- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Already a convicted sexual offender, Richard W. Melanson was only days away from being released from a state prison after serving 2 1/2 years of a 10-year sentence for possession of child pornography.

But a painstaking six-year investigation and a multinational effort by investigators from South Dakota and the federal government, who worked in concert with police in the small impoverished Central American nation of Guatemala, kept the Spearfish man locked up for what now is likely to be a life sentence or very close to it.

Melanson, 53, was given a 30-year prison term after an emotional sentencing in a Rapid City court in January after he had pleaded guilty to international sex charges.

The lurid tourism-for-sex case of Melanson is a story of international intrigue, interagency cooperation, solid police work and a healthy portion of good luck.

But most of all, it’s a tale of courage from two of his victims, young men who risked adding public embarrassment to their long-suppressed private humiliation of being coerced to commit sex acts for the promise of money from Melanson, who had traveled from South Dakota to Central America three times since 2007 to commit and photograph or videotape sex acts with the boys.

“If any of them had walked away, Richard Melanson would be a free man today,” said Brent Gromer, a South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation special agent and commander of the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Gromer, Department of Homeland Security special agent Michael Diaz, of Rapid City, and Sarah B. Collins, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of South Dakota, traveled to Guatemala in March of 2014, as part of a long investigation into videos and photographs found on Melanson’s computer after he was initially arrested and charged in state court in 2011.

When Melanson, originally from Connecticut, was convicted on 10 counts of possession of child pornography in Lawrence County in 2012, evidence found on his computer included videos of Spanish-speaking young males and photos appearing to have been taken in Central or South America.

Department of Homeland Security investigators, charged with looking into child exploitation and human trafficking crimes along with counter-terrorism activities, took up the case. They worked with Guatemalan authorities to find what amounted to a human needle in a haystack - the victims of Melanson’s alleged crimes, who were in a rural area in one of the world’s most poor and undeveloped countries.

Their only tool: photographs and videos of the sex acts taken from Melanson’s computer.

Gromer said the photos numbered in the thousands. The massive collection ranged from pornographic still shots and videos that included the victims, to ordinary images of scenery taken during trips to Guatemala in 2007, 2008 and 2010.

Investigators were able to group photos by date and time to determine Melanson’s location.

“We were able to narrow it down to some locations. The photos of the victims were interspersed in those groups of photos,” Gromer told the Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/1RM6HTc ).

Collins said the investigation nearly stalled when there were doubts of proving that the victims involved were indeed minors. And finding anyone in Guatemala, especially years after the acts portrayed in the photos took place, proved to be a daunting task.

“I liken it to somebody sending me a picture of a kid at Mount Rushmore and saying can you find this kid in Rapid City?” Gromer said. “That’s a monumental task.”

Diaz said a Guatemalan national, Juan Estuardo Tereta Campa of the National Police special investigations unit, was able to track down and identify five males, now adult men, whose images had appeared in Melanson’s photos or videos.

Some of the victims were initially identified after open interviews on the street, but they were hesitant to cooperate because of a distrust of their home government and a fear of being exposed as a victim of a sexual crime. A Homeland Security Investigations forensic interviewer from Chicago, Alexandra Levi, helped open the door, Diaz said.

Levi was fluent in Spanish and was able to gain the men’s trust by initially engaging them in conversation and eventually offering a neutral site for interviews.

“Instead of just meeting with them and starting off interviews, she kind of just talked to them first,” Diaz said. “The way she progressed everything really helped the case. She was able to build a rapport with them and they opened up to a lot of the horrific acts.”

Collins said one of the five victims had died in the years after the crimes were committed. Another had suffered from acute drug addiction and was incapable of cooperating with investigators.

Two of the victims, identified in court proceedings only by their initials, M.G.P.G. and D.A.P.M, eventually agreed to work with American investigators.

A third man, identified as B.T.R., had helped investigators, but declined to come to the United States because he was afraid, she said.

In a plea agreement, Melanson pleaded guilty to a charge of traveling outside the U.S. with intent to engage in illicit sexual acts. Two other charges, production of and possession of child pornography, were dismissed as part of the deal.

The guilty plea could have resulted in Melanson receiving a minimum of 10 years prison followed by five years of supervised release.

But on Jan. 11, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Viken sentenced Melanson to the maximum 30-year sentence in a federal prison, followed by strict federal supervision for the remainder of his life after the sentence is completed.

The testimony of the victims likely helped push the court to the maximum sentence.

The pair provided powerful testimony in graphic detail at the day-long sentencing hearing in Rapid City. On the stand, they spoke through interpreters and told of being coerced by Melanson to pose naked and face down on a bed while being whipped with a leather belt and a makeshift cat-o’-nine-tails fashioned from leather boot laces. The boys were also forced to perform other sex acts in exchange for money.

M.G.P.G was only 15 when the crimes occurred in 2008 in a cabin along the shore of a lagoon in San Pedro La Laguna. D.A.P.M was 17 in 2010 when he was assaulted in a motel room in Santiago Lac Atitlan.

Melanson paid the boys both for the whipping videos and other sex acts, and prosecutors said he also threatened to post photos and videos online and publicly in both towns.

M.G.P.G. told Viken he feared humiliation from family and friends if the images and videos had been made public.

“If those photos had been published in my home town, it would have been terrible,” he testified in Spanish.

Collins said the sight of both men walking into Viken’s courtroom at the Andrew Bogue Federal Building was the culmination of a long, arduous journey.

“Since the time we all had met them in Guatemala, we had been living for that moment,” Collins said. “They were going to finally have the power to come in and confront him. He had had the power over them when he was in Guatemala.

“It was one of the most moving moments of my prosecutorial career,” she said.

She said their testimony, which included a cross-examination by a defense attorney, and seeing Melanson in person for the first time since he left Guatemala, helped secure a long prison sentence.

“I truly believe that impacted the sentence the defendant got,” Collins said.

Diaz said both men had never traveled far from their home villages. Going to Guatemala City to obtain passports, then flying for the first time to a foreign country, took a lot of courage on their part, he said.

“When they got off the airplane they were taking pictures of each other with the snow, because they had never touched snow,” he said.

Gromer said seeing the men in court after the years of pouring over the photos and video was “surreal.”

“To get on that plane with nothing in their pocket but faith, and to travel this far was remarkable,” he said.

“It was one of the most interesting cases I’ve worked just in the amount of computer forensics that went into linking all of those pictures, documents and dates,” he said.

Collins said the investigative team’s travels to Guatemala also helped build the men’s willingness to cooperate in the case.

“Had we not gone down there and had they not trusted us, they wouldn’t have come up here. It was based on that relationship building,” Collins said. “I think in the end they were truly moved in how much we cared and how much we poured our hearts into this.”

___

Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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