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Crime & Courts

Child porn's dirty secret: Dads often behind lens

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Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 01:20 AM
TAMPA -

He told his young daughter he was going to make her a model.

He shot pictures of her in skimpier and skimpier outfits.

And when she slept, the Tampa man photographed himself molesting her.

He created a Web site, charging strangers to view graphic photos of his daughter. Pedophiles could write in and say what they wanted to see her wearing.

The man was discovered when investigators searching his child-pornography collection noticed that sheets in some of the pictures matched the sheets on his bed.

They also saw explicit pictures of a young girl being molested. Investigators recognized her from family pictures.

The case was not unusual, authorities say.

That's because when children are victims of pornography, the photographers and abusers often are their fathers, stepfathers and grandfathers.

"Some of the darkest stuff you see is produced in people's basements," said Stacy Arruda, who supervises the Tampa FBI's computer crimes unit. "The most common that we see in this area ... is parents and stepparents abusing their own children."

Nearly twice as many children in a nationwide child-porn database were photographed by their parents as were victims of online enticement. The number victimized by parents was nearly seven times that of children exploited by strangers.

There was the case of a Tampa man traced by a Pennsylvania state trooper investigating child pornography on the Internet. When investigators searched his home, the man's 12-year-old daughter was there. Later, as agents reviewed pornographic images on the man's computer, there she was posed on a bed when she was 7.

'Our secret'

Several years ago, prosecutors say, the parents of a 14-year-old girl established a Web site with graphic photos of their daughter. The mother bought the girl provocative clothing; the father took the pictures and molested her. When investigators searched the Tampa-area home, the girl's closet was full of garter belts, stockings and platform shoes.

Then there was the man who took pornographic pictures of his 9-year-old great-granddaughter.

"Make a pretty face," he would tell her.

"Don't tell anybody," he would say afterward. "It will be our secret."

The Bradenton man was prosecuted after his great-granddaughter told her grandmother about the photo sessions. Investigators reviewing photographs discovered the man's 7-year-old great-grandson also was a victim.

When investigators asked the girl why she took off her clothes for her great-grandfather, she said it was because you're supposed to do what your grandparents tell you.

These cases are a dirty secret, and not only in families.

Media reports almost always leave out the relationship between perpetrator and victim in order to protect the child's identity. Most media organizations, including The Tampa Tribune, have policies that bar publishing the identities of sexual assault victims, especially children.

For that reason, the suspects' names also are being withheld in this story.

"Most people would not suspect that a girl's own father would do it," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Colleen Murphy-Davis, who prosecutes such cases.

"It's really shocking," said another Tampa federal prosecutor, Amanda Kaiser. "When you first start, you think, 'How could parents do that? How could they sell their children?' ... It's just sickening."

Some fathers are seeking financial gain, Kaiser said. Others want sexual gratification.

"I think they're sociopaths," she said. "I don't think they have any conscience. I think they lack empathy, and to them, children are just a commodity to be used."

Since Arruda began her job 31/2 years ago, she estimates the office has investigated about 100 such cases. Technology costs are falling, making exploitation easier.

"Anybody with a digital camera can take pictures of whatever they want," she said.

Sometimes male relatives trade photographs with other pedophiles online, Arruda said.

Fathers can get away with being abusers because they can exploit the bond of trust, authorities say. They groom their children to accept what is happening and have the leverage to keep them quiet.

Sometimes, the mothers know.

"You've got one of two situations," Murphy-Davis said. "The mother knows about it, so they figure it's fruitless to tell mom, or they've told her in the past and she's like, 'You're lying.' Or there's just too much shame with going to the mother and saying, 'This is what the man you love is doing to me.'"

Sometimes, the mother supports the abusing father at the expense of the child. One Tampa mother wanted to kick her teenage daughter out of the house and make her live with her grandmother so the father could remain there while his case was pending. The judge was so disgusted he ordered the father jailed. The mother's letter in her husband's defense angered the sentencing judge.

Prison sentences

The charge of producing child pornography carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years; possessing child porn carries up to 10 years; and transporting or shipping child porn brings a minimum mandatory sentence of five years and as long as 20 years.

The Tampa man who created a Web site with graphic photos of his daughter pleaded guilty to all three of those charges and was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison.

"What law enforcement tends to be seeing is that the children who are being used to produce these images are kids being abused in bedrooms and basements and living rooms across the United States and elsewhere," said Michelle Collins, executive director of the Exploited Child Division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The division is a clearinghouse for law enforcement to share information when children depicted in pornography are identified. Collins said this helps prevent defendants from arguing that the children in their pornography collections aren't real.

Since the program started in 2003, more than 2,300 children have been identified in pornographic pictures and videos, Collins said.

Of those, 27 percent were photographed by parents or stepparents; 24 percent by neighbors or close family friends; and 10 percent by other relatives.

Just 4 percent were photographed by strangers. The rest were photographed by coaches, babysitters, their parents' boyfriends and girlfriends, or by themselves, often after being enticed by someone they met online.

"The individuals who sexually molest are most likely to molest children who they're a trusted adult toward," Collins said. "That's why there is such a low disclosure rate of children who are abused."


Reporter Elaine Silvestrini can be reached at (813) 259-7837.

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