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Sexual Predators See Little Lisk On Internet


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Carl Hessler Jr., chessler@pottsmerc.com 05/02/2005

Pottstown Mercury

NORRISTOWN -- The Internet has emerged as a tangled web of seduction and dirty deeds, changing criminal trends forever.

One only needs to study Montgomery County’s court dockets to see there are many people getting caught on the Net.

"The Internet has taken the place of the dirty old man in the trench coat hanging out in the school yard. Before the Internet, the predator was at risk because he had to go out in the public to prey on kids," said District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr.

"But the Internet has taken away that danger, at least in the minds of the predators, and they can solicit hundreds or thousands of kids, and the law of averages is on their side that they’ll get one."

Castor created the county’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force four years ago to address the latest trend of people trolling the dirty back alleys of the Internet to solicit sex from children.

"I saw the explosion of the Internet. Since 1985, I saw a lot of changes in technology, and we have to be able to adjust with them," said Castor.

Castor believes such task force investigations are critical because detectives can nab a predator before that predator actually harms a child. The task force operations also may serve as a deterrent and a warning to child molesters.

More than three dozen men are either awaiting trial or have been convicted of such crimes in the county.

With guilty verdicts like the one this month against former Warminster police officer John Powell, juries have signaled support for sting operations that target such offenders, whom prosecutors call "Internet travelers" because they’re arrested when they travel to a location to meet their prey.

Veteran defense lawyer Jack McMahon said taking on such cases can be extraordinarily difficult.

"It’s almost like going in with two strikes and Nolan Ryan as the pitcher, in some ways, because you’re dealing with children. It’s a very emotional issue, the protection of children, and it’s hard to sway people that way," McMahon said recently after his client, Powell, was convicted of charges that he used the Internet to attempt to set up a sexual tryst with an underage girl, who was actually an undercover detective.

"I think emotions take effect and people go back to their basic instincts as a mother and father, and there’s a protective nature of children. I think that’s hard to overcome sometimes," McMahon added.

To date, all of those who faced a trial for such offenses have either pleaded guilty or have been convicted of attempted assault by a judge or a jury.

It’s no secret that undercover detectives are surfing the Net for sexual predators. With all the publicity surrounding such convictions, some are amazed that the arrest numbers keep climbing.

"Every time we arrest someone, there is publicity about it. You’d think that word would get out that the cops are doing this. It amazes me we still have these predators out there using this method," Castor said. "That tends to confirm my suspicion that these people can’t ever be rehabilitated anyway, and so the only way to protect us from them is to lock them up."

Creative defense strategies have been hard fought in the court room.

Some defense lawyers have implied that such stings reek of entrapment or Big Brother invading one’s privacy. The lawyer for one Lower Providence man implied detectives unfairly targeted gay men during their investigations by entering gay chat rooms.

Defendants can’t call it entrapment, prosecutors say, because defendants are always the first to make contact. "I don’t talk to anybody unless they talk to me first," Abington Detective Leroy Risell, who works undercover with the task force, testified in court recently.

In order for the entrapment defense to be of value, a defendant would have to show that detectives enticed him to engage in criminal conduct that he otherwise would not have engaged in.

"We know what constitutes entrapment and what doesn’t. So the methods used by detectives from the very beginning have been designed so that the entrapment defenses would fail, and they have," Castor said.

While some offenders simply want to talk dirty, when the discussion turns to solicitation, it becomes a crime. With entrapment defenses failing in court, other defenses are beginning to emerge.

McMahon, during his recent defense of Powell, argued Powell engaged in a little bit of Internet "role playing," but didn’t really believe he was conversing with a 13-year-old girl. Powell, 31, claimed he believed he was conversing with a woman pretending to be a teenage girl.

"That doesn’t make him guilty of wanting to have sex with a 13-year-old," McMahon argued to a jury, adding that the Internet is so anonymous that one doesn’t know who’s on the other end of the line. "That’s the burden and the benefit of Internet sex."

While Powell’s computer shenanigans may have been "distasteful," McMahon argued it wasn’t a crime.

"We value the freedom, the right to be distasteful," McMahon told the jury. "The Internet has become a morass of sexual proclivities. It’s perfectly legal and it’s perfectly right because we recognize the right to be distasteful. We have that right."

Castor called it a "clever" defense. "I laughed out loud when I heard it, but I had no concern that a jury in this county wouldn’t see through the subterfuge," he said.

The jury didn’t buy Powell’s argument either, convicting him of charges he used the Internet to attempt to set up a sexual encounter with an underage girl. Powell is awaiting sentencing.

Defense lawyers argue there are no real victims because no child has been harmed.

Castor believes the public is the victim and believes it’s highly unlikely that it’s the only time those who are caught ever solicited a child over the Internet.

Prosecutors argue that when "Internet travelers" are arrested, the only thing they haven’t done is actually engage in sex with a minor. They say the "travelers" have done everything up to that point -- groomed their victim and prepared for a meeting, which is why they are arrested for attempted crimes.

When defendants are arrested at prearranged meeting places, evidence of their intentions -- lingerie, condoms and sexual aids - is confiscated by police.

Castor doesn’t foresee a higher court making the sting operations illegal, maintaining they are similar to other types of stings that catch dope dealers.

Prosecutors appear to have the support of the state’s high court. In 2003, the State Superior Court, ruling in a Forest County case, upheld the attempted sex assault conviction of a 44-year-old man who was captured after an Internet conversation with an undercover detective posing as a 15-year-old girl.

The defendant argued there was insufficient evidence to convict him because the evidence demonstrated only his preparation to commit crimes and not that he attempted to commit them. The Superior Court rejected that notion.

He also maintained that such sting operations likely ensnare innocent individuals.

The Superior Court ruled that sting operations do not violate public policy, and that "the sting operation ensnared exactly who it should, an adult who wished to engage in oral sex with a minor."

Despite their best efforts to combat such activity, prosecutors believe people will continue to abuse the Internet.

"I think they’ll continue to abuse it in every possible way. I think it’s some people’s nature to take things to the limit," said Castor. He said ultimately, because of the Internet’s vast size, Congress may have to get more involved in regulating it.

Congress recently tried to pass a law regulating sex on the Internet, but federal courts struck it down, citing violation of First Amendment rights.

©The Mercury 2005

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