Milpitas residents Carleen and Robert Thomas found a lucrative way to sell the hardest of hardcorepornography to smut fans all over the country: by computer bulletin board. Then their little Silicon Valley startup attracted the interest of a U.S. Postal S

Naturally, Silicon Valley has become a hothouse for cyberporn operators like Robert Thomas. Thomas grew up in the Bay Area, married his wife Carleen in 1974 and the two have lived in the same Milpitas home since 1976. A high school graduate, Robert Thomas drove a truck for a while and then installed satellite dishes for local homeowners. But surrounded by the culture of Silicon Valley, he soon found himself becoming involved with computers. Noting the explosion in sexually oriented bulletin boards, Thomas launched the Amateur Action Bulletin Board System from his home in February 1991.

The AABBS was a modest venture at first, consisting of only 12 GIFs depicting topless women that users could download. But before long, Thomas was digitally scanning into his system every pornographic image he could find -- many culled from adult magazines -- and posting the GIFs on his bulletin board. Over a three-year period, Thomas personally created an astounding 17,000 adult-oriented GIFs, most accompanied by detailed captions. Not since medieval monks toiled over illuminated manuscripts has so much painstaking hand labor gone into creating and preserving an image.

Of course, the monks of the Middle Ages were transcribing works of theology and philosophy that represent the highest aspirations of a culture. Robert Thomas' works have included GIFs titled "He fucks a pig, she fucks a dog and a huge pig!" "Full screen view! A hairless pussy nailed to a table!" and "She has a tender young body with no tits at all!" that one suspects will not withstand the test of time. But it was descriptions like these that attracted the attention of David Dirmeyer, password SCOURGE.

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Some might find it strange to find the U.S. Postal Service involved in obscenity and pornography cases. But the Postal Service has had a long and curious history as a self-appointed moral watchdog. Perhaps the most zealous anti-porn crusader of all time, Anthony Comstock, was an official agent of the U.S. Post Office. Comstock's Victorian prudery was so easily aroused that 19th-century publishers were forced even to strike the word "pregnant" from their books, replacing it with "enceinte."

Dirmeyer first dialed into the Thomas' adult bulletin board in August 1993, supposedly acting on the complaint of a citizen, identified in court papers as Earl Crawley of Gleason, Tennessee. (The phone company has no listing for an Earl Crawley in Gleason, population 299, nor did a database search of the entire state uncover a phone number for an Earl Crawley. Inspector Dirmeyer did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)

After being greeted by the bulletin board's nasty welcome screen, Dirmeyer began cybersleuthing. Adopting a fictitious name, "Lance White," to go with his smirking password, Dirmeyer signed up for a six-month membership, which at a cost of $55 entitled him to a download of 1.2 megabytes or 90 minutes on the system per day. Robert Thomas called the phone number Dirmeyer listed on his application to confirm that "Lance White" was at least 18 years old -- a common ass-covering move by cyberporn entrepreneurs. According to Dirmeyer's testimony, Thomas left a message on an answering machine saying that White now had full access to the bulletin board.

As a prohibited mailing specialist for the U.S. Postal Service, Dirmeyer's job was to investigate those who use the mails to traffic in obscenity or child porn. In recent years, this also entailed logging onto various computer bulletin boards, in search of possible violations of the law, and then collecting evidence for prosecutions. As Dirmeyer told the court, his duties also included undercover operations in which he mailed kiddie porn to subjects of his investigations.

"The postal department has always investigated obscenity, but why they're getting involved with computers now, I don't know," says attorney Tom Nolan. "I guess it's more interesting than catching people who steal mail."

A lifelong Memphis resident and "a real Sunday-school boy," according to defense attorney Richard Williams, Dirmeyer nevertheless was a thorough navigator of the burgeoning cyberporn world. According to court transcripts, Dirmeyer downloaded some of the raunchiest GIFs from the AABBS, as well as descriptions of the porn videos Thomas was offering. These included tapes described as portraying "tender young teens caught candid at nudist colony" and "topless teenagers of all ages." Dirmeyer sought harder hardcore and placed his first mail order for a Thomas video advertised as "Mother and daughter with dog! Girls shitting and pissing!"

In a letter accompanying his order, Dirmeyer wrote, "I am really excited about AABBS. I think I have some stuff you might be interested in." At this point, Dirmeyer wasn't any more specific about what sort of "stuff" he had. But already, the generous postal inspector was trying to unload his batch of child pornography. In this online game of cat and mouse, the cat held the mouse, and double-clicked it at will.

A few days after the videotape order, Dirmeyer and Thomas met online in the "chat" mode. Dirmeyer expressed a particular interest in teen nudist material, and Thomas obligingly showed the postal inspector how to search the GIFs using keywords such as "teen," "nudist" and "Lolita."

Three weeks into the online investigation, Dirmeyer downloaded a file called ALLVID.ZIP -- a zipped, or compressed, directory of all of the videos offered through AABBS. Included on the list were 42 bestiality flicks, 33 featuring scat or golden showers, and 81 "kinky" videos depicting everything from orgies to gruesome rape and torture scenes to extreme closeups of dildos, vegetables and bottles inserted into a vagina. It was the kinky videos, which Thomas handily coded with a "K" prefix, that Dirmeyer seized on as the motherlode.

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