Case reveals feds taking tougher stance on child pornography

Arrests of educators, a police officer, a high school coach, a day care worker, physicians and a church music director show law enforcement officials' more aggressive pursuit of child exploitation crimes.
MCT Regional News
Aug 20, 2013

When James Uphoff was arrested earlier this month on a charge of possessing child pornography, it seemed a fall from grace for a renowned local educator. But it was also a sign of a bigger trend: the more aggressive pursuit of child exploitation crimes by law enforcement officials.

"It certainly seems that the cases are involving a broader spectrum of people," said Fred Alverson, public information officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Ohio. "Well-educated, professional people are becoming more and more the targets of these kinds of investigations."

Uphoff's attorney, Jon Paul Rion, said that Uphoff intends to plead guilty to one count of possessing child pornography at his Sept. 24 arraignment and plea agreement hearing scheduled before U.S. District Court Judge Walter H. Rice.

"He was sent some inappropriate images, and that's against the law," Rion said. "But here's a person whose life clearly shows his dedication to our community. At his age and his stature, it is obvious he has been a person of very good character. It is hoped this single act wouldn't change that reputation."

The stereotype of the child pornographer is engraved in our collective psyche: a creepy loner, holed up in the basement. The Dayton Daily News reviewed more than 100 local federal cases involving child pornography, and the evidence from recent area arrests and convictions suggests otherwise: educators, a police officer, a high school coach, a day care worker, physicians, a church music director.

"This is not a cookie-cutter crime," said Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias Heck. "The perpetrators come from all walks of life."

But few arrests have been as surprising as that of Uphoff, 75, a former longtime Oakwood school board member and professor emeritus at Wright State University. His Aug. 6 indictment in federal court came nearly a year after Oakwood police searched his home on Spirea Drive. Uphoff was charged with one count of possessing child pornography, which carries a potential punishment ranging from probation to 10 years in prison.

It's a baffling turn of events for a man who once won the Dayton Association for Children's Distinguished Community Service Award. In 2000, Uphoff served as president of the Ohio School Boards Association, elected by delegates from 700 districts.

"This is not the Jim Uphoff we knew," said OSBA executive director Rick Lewis. "The man had an undying passion for public education, and he was a strong advocate for our system of community schools. He wanted to make sure every child had an opportunity for quality education. An ongoing theme was that children are our gateway to the future, and he embodied that philosophy."

His fellow educators are virtually speechless at the news, Lewis said: "Stunned and shocked are the words that keep coming up. It's a sad story. We don't take delight in anyone's downfall, but we can't dismiss it, either, if it is true. We have to think of the victims, who are too often nameless and faceless."

Uphoff retired as a Wright State professor of education in June 2012, after a 40-year career in which he also served as associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning.

It was during a routine reconditioning of his computer by information technology staff, "that they found something that shouldn't be there," according to WSU spokesman George Heddleston.

A Sept. 7, 2012, WSU police department report about the crime of "pandering obscenity involving a minor" was forwarded to the Greene County Prosecutor's Office. Five days later, that led to the Oakwood police investigation and search of Uphoff's home, where lives with his wife Harriet, also a longtime educator.

The sterling reputation Uphoff had built up for decades took an immediate hit. His longtime education column disappeared from the pages of the weekly newspaper, Oakwood Register. He was dismissed from his volunteer job as a Montgomery County court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, which he had held since 2004. "We believe in innocent until proven guilty, but we err on the side of caution," said Greg Scott, legal director for Montgomery County Juvenile Court.

Uphoff served on the Oakwood Board of Education from 1989 to 2007, but district officials declined to comment about the case. Recently-appointed Oakwood superintend Kyle Ramey said the district has never received any complaints about their former school board member. "We're saddened to hear about the situation," Ramey said.

Rion said that many people in the community have expressed their support for Uphoff. "They haven't changed their opinion of the strength of his character or the way that time and time again the way he has proven himself to be such a wonderful asset to our society," he said.

Alverson said that law enforcement has toughened its stance on child pornography for many reasons. "We are seeing a decrease in the age of victims," he explained. "It used to be very uncommon to see a child under the age of 5," he said. "Now we are seeing infants who are being sexually abused and exploited. The victims are getting younger and younger, and there is emerging evidence of the devastating impact on victims. It's a scar they carry for the rest of their lives."

That's especially true, he said, because the images are so hard to destroy once they have gone out over the Internet. "Some people collect these like trading cards; they want the entire collection of a certain group of children," Alverson said.

Stopping the crime means stopping the demand -- and that means going after the customers as well as the producers of child pornography: "If there are consumers for this, it increases the likelihood that more and more children will be exploited."

Investigators are more aggressive in pursuing child pornography cases than ever before, said David Barnes, director of the Miami Valley Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory, which examines digital evidence for criminal investigations.

"People are worried about kids on the Internet, and they want to do all they can to eliminate the predators and discourage that kind of activity," he said. "The Internet has caused predators to become more emboldened. They rationalize, 'It can't be that wrong; I'm just sitting in my house.'"

Barnes said he has never worked on a case involving only a single illegal image. He said typical cases involve 100 to 1,000 images. "If it is just one image, prosecutors won't go for it it, because it could just be a mistake," he explained.

The laboratory analyzes data from a wide variety of devices: computers, cell phones, GPS systems, tablets, iPod and MP3 players. A copy is made of the hard drive and investigators work from the copy, to avoid any accusations of tampering with the evidence.

Heck said that local prosecutors have always taken child pornography seriously. The biggest change, he said, isn't more zealous prosecution, but advances in technology that make it easier for producers and consumers of pornography to commit their crimes -- but also make it easier to catch them.

"I think these cases have always been treated aggressively and certainly have on radar screen of local prosecutors, who handle 95 percent of these crimes," he said. "What's different is pornographers simply have more access due to advanced technology, such as Internet chat rooms and other different mechanisms. It's much easier for pornographers to not only advance their interests but to have access to photographs. Before there would be someone with a book or a magazine."

For many people, it seemed inconceivable that such a charge could be facing such a distinguished citizen, well-known to many as a former WYSO commentator. He was a sought-after pundit on educational issues not only locally but nationally, appearing on CBS This Morning and being interviewed by national publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, Parents and Parenting.

The only people who aren't shocked by the arrest of a man as prominent as Uphoff, it seems, are those who have been dealing with the issue for many years.

"I have been in this business too long to be shocked," said Libby Nicholson, director of CARE House, a local child advocacy agency. "Child abuse perpetrators seek opportunities to be around children. Many have clean criminal records. Too many coaches and ministers and mentors have violated that trust in the grossest sort of way. What's concerning to me, since I work with this every single day, is that the general public continues to be a bit naive."

She applauds prosecutors who pursue the consumers of child pornography. "Many times individuals who possess child porn are the same people who molest children," she said. "We need to be outraged, and collectively do what we can to protect children."

Added Alverson, "If you look at child pornography cases in the southern 48 counties of Ohio over the past three or four years, you'll see pediatricians, coaches of Olympic athletes, and a number of responsible, prominent people. Unfortunately it's not uncommon for it to be someone who holds a position of authority or someone who is in government or law enforcement."

The U.S. Attorney's office, which covers 30 counties in southern Ohio, has investigated 16 cases of child exploitation this year so far, compared with 17 in 2012.

"We hope any individual who feels compelled to download or produce child pornography would realize the penalty is severe, and that officers of the law are not a respecter of individual's income, professional status or neighborhood," Alverson said.

He hopes that a more aggressive law enforcement approach "will send a message to avoid engaging in this type of behavior. If they feel drawn to it, there are mental health professionals who will help them to deal with this."

It's shocking, Alverson said, to realize how easily the crime can be committed: "In one case, an individual took a cell phone and began videotaping the young man in the bathroom stall next door."

Yet technology also offers more tools for catching criminals, Alverson said, no matter what their station in life.

"There's a stereotype that child porn purveyors are loners, withdrawn, people who have not had success in their lives," he said. "In reality you have some people who have these prominent positions, who have a completely different persona online, trolling the Internet for child pornography. When it comes out, it shocks their families, and it's a stunning blow to people who have worked with them. It points out that law enforcement is out there patrolling the Internet, the same as cruisers on the streets and cops on the highway, looking for people who exploit children."

———

By Mary McCarty - Dayton Daily News, Ohio

©2013 Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

Visit the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) at www.daytondailynews.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services