Sunday, March 15, 2009

Boca Raton database entrepreneur turns his attention from terrorists to pedophiles

By JEFF OSTROWSKI

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Saturday, March 14, 2009

BOCA RATON — The details are too hideous to believe: An Alabama woman arranges to have her 7-year-old relative and another child raped by a pedophile.

She even drugs the children so they won't resist.

The woman, a former teacher, is caught only because a high-powered team of pedophile hunters based in Boca Raton discovers that she is distributing child pornography online. Police set up a sting that results in the arrests of the woman and the man whom she summoned to her home.

That January bust is just one of dozens throughout the country credited to data guru Hank Asher's latest venture, the cryptically named TLFO. Asher made hundreds of millions of dollars by founding two Boca Raton companies, Database Technologies and Seisint, and later selling his stakes in them.

Now Asher says he plans to spend half a billion dollars, including $200 million of his own cash, to build the world's most powerful computer, one that will string together 100,000 potent servers and will be housed in a 25,000-square-foot bunker at the birthplace of the personal computer in Boca Raton.

Asher is cagey about the business plan for all that horsepower, but he's eager to describe one of the computer's functions: Tracking down pedophiles who rape and sometimes kill infants, toddlers and children.

Because he does not want to alert his prey, Asher is vague about exactly how he unearths child predators. He says, though, that pedophiles have found a safe haven on the Web.

"At one point, we were gaining ground on these guys," he said. "In the last five years, this has gone epidemic, and it's because of the Internet. Now I'm going to make their best friend into their worst nightmare."

'A paycheck for the soul'

Asher is a 57-year-old motormouth who favors pink polo shirts, enjoys smoking the tires of his souped-up black Mercedes and imagines that God is a black woman.

He has proved he knows how to find criminals. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Seisint developed software that identified terrorists. His work also led to the arrests of the Beltway snipers who killed 10 people in the Washington area in 2002.

"The systems we made were for terrorists, but they work for pedophiles," he said.

Asher's story is an unlikely one. A self-described Indiana farm boy who dropped out of high school ("I wasn't exactly a dropout - I ran out," he said), he moved to Fort Lauderdale in the early 1970s and ran a successful firm that painted high-rise buildings.

His late-blooming skill with data made him truly wealthy. He owned 40 percent of Seisint in 2004, when it was sold to British publishing giant Reed Elsevier for $775 million and became part of LexisNexis.

"I really thought I'd wind up on a 200-foot yacht down in the South Pacific," Asher said. "But I decided to go back to work."

In 1993, he donated his database software to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The first time his creation helped rescue a child from a predator, Asher says, he felt like he was cashing "a paycheck for the soul."

Since then, he has immersed himself in the underworld of child predators. It's a subculture in which pedophiles trade not only ghastly images of children being raped but also instructional videos such as cartoons designed to teach young children that sex with adults is normal.

Asher says he wants to catch "the worst of the worst," men who rape infants, toddlers and young children.

He has assembled an impressive team of pedophile hunters, including former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, former Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore, the recently retired sheriff of Collier County and a former Wyoming police officer who's an expert on pedophilia.

Running TLFO is Ken Hunter, a steely-eyed former chief postal inspector who has been tracking pedophiles for 40 years. A decade ago, the U.S. Postal Service had tightened the clamps on child porn.

"Along came the Internet, and everything went to hell," Hunter said. "It used to be a pedophile knew they were weird. Today there's so much of it out there that it seems normal."

Erin Runnion, whose 5-year-old daughter was raped and killed in Southern California in 2002, was a recent guest of Asher's at the Boca bunker. She says Asher's work already is protecting children.

"It really is revolutionary," Runnion said. "There's no way you can tell by looking at somebody that they're a pedophile. But you can look on their hard drive and see that there's child porn."

Acronym for 'The Last One'

Asher is spending big money on real estate. In anticipation of hiring hundreds of employees, he leased 143,000 square feet late last year at the former IBM headquarters, now known as Boca Corporate Center. He took an option to lease an additional 500,000 square feet there.

If he exercises the option, he'll have the equivalent of a small shopping mall filled with computers and workers. He says he aims to hire 5,000 people at his company, TLFO.

The name is an acronym for "The Last One." (Asher, who drops F-bombs with aplomb, doesn't mention what the "F" stands for.)

After founding Database Technologies and Seisint, he says, he does not want to start another company after this one.

Asher has vowed not to charge police for helping catch child molesters, so hunting these predators won't cover the costs of real estate, servers and employees. He won't discuss his business plan, except to say that he may sell background checks to employers who hire workers who come in contact with children.

His reticence owes to the noncompeting agreement he signed with Reed Elsevier when he sold Seisint. His Web site, www.tlfo.com, counts down the hundredths of seconds until that noncompeting agreement ends this year.

"I'm sure there will be commercial applications," Asher said.

"I'm going for the gusto," he added. "I don't want to check out of this planet without building the world's most valuable company."

'You don't mess with kids'

In the meantime, Asher has courted the support of parents of slain and abused children.

Last month, he flew the parents of two dozen murdered, kidnapped or otherwise abused children to South Florida and put them up for a weekend at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Then he flew them to Washington to talk to lawmakers and federal officials.

The guest list was a who's who of heartbroken parents. John Walsh, the father of Adam Walsh and host of television's America's Most Wanted, was there. So were the parents of Jessica Lunsford and Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted as a teenager and forced to play the wife of a deranged bigamist.

An animated Asher led parents on a tour of his cavernous facility in Boca Raton. Workers had installed new carpet and renovated the bathrooms, but the furniture had not arrived, and construction of the server room was just beginning. He described how the floor of the bunker would be raised to guard against flooding and said he'll have a backup data center in Alpharetta, Ga.

He conducted the tour with the timing of a stand-up comic. He mimicked Moore's Mississippi accent and chided Butterworth for sweet-talking Boca Raton building officials after Asher had irritated them. But when the topic turned to predators, he grew serious.

"The rules are you don't mess with kids," Asher told his audience.

Ed Smart, Elizabeth's father, lauded Asher for investing in what he considers a forgotten cause.

"We so desperately wanted to see the Internet crimes being taken seriously," Smart said. "Crime against children does not get the attention it deserves."

Butterworth, who stepped down last year as head of the Florida Department of Children and Families, says he joined Asher's team in part because sexual abuse is rampant in foster care.

"The public does not realize how severe this problem is," Butterworth said.

He hopes TLFO can build a database that will let teachers, police officers and caseworkers see more information about children who are victims of sexual abuse. Now a police officer or teacher who suspects abuse has no way of knowing what others have learned about the child's problems

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