Seven men from around the country were sentenced today and yesterday for participating in an international child pornography production conspiracy, announced Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Sherri A. Lydon of the District of South Carolina, and Special Agent in Charge Alphonso “Jody” Norris of the FBI Columbia, South Carolina Field Office.
“Today’s sentencings involve another example of a disturbing and reprehensible new trend: the ‘crowdsourcing’ of child exploitation,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski. “Through malicious trickery and technical sophistication, these men worked together over the course of many months pretending to be minor boys and girls in order to target and entice vulnerable minor girls–some as young as 10 years old–into producing child pornography. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of the prosecutors and agents who worked on this case, these defendants will spend many years in prison, and their victims–more than 91 identified to date– have received some measure of justice for the trauma done to them.”
“This case illustrates that even sophisticated technological means will not protect predators online from being brought to justice,” said U.S. Attorney Lydon. “The arrest and prosecution of perpetrators who commit these heinous acts of violence will continue to be a high priority of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina, and I commend the investigators who spent endless hours on this important case.”
“These crimes are especially disturbing and it is very satisfying to see the results of the hard work of our special agents,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Norris. “The FBI in South Carolina will remain vigilant and continue our active role in the national strategy to ensure children are protected.”
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel for the District of South Carolina imposed the following sentences:
Brandon Gressette, aka “Samisbae,” 33, a restaurant cook of Summerville, South Carolina, was sentenced to serve 40 years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release. He pleaded guilty on Sept. 29, 2017.
James Thomas Gersky, aka “Hesh,” 35, a temporary agency employee of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was sentenced to serve 30 years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release. He pleaded guilty on Oct. 25, 2017.
Steven Fox, aka. “Steam,” 40, an unemployed resident of Elkridge, Maryland, was sentenced to serve 30 years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release. He pleaded guilty on Sept. 28, 2017.
Sean Ellis, aka. “Jeffery,” 44, a data protection specialist of Kennesaw, Georgia, was sentenced to serve 30 years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release. He pleaded guilty on Sept. 28, 2017.
Michael Augustin, aka. “Rand,” 45, a computer engineer of Fort Collins, Colorado, was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release. He pleaded guilty on Oct. 12, 2017.
Dejan Becovic, aka “DryAids,” 24, a utilities locator of West Vallen City, Utah, was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release. He pleaded guilty on Oct. 20, 2017. Becovic also previously pleaded guilty in the District of Utah to receipt of child pornography, and on Oct. 18, 2017 was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for the Utah conviction.
Jonathan Cripe, aka “Terp,” 29, a security system installer of Imperial, Missouri, was sentenced to serve 18 years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release. He pleaded guilty on Aug. 8, 2017.
All defendants were ordered to pay $10,000 to one victim and $98,715 to another victim in restitution, jointly and severally. Gressette was additionally ordered to pay $2,000 in restitution to two victims. Fox was additionally ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution to two victims and Cripe was additionally ordered to pay $2,500 in restitution to two victims. Augustin was also ordered by Judge Gergel to pay a fine in the amount of $100,000.
According to court documents, between July 2014 and April 2015, these defendants and other co-conspirators outside the United States utilized a website that was specifically designed to help the group target and sexually exploit minor females. The website was password-protected, and only vetted individuals could become members. The members of the website worked together to identify social media profiles of girls, including girls as young as 10, and strategized regarding how to convince the girls to engage in sexually explicit activity via live web camera. Typically, while pretending to be minor boys and girls, the defendants streamed pre-recorded videos of other underage girls engaging in similar conduct to their target-victims in an effort to trick the girls into believing they were watching a live video of someone their own age. Using peer-pressure, the members convinced the victims to engage in sexually explicit activity. The victims were unaware that they were actually communicating with adult men who were recording their sexually explicit activity. After successfully recording a victim’s sexually explicit activity, the defendants would share the videos with each other by uploading the files to a file-storage site and placing a link to download the file on a section of their members-only website. To date, 91 victims from 28 states and Canada have been positively identified.
Six of the co-conspirators each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to produce child pornography and one count of conspiracy to receive and distribute child pornography. Defendant Gressette pleaded guilty to the same count of conspiracy to produce child pornography, as well as two additional substantive counts of production of child pornography with two different victims, one of whom was under the age of 12. Additionally, another co-conspirator, Jonathan Soto, 27, of Branchburg, New Jersey, was prosecuted in the District of New Jersey and also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to produce child pornography. On March 31, 2017, Soto was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for his role in the scheme.
Trial Attorneys Lauren Britsch and Austin M. Berry of the Criminal Division’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) and Assistant U.S. Attorney Dean Secor of the District of South Carolina prosecuted the case. The FBI Newark, New Jersey and Columbia, South Carolina Field Offices and the FBI Major Case Coordination Unit investigated the case with assistance from Operation Rescue Me, the Digital Analysis and Research Center (DARC) Lab and CEOS’s High Technology Investigative Unit.