A Navy physicist accused of attempting to seduce a teen-age girl through the Internet testified yesterday that he was only indulging in fantasy when he exchanged graphic photos and e-mails with an undercover FBI agent posing online as a 13-year-old cheerleader.
Navy weapons designer George Paul Chambers, 45, of LaPlata is the first defendant charged with that crime to challenge it at trial in Maryland's federal courts. A jury last night began weighing the case, what Chambers' attorney called an example of eroding privacy rights and "the ultimate nightmare in a free society."
Jurors deliberated for about three hours before going home for the night. They are expected to continue deliberations this morning in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
In his testimony, Chambers said he never thought he was really talking to an underage girl when he traded explicit messages in an America Online chat room called "I Love Older Men." Instead, the married father of two young daughters said the Internet provided a fantasy outlet that he compared to the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
"It's a way of stepping out of your real life; you could be somebody else for a while," Chambers said. His attorney, Bryan A. Levitt of Owings Mills, told jurors in closing arguments that Chambers "is a nice guy, but he's not a sexy guy.
"On the Internet, though, he can be Don Juan."
Federal prosecutors offered a darker version. They argued that Chambers did think he was interacting with a real teen-ager in the more than 100 messages he exchanged with undercover FBI Special Agent Emily Vacher between February and June of this year.
The sexually explicit correspondence, they said, showed that he wanted to meet the girl and to have sex with her. As evidence of Chambers' intent, prosecutors noted that Chambers arranged online to meet the girl at The Mall in Columbia on June 6 and traveled 60 miles from his office at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head to the Howard County shopping center, where FBI agents arrested him.
"Who did he think he was going to meet?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Ari Casper told jurors. "You need to figure out: Does this make any sense?"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan P. Luna said the issue in the case was not whether adults should be able to fantasize about sex online.
The Internet might have created a new outlet for those fantasies -- just as it has made buying books and booking plane tickets simpler -- but Luna said, "What it hasn't done, is it does not ignore common, decent society. It doesn't ignore that."
The three-day trial has provided a steady stream of lurid testimony and unseemly details in Baltimore's normally staid federal courthouse. U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis, who presided over the case, took the rare step Tuesday of requiring Levitt to apologize to Agent Vacher for "inappropriate" questions during her testimony.
Levitt at one point had asked the agent whether she had been persuaded to have sex with Chambers through the online exchanges, an apparent attempt to show that the messages never were intended literally. At another point, Levitt asked Vacher if she thought a photograph of herself at age 13 that she had emailed to Chambers as part of the sting operation was "sexy."
Jurors also were given word-for-word transcripts of each online conversation, explicit conversations in which Chambers e-mailed photos of male genitalia and talked about impregnating the girl.
Levitt said it was all part of the dark, online fantasy of a shy, socially awkward man. Chambers told jurors he did not think what he was doing had any consequences or involved real children, although prosecutors presented brief testimony yesterday from a 17-year-old Texas girl who had exchanged a series of explicit Internet messages with Chambers when she was 14.
The girl and Chambers never met, although authorities said he repeatedly asked for her phone number and talked about flying to Texas to visit her.
Chambers' attorney said that even if the exchanges are considered disgusting to some observers, they aren't illegal.
"The fact it is disgusting or repulsive or upsets you or doesn't sit right with you doesn't make it illegal," Levitt said in closing arguments. "The FBI was eager to make an arrest -- that is their agenda. That is what they do. This is a very sad case in which the government has fought very hard to justify what they do."