|TRENTON – Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman today announced that 14 men have been charged in a second round of arrests in “Operation Predator Alert,” a joint operation by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and ICE Homeland Security Investigations that has targeted offenders in New Jersey who used a file-sharing network to download and distribute child pornography, including child rape videos, on the Internet. A total of 28 defendants have been charged in two offender sweeps under Operation Predator Alert, including 14 prior arrests announced on Oct. 28, 2013.
Acting Attorney General Hoffman announced the results of the joint state and federal operation at the Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton with Director Elie Honig of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and Special Agent in Charge Andrew M. McLees of the Newark Office of ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The New Jersey State Police and numerous local police departments, county prosecutors’ offices and county sheriffs’ offices have assisted with the arrests and investigations.
The new arrests, made from Feb. 10 through July 22, include two school bus drivers who drove children in Mays Landing and a Salem County man, Michael Van Culin, who allegedly hacked into the email account of a 16-year-old Canadian girl and used personal information he obtained to blackmail her into stripping naked on a webcam while he recorded her. He is charged under the state’s strict new child pornography law with first-degree manufacturing child pornography, which carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison, 85 percent of which must be served without possibility of parole.
All 14 men arrested in this round are charged under New Jersey’s new child pornography statute, signed into law by Governor Chris Christie on Aug. 14, 2013. It enhances the penalties for those who possess, distribute or manufacture child pornography. If convicted of distributing 25 or more computer files of child pornography under the new law, defendants would face a mandatory state prison sentence of five years without possibility of parole. Any defendant found to have possessed 100 or more files of child pornography on his computer will face a presumptive sentence of three to five years in prison.
“We allege that Van Culin is a new breed of child predator: one who lurks in the shadows of the Internet and can strike from hundreds of miles away, sexually exploiting a child with devastating consequences,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare that a hacker could invade the private world of a young girl and use her innocence and fear to enslave her. We’re utilizing these child pornography sweeps to arrest these predators before they can harm more victims or pursue their victims offline.”
“When we target those who share child pornography online, we routinely uncover offenders who are sexually abusing children or stalking them,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “That is why these operations are so critical. Viewing these vile images is a serious crime in itself, because it motivates those who sexually exploit children to create child pornography and it re-victimizes the children involved. And it also can be a strong indicator that we are dealing with a child predator.”
“Child predators come from all walks of life, and citizens everywhere must be vigilant as these threats aren't always easily seen,” said Andrew M. McLees, Special Agent in Charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in Newark. “This case illustrates the important working relationship between HSI and the New Jersey Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice to locate and identify the perpetrators of these terrible crimes no matter what steps these criminals take to keep themselves hidden in the shadows.”
During Operation Predator Alert, special agents of HSI monitored an online file-sharing network that is popular with offenders who download and trade child pornography. Using advanced technology, the agents searched for telltale digital “fingerprints” of known child pornography, as well as search terms used by those who download and share child pornography. Through these and other methods, they identified New Jersey residents who were downloading child pornography and making child pornography available to others in “shared folders” on their computers. The files included videos showing pre-pubescent boys and girls being raped or being coerced into performing sexual acts on themselves or others.
The file-sharing networks used by offenders to distribute child pornography operate in the same manner as websites used for privately sharing music or movies. Those in possession of the illegal images can make them available on computers that they control for others to download. Because many of these videos and photos of child pornography keep recirculating, they result in the perpetual re-victimization of the children who were sexually assaulted or abused to produce them.
All 14 of the defendants are charged with possession of child pornography, and most of the defendants also are charged with distribution of child pornography for allegedly using Internet file-sharing software to make files containing child pornography readily available for others to download from a “shared folder” on their computers. Investigators allegedly downloaded one or more files of child pornography from the computers of those defendants during the investigation. A few of the defendants are charged with possession of child pornography, but are not charged with distribution of child pornography at this time. However, the investigations regarding their conduct are ongoing.
The Division of Criminal Justice obtained arrest warrants, which they executed with HSI beginning on Feb. 10. Numerous state, county and local law enforcement agencies assisted. Those charged range in age from 23 to 74 and come from all walks of life. In addition to the two school bus drivers, they include a software engineer for an aerospace firm who has top security clearance, a healthcare company executive, a retired postal worker, and a man who sought to become a youth minister at his church.
The following defendants were arrested in Operation Predator Alert II:
- Michael Van Culin, 30, of Monroeville (Salem County), was arrested on Feb. 10. He allegedly coerced a 16-year-old Canadian girl into stripping naked on her webcam while he recorded her remotely with his computer. He previously engaged in online chats with her in which he elicited information about her life that he allegedly used to hack into her email account and get other personal information, including email addresses for her family and friends. He had password decoding software on his computer that generates likely passwords for a person from basic information such as the person’s name, date of birth, favorite sports, and names of pets and siblings. It is alleged that Van Culin ultimately blackmailed the girl by threatening to expose personal information about her to her family using the contact information from her email account. He allegedly coerced her into taking off her clothes. Van Culin’s computer allegedly contained a video of the visibly shaken girl completely disrobing in front of a mirror under his orders. The investigation into Van Culin and other prohibited images and videos on his computer of underage girls is continuing, and investigators urge anyone with information about similar conduct by Van Culin with other girls to call New Jersey’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Tipline at 1-888-648-6007. Van Culin is charged with manufacturing child pornography and possession of child pornography.
- Andrew Schreiner, 28, of Williamstown, was arrested on July 11. He was employed as a school bus driver in Mays Landing by Sheppard Bus Company at the time of his arrest. He allegedly exchanged sexually explicit images with an underage male he met online. He is charged with possession of child pornography and endangering the welfare of a child.
- Armando Nortez, 28, of Egg Harbor Township, was arrested on June 25. He also was employed as a school bus driver in Mays Landing by Sheppard Bus Company at the time of his arrest. He is charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.
- Jonathan S. Fink, 41, of Cherry Hill, was arrested on July 16. Fink, an executive for a healthcare company, allegedly had at least 750 images and videos of child pornography on an external hard drive in his house. He is charged with possession of over 100 items of child pornography.
- Michael Parker, 55, of Pennsauken, was arrested on July 8 and charged with possession of child pornography. When Parker’s computer was examined during execution of a search warrant, investigators allegedly found numerous items of child pornography and evidence of Internet activity indicating an interest in the sexual exploitation of prepubescent boys. Parker is very active with children at his church, First Presbyterian Church of Merchantville, and sought to become a youth minister. He had photos of young boys from the church on his computer. The boys in those photos were fully clothed, but investigators urge anyone with information about Parker that might be relevant to this investigation to contact the ICAC Tipline at 1-888-648-6007. Parker refused to answer his door when detectives arrived at his home. They could see him through a window working at his computer. Before he answered the door, he allegedly deleted nearly 200 items from folders on his computer that contained child pornography.
- Thomas Pirretti, 31, of Flemington, was arrested on July 22. He allegedly engaged in an online chat with another defendant in Operation Predator Alert II in which they discussed their desire for prepubescent girls. Pirretti allegedly asked if he could “date” the other defendant’s 10-year-old daughter. He is charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.
- Walter Javier Vibanco, 47, of Lower Township, was arrested on July 1. Vibanco allegedly possessed at least 250 images and videos of child pornography on his computer. He is charged with possession of over 100 items of child pornography and distribution of child pornography.
- Arlanda Johnson, 46, of Pemberton Township, was arrested on April 24. Johnson, a software engineer with an aerospace firm who has top security clearance, is charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.
- Daniel Allen Corda, 46, of Bellmawr, an unemployed electrician, was arrested on May 2. He is charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.
- Jerrell Harris, 28, of Elizabeth, was arrested on July 15. He is charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.
- Matthew Hems, 23, of Tabernacle, who is unemployed, was arrested on May 21. He is charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.
- Arnold M. Kay, 74, of Linden, a retired postal worker, was arrested on June 27. He is charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.
- Jorge Geovani Lopez-Betancourt, 34, of Trenton, who has a home-based business servicing computers, was arrested on June 10. He is charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.
- Raymond Purkis III, 48, of Montgomery Township, was arrested on July 2. He is charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.
The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Because they are indictable offenses, the charges will be presented to a state grand jury for potential indictment. The investigation is ongoing and the defendants may face additional charges upon indictment. Bails set for the defendants range from $10,000 up to $150,000 for Van Culin. The defendants in Operation Predator Alert II will be prosecuted by the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau, Computer Analysis and Technology Unit.
As indicated, the defendants will be prosecuted under New Jersey’s new child pornography statute, signed by Governor Christie last year. The new law changed the definition of “child” to any person under 18 years of age – up from 16 in the old law – and increased the punishment for virtually all child pornography offenses, bringing New Jersey law into much closer alignment with federal law. Under the law, causing a child to engage in a prohibited sexual act for purposes of creating child pornography is a first-degree crime for all persons, carrying a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison. Previously it was a first-degree crime only for parents or guardians of the child, and a second-degree crime for others. If convicted of that offense under the new law, an offender must serve 85 percent of the sentence without parole. Van Culin is the only defendant charged with that offense at this time, but the investigations are ongoing, including forensic exams of computers and other evidence, including flash drives, memory cards, DVDs and cell phones, at the FBI’s Regional Computer Forensic Lab in Hamilton
The new law upgrades the charge of possession of child pornography from a fourth-degree crime to a third-degree crime, and it modifies the previously existing presumption against imprisonment for anyone with no prior felony conviction who is convicted of a third-degree crime. Under the new law, possession of 100 or more computer files of child pornography carries a presumption that the defendant will face a state prison term of between three to five years. Distribution of child pornography remains a second-degree crime, carrying a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison, but the new law imposes a mandatory minimum period of parole ineligibility of five years for distribution of 25 or more computer files of child pornography. In cases of possession or distribution of child pornography, the prosecutor can ask the court to impose a sentence of parole supervision for life under Megan’s Law.
The new child pornography statute specifically takes aim at distribution cases involving file sharing. It imposes strict liability on Internet file sharers who make child pornography files available for immediate downloading. This strict liability provision places responsibility on the user for having child pornography in a file-sharing “shared folder” on his computer. Whether the user knew he was sharing, or whether any other user ever found or downloaded the file, is irrelevant. Thus, if a defendant is convicted of possessing 25 or more files of child pornography in a shared folder on his computer after Aug. 14, 2013, he would be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years without parole.
The agencies that participated in Operation Predator Alert II with the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and the Cherry Hill and Newark Offices of ICE Homeland Security Investigations include:
New Jersey State Police Digital Technology Investigations Unit
New Jersey State Police Buena Vista, Port Norris, Red Lion and Woodstown Stations
New Jersey Department of Children and Families
Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office
Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office
Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office
Camden County Prosecutor’s Office
Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office
Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office
Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office
Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office
Salem County Prosecutor’s Office
Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office
Union County Prosecutor’s Office
Bellmawr Police Department
Cherry Hill Police Department
Eastampton Police Department
East Brunswick Police Department
Egg Harbor Township Police Department
Elizabeth Police Department
Erma Police Department
Flemington Police Department
Delanco Police Department
Franklin Township Police Department
Elizabeth Police Department
Hamilton Police Department
Linden Police Department
Lower Township Police Department
Middle Township Police Department
Montgomery Township Police Department
North Hanover Police Department
Pemberton Township Police Department
Pennsauken Police Department
Pennsauken Fire Department
Trenton Police Department
Woodstown Borough Police Department
Camden County Sheriff’s Office
Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office
Salem County Sheriff’s Office
Somerset County Sheriff’s Office
Special agents for the ICE Homeland Security Investigations Cherry Hill and Newark Offices conducted Operation Predator Alert II under the supervision of Special Agent in Charge Andrew M. McLees. It was supervised and conducted for the Division of Criminal Justice by Supervising Deputy Attorney General Michael Monahan, who is Chief of the Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau, Supervising Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Sharpe, who is Deputy Bureau Chief, Lt. Lisa Shea and Detective Sgt. Thomas Turley; Deputy Attorneys General Jillian Carpenter, Lilianne Daniel, Denise Grugan, Naju Lathia, Marie McGovern and Anand Shah; Detectives Abraham Aquino, Richard DaSilva, Cheryl Smith, Kimberly Allen, Matthew Burd, William Jett, Ryan Kirsh, Suzanna Lopez, Jessica Maracacci, Heather Pittman, Robert Rosa, Katelyn Sake, Andrew Shrader, and Danielle Terracianno; and Executive Assistant Cynthia Ronan and Administrative Assistant Lori Pannone. It was supervised and conducted for the State Police by Detective Sgt. Christopher DeAngelis, Detective Sgt. Keith Young, and Detectives Christopher Camm, Brian Kearns, Brett Munch and Joe Santamaria.