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D.C. police target gay men in online sting

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said she is aware of the sting and supports it through the department’s participation in an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Federal Public Defender for the District of Columbia has alleged that D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s office have unfairly targeted gay men in an Internet sting operation seeking to arrest men who “entice” or “persuade” juveniles for sex.

In a little noticed brief filed in federal court last May, Assistant Public Defender for D.C. Jonathan Jeffress said that with full approval from the U.S. Attorney’s office, a D.C. police detective posing undercover as an adult gay man has targeted gay men for sex-with-minor arrests on adult gay websites that have “no history or reputation as locations where minors go online.”

The brief was filed under Jeffress’ name along with the name of A.J. Kramer, the Federal Public Defender for D.C., who is responsible for managing a staff of public defender attorneys that represent indigent clients before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Jeffress told the Blade that among the sites targeted in the sting are Gay.com, BarebackRT.com, and SexPigs.com, which are widely known as dating and sex hookup sites for adult gay men. He said he knows of at least 20 arrests of gay men in the sting operation in which the undercover detective met the men through these websites.

These figures are far lower than the actual numbers of arrests through this sting, Jeffress said, because many of the arrested men likely retain private attorneys and their cases don’t pass through the Federal Public Defender’s office.

William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said that since 2005, his office has prosecuted 68 cases “in which defendants were arrested in investigations in which an undercover officer poses as an adult pedophile who has access to a child (girl or boy).” He said that of the 68 cases, “about half involved defendants attempting to exploit boys and about half involved defendants attempting to exploit girls.”

Miller cited a court brief filed by the government in opposition to the Federal Public Defender’s brief, which disputes the allegations made by the public defender, calling them “baseless.” The government brief says the allegations and legal arguments made by the Federal Public Defender are not supported by past court decisions that upheld the legality of similar sting operations in other jurisdictions.

Jeffress, however, noted that a federal judge in D.C. supported the Federal Public Defender’s arguments last month when he acquitted a gay male defendant ensnared in one the sting arrests.

Jeffress said D.C. police Det. Timothy Palchak has made nearly all of the arrests in the sting operation.

According to court records and police charging documents, the undercover detective posts a profile on one of the websites indicating his interest in meeting someone for sex, describing himself as 40 years old, “athletic,” 6-feet-2 inches tall, 200-209 pounds, and “versatile.” In at least one case, he described himself as a “no limit perv” into taboos, including “yng,” meaning young people.

Court records show the detective informs those who respond to his posting through emails or instant messages using known code words or abbreviations that he’s into drugs, including crystal meth, and invites the men to his place for sex with him.

A police charging document for one of the cases says the detective mentioned to one of the men responding to his profile that he has available to him a 12-year-old “perv boy” who “loves” to be penetrated in anal sex.

Police and prosecutors have said in court papers the “boy” is fictitious and that the men targeted in the sting have never been in contact with an actual juvenile or with the fictitious boy — only with the detective posing as an adult who claims to have access to the boy.

In his court brief, Jeffress said many of the men arrested in the sting are heavy drug users, including crystal meth addicts, and have consented to engaging in sex with the detective and the juvenile for the purpose of “going along” with the detective, who they think is a willing adult sex partner, as a means of obtaining drugs.

“Instead of apprehending the Internet predator who is actively seeking children online — such as the kind of defendant one sees time after time in the cases from other districts — the U.S. Attorney’s Office is instead arresting gay men interacting in adults-only chat rooms that have no history or reputation as locations where minors go online,” Jeffress said in his brief.

“Moreover, instead of arresting individuals who have attempted to persuade minors, the arrests are of defendants who have been persuaded by the UC [undercover detective] to meet him and the fictitious minor for drugs and sex,” the brief says.

The brief adds, “[A]s the government is fully aware, the defendants in these cases are often struggling with meth use, and are therefore agreeing to the UC’s propositions not because they are pedophiles but because they are compulsive and exceedingly susceptible to the power of the UC’s suggestions, particularly on sexual matters. These defendants are also powerfully motivated by the UC’s dangling of meth as a ‘carrot’ to reward their travel to the meeting place.”

By meeting place, Jeffress was referring to a place that Det. Palchak arranges for the men targeted in the sting to meet him and the fictitious juvenile for sex and drugs. The targeted men are arrested immediately or shortly after they arrive at the designated meeting place, court records show.

Jeffress’ brief, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, called on a federal judge to dismiss a charge against a Canadian gay man ensnared in the sting in March 2011 during his visit to D.C. on the way home from Fort Lauderdale. Police and prosecutors charged Ivan Nitschke, 47, under a federal anti-pedophile statute that calls for a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in jail and a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The statute, referred to in court documents as 18 U.S. Code, Sec. 2422(b), is aimed at apprehending online predators who seek out sex with minors.

U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg agreed to a pre-trial defense motion to dismiss that charge against Nitschke last May. Following a non-jury trial last month, Boasberg found Nitschke not-guilty on a separate charge of traveling with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct.

Boasberg ordered Nitschke released from jail, where he had been held without bail since his arrest on March 24, 2011.

The brief says Nitschke, an admitted methamphetamine addict, was arrested after he responded to a posting by Det. Palchak on BarebackRT.com.

In delivering his verdict in the Nitschke case, Judge Boasberg said he found the defendant, who testified at the trial, to be credible and honest in admitting to his addiction to crystal meth and being into promiscuous sex with multiple adult partners during his visit to D.C.

Boasberg said the defense proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Nitschke was not a pedophile and his stated agreement to join the undercover detective in a sexual encounter with the fictitious 12-year-old boy was motivated by his desire to obtain drugs from the detective posing as an adult sex partner.

“So at the end of the day, for all these reasons, in this case I strongly question the government, whether the government has even met the preponderance standard here,” Boasberg said from the bench. “And I thus have no hesitation in pronouncing a verdict of not guilty for the defendant.”

Miller, the spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney in D.C., said his office has no comment on the verdict in the Nitschke case.

He said the arrests in the sting have been part of a joint effort between the U.S. Attorney’s office, D.C. police, and the FBI through the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force, which he said places a high priority on combating the sexual exploitation of minors.

“When the task force learns that pedophiles are using otherwise legitimate websites to seek out children to exploit, it does not hesitate to use those sites to identify these criminals,” Miller said in a statement to the Blade. “Our office has no interest in targeting those seeking out consensual adult relationships, but remains committed to identifying and stopping those individuals who are intent on sexually exploiting children.”

He said that of the 68 “sting” cases prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C. since 2005, 66 of the defendants were convicted, one case was dismissed, and just one defendant, Nitschke, was acquitted by a judge. Miller did not break down these numbers between the defendants that pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain offer and those, if any, who were convicted in a trial.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, when asked about the sting, told the Blade she is aware of it and supports it through the department’s participation in an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force created by the U.S. Department of Justice. The FBI is also a participant in the Task Force.

“The goal of the unit is to protect children against predators,” Lanier said, in referring to a D.C. police Internet Crimes Against Children unit to which Det. Palchak is assigned. “The group that is targeted is pedophiles,” she said. “Anyone that agrees to have sex with a child should be arrested and prosecuted.”

Lanier said Palchak and the ICAC unit “looks at several websites and does not target any one in particular…No one website is targeted,” she told the Blade in an email.

In a police charging document against Nitschke, Det. Palchak said that Nitschke initiated a private email chat with the detective in response to the detective’s profile on the website, which has since been identified as BareBackRT.com. In one of his messages, Palchak said he was getting off work at 3 p.m. “and meeting my lil perv boy that I met over the summer for a few hours. He is young so if that is not your thing we can hook up after he leaves.”

In his charging document, Palchak quotes Nitschke as responding, “Hey bud…said I was into that in my first message…fuck yeah…how old is he?” Palchak responded that the boy had not yet turned 13 and added that the boy was very “cool, vers and freaky” and “loves to be fucked and bred,” the charging document says.

It says Nitschke responded, “…yeah…into all that…and ready to join in.”

In explaining his not-guilty verdict for Nitschke, Judge Boasberg said this type of dialogue, standing alone, suggested Nitschke may have been interested in sex with the fictitious boy. But the judge said the preponderance of evidence established a “context” showing that Nitschke was not into sex with minors and that his overarching aim was to seek out drugs from the detective.

Boasberg noted that evidence submitted by the defense showed that he had been in online chats with half-a-dozen or more other men during the days prior to his online meeting with Det. Palchak. In all of those exchanges the defendants’ interest was sex with people around his age and drugs, not sex with a juvenile, Boasberg said in his lengthy verdict, which has been transcribed.

“[H]is actions show that meeting Detective Palchak is something he is barely interested in,” Boasberg said in explaining his verdict. “If you look at his actions, not what he said in the chat, but what he did,” said the judge, “it just doesn’t show someone who is interested in sex with children.”

It could not be immediately determined whether the U.S. Attorney’s office has asked Det. Palchak to change his tactics in communicating with men on the gay adult websites as a means of carrying out the sting operation following Boasberg’s not-guilty verdict in the Nitschke case.

The concerns raised by the Federal Public Defender about the possible targeting of gay men in a child-sex sting come at a time when LGBT activists have complained that the U.S. Attorney’s office has lowered charges in plea bargain arrangements for people arrested for committing violent crimes against LGBT people, especially transgender women, during the past several years.

Jeffress said the Federal Public Defender’s office has represented about a dozen gay men arrested in the sting operation whom the undercover detective met through various adult gay websites. He said he knows of at least 10 more arrests made through online contact between the detective and the defendants, with at least some through Gay.com.

In his court brief, Jeffress said prosecutors in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s office typically charge the men arrested in the sting under 18 U.S. Code 2422(b), which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison, as a way to intimidate them into pleading guilty to a lower charge.

The lower charge often consists of a federal statute outlawing traveling in interstate or foreign commerce “for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct with another person.” That statute carries no minimum sentence and includes a maximum sentence of 30 years. Jeffress’ brief says in most cases, judges follow federal sentencing guidelines, which call for sentences for first offenders of between 46 and 57 months in jail.

The brief says the action by the men ensnared in the sting does not appear to meet the threshold for an arrest under the more severe charge, 18 U.S. Code 2422(b), which states, “Whoever, using the mail or any facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce … knowingly persuades, induces, entices, or coerces any individual who has not attained the age of 18 years, to engage in prostitution or any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title and imprisoned not less than 10 years and or for life.”