- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

Twenty adults have been charged with sexually abusing and exploiting children including their own and circulating photographs of the sexual activity on the Internet as part of an international child pornography ring.

"I've rarely seen crimes as despicable and repugnant as the crimes involved in this investigation. These crimes are beyond the pale," U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, a former federal prosecutor and judge, said at a Washington news briefing in which he announced the charges involving 10 Americans and 10 foreigners.

He said more arrests are expected.

Mr. Bonner said "at least 45 children," between the ages of 2 and 14, were victims of sexual abuse and exploitation by the international "ring of pedophiles" uncovered by an investigation called Operation Hamlet. "Thirty-seven of those children reside here in our country," he said.

"What's particularly disturbing about this case is that the majority of the people who have been charged were actually the parents of and were sexually exploiting their own children. In many instances, parents forced their children to commit sex acts that were then photographed and posted on the Internet. With the power of the Internet, what may have once been an isolated crime became a global crime," Mr. Bonner said.

Eighty percent of the children were molested by one of their parents, usually the father. Of 15 defendants whose sealed indictments were opened yesterday in a federal court in Fresno, Calif., only one is a woman, and she is Danish, not American, a Customs Service spokeswoman said.

All 45 abused children have been removed from the care of those indicted, whether the offender was a parent, guardian or other caregiver. Most of the children are in the custody of another parent or relative or are in foster care.

"The people who engage in these kinds of acts, sexually exploiting children, especially their own children, should be removed from their children forever and incarcerated for as long as the law allows," Mr. Bonner said.

According to the indictment unsealed yesterday, the defendants referred to themselves as the "club." They circulated sexually explicit photos of children among themselves, e-mailed each other as to images of sexual poses they wanted to see, "and, in at least one case, exchanged children to be sexually abused and depicted."

In one case, the indictment said, a man requested an audiotape so he could hear crying by a child being spanked.

Charges of sexual exploitation of children, conspiracy to exploit children, and receiving and distributing child pornography each carry a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of 20 years. Mr. Bonner said some defendants could receive 60 years if convicted of all charges against them.

The U.S. Customs chief said law enforcement authorities got on the trail of the child pornography ring last November when the nonprofit group Save the Children discovered "images on the Internet depicting a child, apparently in Denmark, being sexually abused."

Save the Children immediately notified the Danish National Police. The Danish police investigated the complaint and arrested a Danish man in connection with molesting the child whose picture he had posted on the Internet. "The child was his own 9-year-old daughter," Mr. Bonner said.

Police examining the man's computer "discovered a web of pedophiles throughout the world, many of whom were here in the United States," Mr. Bonner told reporters.

The U.S. Customs Service CyberSmuggling Center, based in Northern Virginia, got its first information about the case from Danish police in January and opened the Operation Hamlet investigation.

"This led to search warrants and arrests of 10 individuals in the United States individuals that lived in California, Florida, Texas, Idaho, New Jersey, South Carolina, Michigan and Washington state," Mr. Bonner said.

Ten U.S. citizens have been charged since January, including the nine named in the indictment, Mr. Bonner said. The list includes chiropractor Lloyd Alan Emmerson of Clovis, Calif., who has pleaded not guilty; Paul Whitmore and Brooke Rowland, both of San Diego, who also have pleaded not guilty; Tracy Reynolds of Longview, Texas; Leslie Peter Bowcut of Burley, Idaho; Michael David Harland of West Palm Beach, Fla.; Harry Eldon Tschernetzki of Spokane, Wash.; John Zill of Greenville, S.C.; and Craig Davidson of Chanute, Kan.

One of the 10 Americans, Jeffrey Naimo of Killeen, Texas, has already pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

An 11th American, Sean Bradley of Reno, Nev., committed suicide after his arrest, Customs Special Agent Mike Netherland said.

Outside the United States, there were 10 more arrests. Six adults from Denmark, Switzerland and Holland also were indicted in Fresno yesterday. The Justice Department is seeking their extradition to the United States to face charges.

The six are Eggert Jensen and his wife, Bente, of Denmark; Jean-Michael Frances Cattin, Marcel Egli and Peter Althaus of Switzerland; and Dirk-Jan Prins of Holland.

Customs officials said four other foreigners were charged abroad as part of the joint investigation with the Danish police and others that also reached the United Kingdom and Belgium. They declined to identify the four.

In his remarks to the news media, Mr. Bonner reflected on the "rash of abductions, molestations and murders of innocent children" that have occurred in the United States this summer.

"America's most precious asset is its children, and our children must be protected at any cost. At the root of many child abductions and child murders and child sexual molestations is a twisted desire for sex with children. This desire of pedophiles is fueled by child pornography, which today, unfortunately, is more available than ever via the Internet," Mr. Bonner said.

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