Je≠co DA disbands child sex o≠ender net unit in wake of complaint
A husband-and-wife team who developed a child sex offender internet investigations unit that helped arrest and convict more than 900 offenders over the past decade will stop their probes.
Mike and Cassandra Harris, both certified law enforcement officers, work for the Jefferson County district attorney’s office, where they developed the Child Sex Offender Internet Investigations Unit, which became known as Cheezo.
A grievance — filed by defense attorney Phil Cherner — with the Colorado Supreme Court Standing Committee on the Rules of Professional Conduct about the Cheezo operation led to the unit being disbanded.
At issue are ethics rules for Colorado lawyers that state an attorney shall not lie, deceive or engage in subterfuge. The subterfuge rule applies to any employee of a lawyer’s office, according to state ethical guidelines.
“This unit, housed in my office, was extraordinarily independent,” said Jefferson County District Attorney Pete Weir, who Friday announced the unit was closing. “They are sworn law enforcement officers.”
The Harris couple, and another investigator, pose as children online and engage with adults who propose or solicit sex acts.
Under Colorado law, deputies and officers can lie during investigative pursuits. Lawyers, however, cannot.
If the investigators worked for a sheriff ’s office or police department, there wouldn’t be an issue, Weir said.
“It’s just the fact that they get paid by us,” Weir said.
In response to the grievance, Weir engaged the rules committee and they agreed that the Cheezo unit will stop the online investigations, which included the investigators misrepresenting their true identities.
“By their admission today, that they had to close the unit, they admitted to breaking the rules,” Cherner said. “They were breaking the rules of professional conduct lawyers are sworn to follow.”
Cherner represented Carlos Silva-Rayas, 35, who was convicted in 2012 on two felony counts of criminal attempted sexual exploitation of a child. His arrest and conviction were based on work by the Cheezo unit. Silva-Rayas appealed the conviction but was denied.
Cherner filed the grievance with the rules committee about a year ago.
The Cheezo investigation was carried out “with the full knowledge and support of the hierarchy” of the district attorney’s office, Cherner said.
“Colorado has made it very clear (that) lawyers can’t lie,” Cherner said. “It was done with their full knowledge and support. It was hardly an accident.”
On Friday, Weir said the Cheezo unit, which also does community outreach, including talking with children about the internet and safe practices, will not be disbanded. Over the years, the Cheezo program has presented its “stranger danger” internet safety program to thousands of Colorado children.
Weir said he’ll look into the possibility having the unit revive its investigative operations.
“We are going to be taking steps,” he said, “to see if we can get this matter back before the rules committee.”
The Child Sex Offender Internet Investigations Unit, headed by senior investigator Mike Harris, right, was disbanded due to a rules complaint. The program used a mascot, Cheezo, to help educate children. Denver Post file