Erik Estrada doesn’t just protect and serve in his acting roles. He also does both in his day-to-day life.
Most famous for his role as Frank “Ponch” Poncherello on CHiPs in the 1970s and 1980s, Estrada visited the Front Royal Moose Lodge 829 Chapter 1194 on Monday night to talk about the Safe Surfin’ Foundation.
Moose lodges around the country support the foundation, which teaches children about the dangers of Internet predators.
“To educate is the only way you’re going to save anyone,” Estrada said. “It’s the best thing for prevention. That’s the only way children are not going to be able to be smoked as I say, or had, over the Internet by these very shady, intelligent sexual online predators.”
Raised in Spanish Harlem in New York City, Estrada dreamed of following in the footsteps of his mother’s boyfriend, a police officer whom he idolized.
“I’ve always had the passion to be a cop,” he told the Moose Lodge members.
That vocational passion was put on hiatus at 17 when the romantic passion he felt for a classmate led him to drama club.
But, 10 years ago, he went to police academy in Indiana and became a reserve police officer in Muncie. Several years ago, he heard about the work Sheriff Mike Brown in Bedford County, Va., was doing to fight online child predators.
The men met the next day, and Estrada soon met a young woman who was snatched by an Internet pedophile. A day later, Estrada went to the headquarters of Operation Blue Ridge Thunder, the cyber patrol set up by the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office in 1998, according to the office’s website.
It was there that Estrada was given a shocking glimpse into the realities of childhood sexual abuse.
One of the undercover investigators typed in the characters “4YO” into a computer.
“He says, ‘What’s that?’” Estrada recalled. “And, I don’t know squat. He says, ‘Watch this.’ He clicks a key on his keypad. All of a sudden, the screen starts to fill up with these IP numbers, identification numbers. About five different screens just filling up. It stopped at 457. He says, ‘There, you see that? There you have it. That’s it. Four hundred fifty-seven people want to share 4-year-old child pornography with you right now.’”
The investigator was going to click on one, and Estrada, whose daughter was then only 5 herself, said he didn’t want to see it.
“He just grabbed me by my neck and says, ‘Sit down,’” Estrada said.
The video showed a cute little girl twirling around in a white dress.
“Then, all of a sudden, it’s cut to her being bound and two men are on her,” said Estrada as some women in the audience gasped. “I got up and left the room. I went outside. I lit a cigar. I think I smoked two of them before I went back in. I was a mess. You get very emotional. It will affect you.
“You get enraged, and then you get involved.”
He told Brown he wanted to be active in fighting the scourge of child pornography and abuse.
“I was hooked ever since,” said Estrada. “That’s why I do what I do.”
What he does is promote Safe Surfin’, which provides free educational materials to schools, churches and other organizations. He also has lobbied the General Assembly on behalf of Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces.
Perverts have moved from parks to family living rooms, Estrada said. They groom children and teenagers and then coerce them into meeting them in person, where the child can be grabbed. From there, Estrada said, they take the youngster to a hotel, “strap them to the wall, the floor, rape them for two or three days in a row, and the lucky child is the one that gets murdered.”
Those who survive are often shattered, he said.
Estrada sat down for an interview after his presentation – and after he’d posed for pictures with eager fans, and accepted a check for Safe Surfin’ from the Moose Lodge.
“This is a no-brainer,” he said of fighting child predation. “Once they lose their innocence, they never get it back. People don’t want to hear about it because it’s too ugly. It’s too scary. It’s human nature [to block it out] until it happens to you, until you’re directly affected by a situation like that.
“We got a major problem just in the state of Virginia, but it’s everywhere. It’s everybody’s problem…but people don’t want to believe it.”
The Penn State abuse and cover-up is an example of this.
“That was a sin,” Estrada said emphatically. “They let [Jerry Sandusky] get away with it. They saw it. They knew it, and they let him get away with it. They’re just as guilty by association and by omission.”
It all comes back to education.
“I want the parents to be aware that this is out there,” Estrada said.
He is in a new film, called “Finding Faith,” produced by the Safe Surfin’ Foundation and based on real cases.
Front Royal resident Norma Capps talked to Estrada about the dangers children today face.
“My question to him — how young,” she said. “You think of 13, 16-year-old girls or young boys. You don’t think of infants.”
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or email@example.com