Former Dundalk minister testifies at his Net sex trial

He says he never thought he was talking to a child

verdict expected Friday

January 07, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

A former Dundalk minister accused of using the Internet to set up a sexual rendezvous with a 13-year-old girl last year said yesterday that he never believed he was talking with a child online - only with an adult who may have been "so burned out sexually" that she wanted to play-act.

In fact, lying was common in the Yahoo "romance" chat room he used to periodically set up sex dates with strangers, Jonathan N. Gerstner testified during his daylong trial in Howard Circuit Court.

"It was kind of the rules of the game in a chat room," said the 45-year-old Perry Hall resident. "This was the norm."

However, defense attorney Joseph Murtha argued it is legally impossible for Gerstner to have committed a crime because there was no minor at the other end of the keyboard - only a 20-something Maryland state trooper posing as "jennifer000013," a young girl from Bowie.

"No matter how many times ... the state addresses what it is that was done, a minor does not exist in this case," he told Judge Diane O. Leasure, who is trying the case instead of a jury. Leasure is expected to issue a verdict Friday afternoon.

Gerstner, the former senior pastor at Inverness Presbyterian Church in Dundalk and a married father of five, is charged with solicitation of a minor using a computer, attempted second-degree rape and attempted second-degree sexual offense.

Murtha's arguments yesterday were the latest in a string of challenges to the validity of the Maryland laws used to charge defendants caught in Internet sex stings involving fictitious victims.

With no appellate decision to offer a definitive ruling, lawyers across the state are arguing in case after case that such solicitations break no law because the young "victim" never existed. At least one case, which resulted in a conviction in Frederick County, is being appealed.

Yesterday, prosecutor Jim Dietrich argued that the solicitation law does not require actual communication between a defendant and a youth. It is enough that Gerstner's intent was to set up a sexual date with a minor, he said.

"This crime can be committed separate and apart from the existence of a minor," he said.

After the chat, Gerstner, who used the screen name "baltimorecare," took his plans one step further, traveling to Foxhill Park in Bowie on May 21 to meet "jennifer000013" and buying condoms on the way, Dietrich said. State police arrested Gerstner after he arrived in Foxhill Park.

"The defendant had a pocketful of condoms, and he had more in his car," Dietrich said.

Nothing in the transcript of the May 21 conversation between Gerstner and Trooper Stephanie Fasick, who was working online from a Columbia office, suggests that he thought he was talking with an adult.

In fact, Gerstner went to great lengths to tell "jennifer000013" how to avoid getting into trouble with her mother, Dietrich said.

But Gerstner, who said he went online for sex during times of "extreme" depression and stress, testified that he was "confident" he would be meeting an adult. The chat room he used was frequented by men and women in their 30s and 40s and had a "singles bar atmosphere," he said. He had set up sexual liaisons there before, he said.

And while he thought "jennifer000013," the third person he approached in the chat room that day, was an adult playing out an "interesting fantasy," he asked for a phone number so he could talk with her and make sure he was not getting involved with someone who was "very, very disturbed."

Gerstner, who during his testimony repeatedly called his behavior "inappropriate" and said he is in counseling, left his post at Inverness after his arrest and is not working as a minister.

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