Sunday, July 13, 2003

Stung online, few claim innocence


Some lawyers argue tactics abridge free speech rights

By Sharon Turco, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and David Eck, Enquirer contributor

Marc T. Anthony looked for little girls where little girls play these days: the Internet.

The 34-year-old Newark, Ohio, man struck up a friendship with a 14-year-old Hamilton County girl in an online chat room. They talked about the girl's family, her interests and the gifts he would bring back from Paris.

CONVICTIONS IN HAMILTON COUNTY SOLICITATION STINGS
    Fifteen men have been convicted of sex crimes since January 2002, when Hamilton County sheriff's deputies and Cincinnati police went undercover to catch people soliciting children over the Internet.

Click here to view an Acrobat PDF file (516k) listing the 15 convictions.

Then his e-mails turned sexual. He helped the girl concoct a story to tell her parents why she would be gone overnight. He set a time when they could meet last Oct. 11 at Kenwood Towne Centre.

That's when law officers swept in, arresting Anthony, who was studying to be a priest. The girl was really Rick Sweeney, a sheriff's detective and father of two teen girls.

Good police work, or entrapment of someone who has committed no crime?

That's a growing question as law officers track sexual predators on the Internet, posing as underage girls and, sometimes, boys. In the first 18 months of an online sting in Hamilton County, authorities snared Anthony and 22 others on charges they used computers to make sexual contact with children.

Few have claimed to be innocent here, an Enquirer analysis of the 23 cases shows.

Fifteen of the men have been convicted - and all but two of them pleaded guilty. Seven cases are pending. One man committed suicide in jail awaiting trial. No cases have been dismissed.

Most of the 15 convicted felons are middle-class white men in their 30s and 40s. They had jobs including company vice president, computer technician and Air Force reservist. Some are married, and some are fathers. None had been arrested for a sex crime before in Ohio.

Judges, meanwhile, are putting them behind bars. Thirteen of those convicted were sent to jail or prison for up to three years; two were placed on probation. As required by law, each of the 15 has been designated a "sexually oriented offender," meaning he must register his address with the county where he's living for the next 10 years.

Judges also banned five of the men from using the Internet and forbade four from being alone with children. One of them was barred from being alone with his own daughter.

"There are so many perverts out there, parents need this type of protection for their children," Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen says.

Trolling for pedophiles

A 2001 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that 19 percent of American youth who used the Internet regularly had been the target of an unwanted sexual advance in the previous year. At highest risk were girls, older teens, troubled youth, frequent Internet users and chat room participants.

With those kinds of odds, police say they have to be able to seek offenders on their turf.

People using the Internet to prey on children have a sense that nobody is on patrol, that they're anonymous and can do as they please, says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and a professor of sociology there.

Finkelhor likens Internet stings to community policing, where officers go undercover in high-crime areas to buy drugs, and then arrest those who sold to them.

"Being able to pose as children is an important tool," Finkelhor says.

Local law officers say they're preventing sex predators from hitting on real victims later. These men intended to have sex with children, the law officers say.

Donald Lee Williams, a 44-year-old Arkansas truck driver who was arrested at Old Navy in Kenwood last August, proposed that the victim run away from home, police say.

"He was going to train her on how to take care of a man," Sweeney says. "That's what these guys want to do, train the girls to do things their wives won't do, or what they're afraid to ask their wives to do."

Johnny R. Higgins brought a video camera, Polaroid camera, three pairs of thong panties, condoms and K-Y Jelly to his meeting with what he thought was a 15-year-old girl when he was arrested by detectives in May 2002. He later was sentenced to a year in prison, according to court records.

"Anybody who drives two or three hours and has a box of condoms in the back seat to meet a 13- or 14-year-old girl has one thought in his mind," Cincinnati Police Detective David Ausdenmoore says.

Theoretical victims?

But as arrests of suspected pedophiles pile up - 12 in Hamilton County this year - defense lawyers are starting to question the law that allows officers to pose as children online.

They say there's no crime because there's no victim.

A flurry of motions in pending importuning cases has hit Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, with defense lawyers asking judges to rule on the constitutionality of the law. So far, the judges have said the law should stand.

Marc Anthony's lawyers, Merlyn Shiverdecker and Jack Rubenstein, argued, for instance, that the law makes it a crime to think about having sex with a minor, rights that are protected by the First Amendment.

But Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Fred Nelson disagreed, saying the law was designed to protect children from sexual predators.

Cincinnati defense attorney Lou Sirkin argued the law was unconstitutional in the case of Jeremy Alley. The former police chief of Elmwood Place is accused of using the Internet on his work computer to solicit a 15-year-old girl, who turned out to be a Cincinnati police officer.

The 26-year-old man was arrested at work in April on five charges of importuning. His case is pending.

"In a free society it's very dangerous to try and control thought," says Sirkin, a passionate advocate for free speech. When a detective poses as a teenager, there is no victim, he contends.

"I can't rob a bank if there is no bank," he says.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Norbert Nadel has not ruled in Alley's case.

'These men prey'

It's not hard to find potential offenders. Right now, a special task force of four Hamilton County and Cincinnati detectives is working at least two dozen cases.

Law officers say they're careful to avoid entrapment, or persuading someone to commit a crime he wouldn't otherwise attempt. Officers never begin sexual conversations, they say. They respond only when a supposed teen is approached by a potential pedophile, detectives say.

Simply logging onto common chat rooms with a screen name that sounds as if it belongs to a young girl is enough to generate interest from some potential predators, detectives say.

Some chat rooms with more provocative names like "I like older men" are set up by the offenders, Xenia police Lt. Dan Donahue says. Also, detectives can be online, and they'll be instant-messaged by an offender who is seeking a profile they've created.

Hamilton County officers won't reveal many details about their work, but say that pedophile suspects use similar tactics. In most cases, the men strike up a conversation, questioning girls about their interests and hobbies.

"The girls are insecure, they don't feel loved and these men prey on it," Sweeney says. "They take a lot of time to reinforce that they think the girl is attractive, smart and witty."

Then the men try to undermine a parent's authority, saying the mother or father is being unfair. The men add that they would never act like that.

Eventually a meeting is set up, usually during a phone call. When the suspect shows up at the meeting place, he is arrested.

Sweeney says he always introduces himself as a detective, then says, "But you know me as my screen name ..."

"It's my favorite part of the job," he says. "Their face always goes white."

More teens have access

The problem of child predators online is likely to grow, as more and more children go online every year. In 2000, 41 percent of children ages 2 to 17 had access to the Internet. In 2002, that number had grown to 65 percent, according to research by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

While Hamilton County officers arrested 23 men before a victim was injured, not all children are so lucky.

Two Maysville teenagers were lured to California in March by a man they met in a chat room who promised them adventure, but allegedly wanted to turn them into prostitutes.

Kevin Gibbs, 30, of Fresno, Calif., sent the girls false identification, $300 and bus tickets to California, according to Maysville police. When the girls realized they were in trouble, they called a friend for help.

Gibbs was arrested on charges of furnishing a child for lewd purposes, pimping and pandering. A preliminary hearing in Sunnyvale, Calif., is scheduled for Aug. 13.

Marc Anthony's victim was really an undercover detective. But during sentencing July 2, Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Fred Nelson said Anthony's actions were just as troubling as if the victim were real.

Nelson sentenced Anthony, who was convicted in June on two charges of importuning, to spend 40 days in jail, six months at home on an electronic monitoring unit and five years on probation.

In addition to being designated a sexually oriented offender, Anthony is forbidden from using the Internet, must seek counseling and may not have unsupervised contact with children.

Not in this county

Hamilton County detectives like that kind of sentence. They want men to think twice before heading to Hamilton County for a rendezvous with a teenager.

"We can't take the prey away," Ausdenmoore says. "We can't be a parent to every child that's out there.

"But, by God, we can make Hamilton County a place where the predators don't want to come."

---

E-mail sturco@enquirer.com and daveck@fuse.net




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