ST. GEORGE — While Project Safe Childhood, a unified and comprehensive strategy to combat child sexual exploitation, continues to operate at full speed in Utah, unique challenges have arisen associated with COVID-19 that could allow an early release from prison for some predators.
Launched nearly 15 years ago, Project Safe Childhood is a coordinated effort between local, state and federal law enforcement partners to investigate and prosecute cases involving the sexual abuse and exploitation of children – a vulnerable population that is targeted by sexual predators across the state.
The mission is two-fold, as it aims to both raise the level of accountability by incarcerating those responsible and increase public awareness to the fact that sexual predators pose a threat to public safety in communities across the beehive state.
U.S. Attorney John W. Huber told St. George News that child sexual exploitation is a very serious problem in Utah and one that is on the rise with children spending more time online in the wake of the pandemic.
To address this threat, he said, a strong team of experienced prosecutors and investigators remain committed to protecting children who are affected and to holding perpetrators accountable – even with the many challenges faced in the wake of the pandemic.
“There has been no slowdown in our efforts,” Huber said. “As we continue to move forward with determination.”
In fact, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has prosecuted more than 50 cases involving the production, possession and distribution of child pornography each year since 2016, along with cases involving the coercion and enticement of minors across the state.
“Sadly, when it comes to the sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of children, there’s never a shortage of work for our special agents and partners,” Huber said, which is supported by the hundreds of cases the FBI task force responds to across Utah, Idaho and Montana each year.
With the rise in the number of children spending more time online as a result of COVID shutdowns, agents have seen a spike in the number of cases they are responding to, said Paul Haertel, Special Agent in Charge of the Salt Lake City FBI office in a statement released last week.
Haertel went on to write that parents and guardians “need to keep a close eye on their kids’ online activities because any child – no matter the age or demographic – can be a victim.”
These crimes are investigated by members of the FBI’s Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force that was launched in June 2016 to provide a rapid, effective response to federal crimes against children, including those who are targeted by online predators. These online chat crimes account for a majority of the cases handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as well as cases that originate from the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
State and federal prosecutors routinely coordinate prosecutorial efforts in cases referred to their office by agents or other law enforcement officers. Typically, state prosecutors handle investigations related to the sexual abuse offenses in each case, while federal prosecutors are in charge of prosecuting any charges related to the production, distribution and possession of child pornography or cases involving the enticement of a minor.
It is a coordinated effort that appears to be working, he said, with federal sentencing guidelines that allow for longer prison sentences for repeat sex offenders than they would have faced on the state level, and federal prosecutors can seek lifetime supervision once these inmates are released.
A number of cases over the last four years illustrate the fact that longer sentences can be imposed through the federal court system, Huber said, including a case filed in 2016 in the U.S. District Court in St. George involving Lyman Dale Black.
In that case, Black was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison, followed by a lifetime supervised release, after pleading guilty to one count of production of child pornography and one count of distribution of child pornography for trading child sexual abuse material over the internet and sexually abusing his 14-month-old infant through live-stream chats.
Through a coordinated effort, state prosecutors handled the sexual abuse investigation while the internet crimes were handled by federal investigators, and when the case came together, the charges were filed in federal court.
In another case filed in 2017, the task force that included agents with the Department of Homeland Security was part of a coordinated effort with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada during an investigation involving Donald Ray Fritcher, a twice-convicted sex offender accused of distributing child sexual abuse material that included images and videos of him sexually abusing two minor girls.
The case was filed in federal court and Fritcher ultimately pleaded guilty to distribution of child pornography and was sentenced to serve 330 months in federal prison, followed by a lifetime of supervision upon his release.
Compassionate release motions and COVID-19
Even after a defendant has been sentenced to serve a lengthy prison term, the work of federal prosecutors is far from over if a defendant files a compassionate release motion, which, if granted, could result in a significant reduction in the amount of prison time imposed in their case.
The motion is filed on that basis of an underlying medical condition that can place an inmate at risk of experiencing complications should they become infected with COVID-19.
One such case involving a motion for compassionate release involved John Dennis Bowman, who was sentenced to serve 120 months in prison after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography in February. Bowman admittedly possessed a large amount of child pornography that he distributed through his YouTube account and also live-streamed a video feed of female children being sexually assaulted by adult men.
Bowman then filed a motion for compassionate release citing several underlying medical conditions that put him at risk if he were infected with the virus. U.S. District Judge Richard Shelby denied this motion, stating that even if the defendant had demonstrated the existence of extraordinary and compelling reasons for early release, Bowman “was a danger to the community based upon the conduct in this case and his criminal history,” which, he said, included prior sexual abuse convictions.
Another case filed in U.S. District Court in St. George involved Aaron Elliott, who was sentenced to 72 months in prison after pleading guilty to sex trafficking of children in 2015. Elliott advertised and arranged for a young girl to engage in commercial sex acts with clients of his escort service in exchange for money; and after sentencing, he filed the motion for compassionate release.
The motion was denied by District Judge David Nuffer, who stated Elliott’s conduct during the offenses and his criminal history “did not support granting the relief.”
Huber said keeping children safe will continue to be a top priority for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and its task force members.
“We are committed to protecting these kids and keeping them safe from predators,” he said.
The many agencies involved in the effort include the FBI, Adult Probation and Parole and multiple police departments across Utah, including the Dixie State Police Department, led by Chief Blair Barfuss, and officers from Clearfield, Layton, Lehi, Park City, Roy, Salt Lake City, Syracuse and Tooele police departments.
Task force members are also comprised of deputies with the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, as well as assistance from the Davis County Attorney’s Office, the Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office, the Weber County Sheriff’s Office, the Weber County Attorney’s Office, the Utah Department of Public Safety and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
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