, as part of a statewide investigation, Niko sniffed out a cell phone that was in a drawer, one which had over 100 videos of child exploitation on it. In another search, he found a hidden camera being used by a parent for the same criminal purposes.
Though funded by the Department of Justice grant, purchasing and training Niko last year cost the New Hampshire ICAC $11,000.
“We said, ‘Well, if we save one kid, then it was worth the $11,000,’” Fleming said. “And we’ve done that time and time again, we’ve done that many times already. And for us it’s been absolutely fantastic what we’ve done with him and also what he’s done for the state of New Hampshire. He’s really quite a hero for the state.”