Teen sex victims confront 'monsters under the bed'
Detroit — The hunters lined one side of U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy’s courtroom, confronted by the hunted.
The hunters belong to an international child exploitation ring that perfected the art of preying on preteen and teenage girls. The hunters, who posed as teenage boys, trolled social media websites to lure victims to a private online chatroom before manipulating more than 100 children, including at least one from Metro Detroit, to strip, masturbate and perform sex acts on camera.
Eight members of the exploitation ring started receiving decades-long prison sentences from Murphy on Wednesday after victims describe the psychological and physical toll they endured during a coordinated online conspiracy that lasted five years.
The sentencings, which are expected to continue Thursday, marked a dramatic showdown between victims and, as one parent put it, "the monster under the bed." The "monsters" are members of one of the first sex rings to be prosecuted nationwide under a federal law targeting child exploitation enterprises.
Only a fraction of the more than 100 girls have been identified by the FBI despite a years-long investigation, which yielded guilty pleas earlier this year.
The hunters include an Ivy League computer whiz, a father of two and a guy with a porn video collection organized by victim name, age and sex act, a stash so vast it would take more than 50 days to binge watch.
"This group did not invent the sexual exploitation of children," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Mulcahy wrote in a court filing, "but they may have perfected it."
The hunted includes a troubled dancer who attended the finest ballet school in Canada and a girl who was coerced into performing a sex act with her dog.
The case highlights the dangers of online activity and the impact of sexual exploitation on children who, in this case, have attempted suicide and engaged in self-harm, including one girl who cut her arm with a piece of glass. A 2016 FBI report concluded that sextortion is a major, if not underlying, factor for child victims committing suicide.
The sex ring, known as the "Bored Group," was formed in approximately 2012 and included men from across the country, including one who prosecutors labeled the mastermind, Christian Maire, 40, of Binghamton, New York, a well-educated co-founder of a computer graphics company.
The men initially met on the social-media platform Stickam, which helped popularize live-streaming video chats. They became frustrated by the website's monitoring and migrated to a new, unidentified website that was primarily devoted to producing child pornography, according to the government.
Prosecutors refer to the website as "Website A."
Maire handpicked members to join the group, which was sophisticated, organized and hierarchical. The men shared skills — several are computer experts with advanced college degrees — and a sexual interest in girls, from infants to teenagers.
"They were handpicked to be the best of the best at targeting children," Assistant U.S. Attorney April Russo said Wednesday.
As she spoke, six teenage victims sat in a corner of the courtroom. One nervously chewed gum, two hugged each other, never letting go. Two girls had green highlights in their hair, an outward sign of solidarity. One girl stroked the ear of "Lance," a black Labrador brought into court to soothe the fears of victims.
"Thinking back to those days causes me to cry myself to sleep wondering when the monsters will stop haunting me," a 20-year-old victim told the judge.
The men needed a strategy to identify and recruit victims and master techniques to manipulate girls as young as 10 years old into engaging in sex acts on a web camera.
Members used fake profiles and stolen pictures of teenage boys to infiltrate social media websites — including Gifyo, Periscope, YouNow and the teen dating site MyLOL.com — and find potential victims.
Members would comment on a targeted girl's image or video and initiate a conversation before inviting the girl to the private chatroom.
"Given the tens of thousands of teenage and preteen girls frequenting social media websites, the enterprise’s recruiting efforts were wildly successful," Mulcahy said.
The "Bored Group" had a division of labor. Hunters lured victims to the chatroom. "Loopers" posing as kids in previously recorded videos depicting sex acts while convincing girls to perform the same act.
Maire served as the primary hunter along with Jonathan Negroni Rodriguez, 37, of West Hollywood, California, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison Wednesday.
"Talkers" handled the next step, convincing girls to undress and masturbate on camera by engaging the victims in a variety of subjects, including school, family, sports and sex.
One of the group's "talkers" was Brett Sinta, 36, of Hickory, North Carolina, a manager at Corning Optical Communications.
Sinta, a Michigan State University graduate with a business degree from the University of Texas, was known online as "Tex.Ass.2."
Chats salvaged from Sinta's MyLOL account describe the graphic nature of his conversations with girls.
"I want to wrap those legs around my head," Sinta told one victim.
He lied to other girls about whether the sex acts were being recorded and brushed aside one victim who confided she was cutting herself, prosecutors said.
"Not good," Sinta told her before turning the topic back to sex.
Talkers would manipulate girls into performing sex acts by claiming they could prevent other members of the chatroom from seeing the girl on camera.
One talker, computer expert Arthur Simpatico, 47, an IT specialist from Mississauga, Ontario, helped entice a minor victim nicknamed "Princess" into a sex act with her dog, according to the government.
One girl in court Wednesday was 14 when she first started chatting with members of the group.
She cuts herself and is in therapy. She has switched schools and moved along with her family into a new home due to safety concerns.
"What these men have done, if you can call them that, is unimaginable," the girl's mother told the judge.
Simpatico, wearing handcuffs, shackles and an orange Sanilac County Jail uniform, hung his head and apologized Wednesday.
"I can't take it back," Simpatico said. "I have to be a better person in the future."
He was sentenced to 38 years in federal prison.
The crime ring's strategy proved so successful that the "Bored Group" used a password-protected online spreadsheet to keep track of new victims and which techniques worked on a particular girl. The spreadsheet included links to girls' social media accounts and graphic descriptions about the best way to manipulate girls.
The "Bored Group's" demise started in November 2015.
That's when FBI agents in Detroit arrested a local pornography suspect. That investigation led to the discovery of "Website A."
Investigators identified members of "Bored Group" by tracing Internet protocol addresses used to access the website.
In hopes of thwarting investigators, Sinta drilled holes through hard drives that stored potential evidence, prosecutors said.
On Wednesday, he was sentenced to 30 1/2 years in prison.
During the investigation, FBI agents tracked one IP address to a $600,000 orange brick colonial in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
Michal Figura, 36, an IT specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, lived in the home with his wife, a 6-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.
"When they mentioned Website A … Figura began to cry," FBI Special Agent Adam Christensen wrote in a court filing.
Figura used his technical prowess to help "Bored Group" members more effectively hunt victims, according to the government.
Members knew some of the girls targeted by the "Bored Group" were anorexic, burning and cutting themselves, committed to psychiatric wards, and suicidal, prosecutors wrote.
"I was scared if I didn't do what they told me to do that I would become dead," one girl told the judge.
She was targeted at age 13 and lashed out by repeatedly cutting her arms.
"I cut really deep. I tried to kill myself," she told the judge as eight members of the exploitation ring sat feet away in the jury box and minutes from a decades-long prison sentence.
"I'm happy I'm here," she told the judge.
Defense lawyers had a certified sex therapist evaluate Figura, who admitted viewing child and adult pornography at least five times per week.
"The horrifying nature of the videos cannot be overstated. Watching even a few seconds of them is sickening and heartbreaking," Russo, the prosecutor, wrote. "But, Figura masturbated to these each night to fall asleep."
The judge sentenced Figura to 31 1/4 years in prison.
The government used “sweeping generalities” to describe Figura’s actions, his lawyer William Swor wrote in a court filing.
Figura and three others were sentenced Wednesday and Thursday. They are:
■Odell Ortega, 37, of Virginia Gardens, Florida, who was sentenced to 37 1/2 years.
■Caleb Young, 38, of Olmsted Falls, Ohio, who received a 30-year sentence.
■Daniel Walton, 34, of Saginaw, Texas, who was sentenced to 30 1/2 years.
One victim was targeted at age 11.
The girl "struggles with major depression and has been seeing a therapist for over a year," prosecutors wrote. "She also struggles with cutting. She has a permanent therapy dog for which the family must make monthly payments."
One girl targeted by the group was sexually exploited for years.
The unidentified girl was an elite dancer who attended the finest ballet school in Canada. A sensitive kid, she suffered from performance anxiety as a dancer, felt lonely and sought friendships online.
That search for friends led to the "Bored Group."
Members manipulated and enticed her into creating more than 60 videos.
"Behind her back, the group both praised her for doing what they said and mocked her for being so easy to coerce," Mulcahy wrote in a court filing.
By the time authorities identified her, the girl was suffering repercussions from being exploited, prosecutors said.
She missed an entire year of school, was taking medication and lost touch with friends.
"Her dance dreams died," the girl's mother wrote in a letter to the court. "This has taken years from her. Years."
The exploitation happened despite her family creating what they thought was a safe home.
"But there were monsters under the bed," the mother wrote, "a whole gang of monsters."
The ballet dancer's dashed dreams left Maire sobbing uncontrollably Wednesday.
"I've shattered so many lives," Maire told the judge. "I never thought I could sink this low. I apologize to all of my victims. I took advantage of your youth and trust and put my own selfishness above your dignity."
Maire fought the government's portrayal of him as the "Bored Group's" mastermind and attempt to send him to prison for life.
Instead, Maire was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison.
"That's basically life," one victim said outside court. "And he's gonna get the hell beat out of him."