Feds bust nationwide child exploitation ring
Detroit – Federal agents have cracked a child exploitation ring involving at least 15 men that targeted underage girls, including one from southeast Michigan.
Nine men were indicted in a case unsealed Wednesday and are part of a broader group involved in a coordinated online conspiracy to entice young girls to engage in sex acts in Internet chat rooms, according to court records. The alleged conspiracy dates to at least 2012 and involved 50 minor victims, including teenage and preteen girls in Michigan, Oklahoma and Canada.
The indictment links nine men who were charged separately last fall and alleges they used an unidentified chat room and online videos to recruit, entice and force victims into producing child pornography.
The exploitation ring had its own terminology and members played specific roles. “Talkers” were tasked with convincing girls to engage in sexual activity; “hunters” were in charge of finding and steering girls to the chat room and “loopers” posed as teenage males in previously recorded videos engaged in sexual acts.
A spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined comment Wednesday.
The nine men are:
■Christian Maire, 39, of Binghamton, N.Y.
■Arthur Simpatico, 46, of Mississauga, Ontario.
■Jonathan Negroni Rodriguez, 36, of West Hollywood, Calif.
■Michal Figura, 35, of Swarthmore, Pa.
■Odell Ortega, 36, of Virginia Gardens, Fla.
■Brett Sinta, 35, of Hickory, N.C.
■Caleb Young, 38, of Olmsted Falls, Ohio.
■Daniel Walton, 33, of Saginaw, Texas.
■William T. Phillips, 39, of Highland, N.Y.
All but Simpatico are being held without bond.
Maire, co-founder of a computer data company, is identified in court records as the ringleader who created the online chat room and organized the group’s activity.
Maire’s lawyer did not respond immediately to a message seeking comment Wednesday.
Maire was initially charged in October. One victim told FBI investigators that she had visited a website chat room and thought she was chatting with four or five teen boys, according to court records. The “teens” reportedly urged her to strip and perform sexually explicit acts on camera.
One of the users eventually arrested for his role in a related scheme and accused of collecting more than 1,000 child pornography images told investigators he was active with a group that had been targeting girls aged 15-17 multiple times each week.
Investigators traced Maire’s IP address and executed a search warrant last fall at the home he shares with his wife and their two children.
Federal agents said he told them he had visited the website where the Michigan girl interacted “with the intention of viewing child pornography,” authorities said.
The 10-count indictment filed Wednesday charges Maire and the others with participating in a child exploitation enterprise, punishable by up to life in prison. Other charges listed in the indictment include conspiring to produce child pornography and coercion and enticement of a minor.
A 2016 nationwide assessment of child exploitation chronicled the proliferation of online communities dedicated to sexually abusing children.
The assessment reported that online enticement of children had increased during the previous five years, particularly by offenders using live-streaming video services and social networking sites.
Those sites included the Kik messenger app, Skype and Facebook.
In most cases, victims never knew their offender.
Rodriguez is described in court records as one of the group’s most aggressive members when it came to interacting with girls. He served as a “talker” and a “hunter,” according to investigators.
In April 2017, the group started using a private server on a chat-based website called Discord. Members organized efforts to entice minor girls to engage in sexual activity on camera, according to court records.
Investigators searched Rodriguez’s apartment in October and found child pornography on his computer devices, according to court records.
One video found on his laptop computer included a 43-minute clip of an approximately 15-year-old girl masturbating on camera.
“They are serious allegations, it is a really complicated case with a lot of technical things and it is going to take a long time to unravel,” Rodriguez’s lawyer Raymond Cassar said Wednesday. “He has never been in trouble before, he pled not guilty and we are looking forward to our day in court.”
Prosecutors do not identify the website used by members of the alleged conspiracy. Instead, it is referred to as “Website A” in court records.
Investigators mentioned the website to Figura in October while executing a federal search warrant at his house, where he lives with a wife and two young children.
“When they mentioned Website A…Figura began to cry and did not make further statements,” FBI Special Agent Adam Christensen wrote in a court filing.
Figura’s lawyer declined comment Wednesday.
Investigators analyzed Internet Protocol addresses to find computers used to log into “Website A.” One of those addresses was linked to a computer at Ortega’s home near Miami, according to court records.
When investigators searched his home last fall, they found child pornography on external hard drives in his bedroom, the government alleges. One video showed a prepubescent girl dancing and exposing her vaginal area.
Ortega’s lawyer could not be reached for comment immediately Wednesday.