Crime Scenes: Neighbors angry at delay in child porn arrests

Authorities took months to investigate, leaving suspects free

April 09, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

The neighbors certainly remember the day when the FBI descended on the brick townhouse on Hopkins Road. It was a dark Thursday morning in March, back in 2009, and the G-men in raid jackets attracted the curious and the concerned in the tranquil suburb of Rodgers Forge.

They double-parked their unmarked sedans and slammed doors. Agents ran through back yards. One screamed, "Open up," and another told an inquisitive bystander, "Police action, stay inside." Sleepy residents rose and switched on their porch lights to see the commotion.

But after the agents disappeared, the occupants of the house — a malpractice attorney and his pregnant wife — remained. No one emerged in handcuffs. There was nothing on the TV news. Nothing in the morning papers.

Just gossip.

Answers came two years later, on April Fools Day of all days, in a two-sentence item in The Baltimore Sun: Patrick Joseph Redd, 33, was charged with possessing a computer with images depicting children engaged in "explicit" conduct.

The one-paragraph criminal complaint, filed by the Maryland U.S. attorney's office on March 29, matches the date of the raid with the date of the alleged infraction — March 26, 2009. Court papers charge that he downloaded 497 images of child pornography from a site controlled by an undercover FBI agent.

Why did it take so long for the feds to file charges? More importantly, one worried neighbor told me, the delay allowed a suspected child sex offender to remain in a community full of children for more than two years before authorities filed criminal charges.

She said Thursday that she had seen the man push his baby carriage along the sidewalk and wave. Five people who live on Hopkins Road near the suspect told me they either didn't want to talk or expressed concern but didn't want their names published.

The case in Rodgers Forge is similar to one in Montgomery County, where parents are outraged that it took police 10 months to arrest a school bus driver after detectives searched his home and allegedly found 85 images of child pornography on his computer.

The unsuspecting school system had no reason to believe anything was wrong and allowed Charles H. Acker IV to continue his bus route for nearly a year. Officials fired him a few days after he was arrested and charged.

Authorities involved with both cases responded to me in much the same way — the suspects are accused of possessing child pornography, not with having any contact with children. In other words, they're not charged with being predators, but merely with being voyeurs, on the periphery of a dangerous, sadistic world.

Cases such as these are deemed low priority. Agencies, even the FBI, have too few computer experts to analyze hard drives and extract information, and cases are triaged. Police and prosecutors said possession cases can take up to four years to go from search warrant to criminal charge.

That does nothing to placate the people in Rodgers Forge and in Quince Orchard Cluster of Montgomery County, who feel their children were unnecessarily put at risk.

Quince Orchard residents, school administrators and police traded angry letters, and a state delegate, whose 12-year-old daughter was a passenger in the bus driven by the suspect, is considering drafting a new law mandating that authorities disclose investigations involving suspects in positions of public trust.

The story has gained traction on the news and editorial pages of the Gazette newspapers, the first to report the issue in Montgomery County.

The lawmaker, Del. Aruna Miller, a Democrat, agrees that police shouldn't have told the public about Acker before he was arrested, but she believes they should've told the school system so he could be moved to a job not involving students.

It was her daughter who bounded off a school bus in February and told her that her driver wasn't driving anymore. "She said, 'Mommy, there are rumors going around that he did something funny, something he shouldn't do with kids,'" Miller told me. "I said, 'Honey, that can't be true. The school would have notified us.'"

The cluster school coordinator, Rebecca Smondrowski, told me that she knows it's a tricky subject. "If somebody has not been arrested and has not been convicted, is it fair to ruin their life over something that potentially isn't true?" she said. "But they should have notified the school internally. … We have to look out for our children, and that is above and beyond a person's reputation."

A school system spokeswoman declined to comment. And parents aren't satisfied with one answer given by Montgomery County police: They didn't notify the school about Acker because his alleged crimes "had no relation to the school."

Explained police spokeswoman Lucille Baur: "There wasn't a computer that was seized on school property. The pornography did not involve Montgomery County school students. If there had been a connection … that would've been a totally different situation."

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