Georges Debeir was exactly the kind of cyber stalker the FBI wanted to catch: He had solicited more than 50 children from around the world on the Internet, went to malls to meet children he contacted by computer and regularly spoke online about his wish to molest minors.
But instead of a victory for Innocent Images, the FBI's premier undercover Internet operation based in Baltimore, Debeir's case turned out to be a bust.
He was sentenced to six months of home detention, despite a federal prosecutor's insistence that he was a predator intent on "trolling for young girls."
His sentencing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in November has been appealed by prosecutors, who say the case underscores the need for judges around the country to take their undercover stings more seriously.
Although the $10 million-a-year program has resulted in 282 convictions nationwide since 1994, sentences typically have been modest, ranging from home detention to 18 months in prison, according to FBI officials.
In most cases, those convicted had traveled across state lines to have sex with "children" -- who turned out to be federal undercover agents. The cases have posed a dilemma for some judges who say they actually are "victimless crimes" committed by people acting out online fantasies.
"These are people engaging in a crime of violence, and it has to be regarded in that way," said Lynne A. Battaglia, the U.S. attorney for Maryland.
"People say, `Oh, they just said something online to an FBI agent; it's no big deal.' But it is. These are people that pose a lot of potential for harm."
The Internet and its chat rooms, still relatively new phenomena, are even more novel in criminal cases since little case law has developed around them. And computer sexual predators tend to be well-educated people with good jobs and no criminal records, all factors in their favor at sentencing hearings.
Among those caught in the federal child-exploitation stings have been an elementary school principal, a Bible teacher, a summer stock theater director, an aerospace engineer, a former National Security Agency code-breaker, two police officers and several lawyers.
Most got home detention or less than a year in prison.
Judges say the sentencings are often complex, with factors such as criminal history, willingness to accept counseling and expression of remorse being considered.
"The bench as a whole is not taking these cases cavalierly because it was a sting operation," said J. Frederick Motz, the chief federal judge in Baltimore. "We're used to seeing sting operations.
"But there are a lot of other factors that are taken into account at each individual sentencing."
Prosecutors in Baltimore, who are on the front lines of bringing the high-profile Innocent Images cases into the courtroom, say they are facing a tough sell.
Judges, they contend, don't often regard the cases as violent acts and rarely mete out stiff penalties.
They have taken the unusual step of appealing Debeir's sentence. The case will be heard tomorrow in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie S. Greenberg said in the appeal memorandum that a crime's seriousness should not be diminished because an undercover agent exposed it. "The use of an undercover agent to detect a crime is simply irrelevant to punishment," she argued.
Lawmakers have been addressing the issue as well. In June, the U.S. House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee issued a report that said the sting operations could play a critical role in combating the growing problem of child exploitation online.
"Law enforcement plays an important role in discovering child sex offenders on the Internet before they are able to victimize an actual child," the committee concluded.
"Those who believe they are victimizing children should be punished just as if a real child were involved."
In the case of Debeir, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson took the victim -- or lack of one -- into account.
Debeir, a 56-year-old former Belgian consulate official living in New York City, was arrested in June at the Gallery at Harborplace after attempting to meet "Kathy," a 14-year-old girl he met online.
Kathy turned out to be an undercover federal agent.
Federal agents seized numerous computer records from his home after his arrest, showing that Debeir had approached dozens of young girls online -- as far away as South Africa -- attempting to pay them for sex.
Among them was Meredith, 12, of East Syracuse, N.Y., whom Debeir approached while she was conducting research online to learn more about her mother's breast cancer condition.
Prosecutors say he found her through a search of those who had used the word "breast" in their user profiles.
"He told me that he was almost 20, and he had a sister, and he was French, and that he was a student at New York University," recalled Meredith, who is not being identified because of her age and the nature of the crime. "He helped me with my French homework a lot."