Tuesday, March 19, 2002

David Stout

90 Are Arrested in Inquiry Into Internet Child-Sex Ring

WASHINGTON — A nationwide Internet child-pornography ring has been smashed with the arrest of about 90 people, including two Roman Catholic priests, a school bus driver, a teacher's aide and a police officer, the federal authorities said today.

"It is clear that a new marketplace for child pornography has emerged from the dark corners of cyberspace," Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news briefing. "Innocent boys and girls have been targeted by offenders who view them as sexual objects."

The suspects have been charged with various felonies, including possession, production or distribution of child pornography, said Angela Bell, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The most serious charges carry sentences of several years in prison upon conviction, Ms. Bell said.

In addition, 27 of those arrested have admitted to having molested more than 40 children, the F.B.I. said. Ms. Bell said that she did not know much about the children's backgrounds and that the authorities were "still trying to take them out of harm's way."

Mr. Ashcroft said investigations into child pornography often led to evidence of actual molestation, so that indulging in pornography could in no way be viewed as a harmless diversion. The attorney general and the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, said all 56 F.B.I. field offices and numerous local law enforcement units were taking part in the operation, which began in January 2001 in Houston after an undercover agent there identified groups involved in child pornography.

One Web site advertised itself as "for people who love kids," the authorities said. The site invited people to "post any type of messages you like" and offered a postscript: "If we all work together, we will have the best group on the Net."

The Houston groups used "the Candyman" as a general cyberheading, prompting the Justice Department to call its antipornography effort Operation Candyman. The authorities said that the groups' Web sites had been shut down, and that many more arrests were expected. The authorities counted about 7,000 computer addresses in the Candyman groups, with about 2,400 of those outside the United States.

Subpoenas were served upon Internet-service providers. More than 200 searches of homes and computers were carried out, the F.B.I. said.

Ms. Bell said some arrests were made weeks or months ago and had already been publicized. One priest was arrested in Baltimore and the other in St. Louis, she said. The Baltimore arrest, of the Rev. Thomas Rydzewski, 35, on charges of possessing pornography, occurred on Dec. 13 and was widely reported in that city at the time.

Seven people have been arrested in Houston and five in Miami, the authorities said. Four people have been arrested in Albany, four in Philadelphia, three in New York City and one in Newark.

The F.B.I. said one woman was among those arrested. In addition to the two priests, several other clergymen are suspected, the F.B.I. said.

Many other suspects had jobs that put them in close contact with children. They include a school bus driver in Albany, a teacher's aide at a preschool and day-care center in Las Vegas, a child photographer in Philadelphia and law enforcement professionals in Pittsburgh and San Diego, the F.B.I. said.

Little League baseball coaches and a registered foster-care parent are among the suspects. Ms. Bell said she believed that some of the men were married and had children of their own.

The F.B.I. did not name any of the suspects. One, a respiration therapist in Little Rock, Ark., has committed suicide.

Mr. Ashcroft and F.B.I. officials said there would be more anti-pornography campaigns.

"I mean, we're dealing with children here," said Bruce J. Gebhardt, F.B.I. executive assistant director for criminal investigations and cybercrime. "I'd like to see one sweep a day."

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Created: March 21, 2002
Last modified: July 9, 2002
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