150 years given in child porn case

Man implicated by teen who performed online

July 16, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A Virginia man who helped run a child pornography business that has been the focus of federal and state investigations, as well as congressional hearings, was sentenced Friday to 150 years in prison.

The man, Gregory J. Mitchel, 39, pleaded guilty in January to charges involving the sexual exploitation of boys and the operation of illegal Web sites. Mitchel, an administrator on several of the sites, admitted in his plea to producing and distributing child pornography.

Mitchel was arrested in September after being implicated by Justin Berry, a 19-year-old California man featured in a December article in The New York Times about teenagers who run for-pay pornography sites, showing images of themselves transmitted by webcams. Berry's story prompted the hearings before a House subcommittee, and he testified in April.

For five years beginning when he was 13, Berry said, he was enticed with cash and gifts from adults into performing sex acts in front of his webcam. He stopped doing so in 2005 after being contacted by The Times. Soon after, he was granted immunity by the government and became a federal witness.

Mitchel pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Roanoke, Va., to four felonies involving the production, sale, distribution and possession of child pornography. Because of a previous conviction on a child pornography charge, he had faced a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison.

At the sentencing hearing, Sherri A. Stephan, a prosecutor from the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, urged Judge Samuel G. Wilson to impose a stiff sentence, saying that Mitchel was a dangerous sexual predator, according to people who attended.

But in statements before the sentencing, Mitchel blamed Berry for the situation, saying that the teenager had manipulated him. He claimed that Berry made all of the money from their illegal site. He also claimed that he was the one who walked away from the business, not Berry.

Mitchel's statements were contradicted by instant messages and other communications with Berry that were witnessed by The Times in July 2005. After Berry left the business - disappearing with no explanation to his partners - Mitchel sent messages urging him to help obtain more pornography for their site, which had opened weeks before. In the messages, Mitchel complained that he was doing all the work for the site.

That month, to prove that he did not control the finances of the site, Berry engaged in a protracted online discussion with Mitchel in front of a reporter, demanding more money from the site. Mitchel refused, instead wiring Berry an originally offered amount of $1,000, a portion of the weekly proceeds. Berry disposed of the cash - the only money he received from that site - in a church collection plate.

At the time of his arrest, Mitchel was days from escorting an underage boy to a Las Vegas hotel, according to records of his online conversations. Law enforcement officials said they had recovered more than 600 pornographic images of children on Mitchel's computers, which were seized at the time of his arrest in September.

Mitchel is one of four men arrested for their ties to Berry's webcam business. On Friday, Berry testified in a Michigan state court at an evidentiary hearing for one of the men.

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