LOS ANGELES – United States Attorney Nick Hanna and FBI Assistant Director in Charge Paul D. Delacourt today announced a series of child exploitation cases involving the victimization of minors through crimes that include the production of child pornography.
FBI agents on Thursday arrested two defendants as part of a multi-agency sweep that led to eight defendants being taken into custody over the past 10 days. Several of the cases involved agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). These cases are part of Project Safe Childhood, which is the Justice Department's ongoing initiative to combat the growing epidemic of child exploitation crimes.
The internet has dramatically increased the availability of child pornography, and digital equipment has made it relatively easy to create, distribute and collect these disturbing images. But underlying each case in which an individual uses technology, there is a young victim who was abused, molested or coerced to engage in sexual activity to fulfill the deviant interests of a perpetrator. Every child exploitation prosecution is designed to end this horrific behavior, to stop the cycle of abuse, and to bring offenders to justice.
“These cases involve acts of depravity against vulnerable young people, many of whom will continue to be victimized as photos documenting their abuse spread across the internet,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “These cases are a reminder that child predators cannot hide behind the perceived anonymity of the internet. Those who engage in the child pornography industry – whether they create new images or collect videos – can and will be caught as a result of the concerted efforts of local, state and federal law enforcement authorities. Our aggressive investigators and prosecutors will continue to diligently work to protect innocent children and to seek justice for those who are victimized.”
“The cases being announced today range from individuals who continuously feed the demand for child pornography by sharing it, to those who document the sexual abuse of children through images and video, and others who travel abroad for the purpose of molesting children. In each case, a voiceless child is victimized for life,” said Paul Delacourt, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office. “The FBI and our partners have a clear mission that includes rescuing these precious victims from this unspeakable abuse and delivering some justice by putting their abusers in prison.”
The two defendants arrested Thursday by the FBI are:
- Nestor Ramirez, 36, of South Los Angeles, who is charged with production, distribution and possession of child pornography. The production charge relates to images that Ramirez allegedly created, and he allegedly distributed videos over a peer-to-peer network on at least two occasions. During his arraignment Thursday afternoon, Ramirez pleaded not guilty to the charges in a four-count indictment and was ordered to stand trial on November 27. Ramirez was detained – meaning held without bond – pending trial.
- Victor Manuel Diaz Romo, 53, of Lawndale, who is named in an indictment alleging receipt of child pornography over a peer-to-peer network and five counts of possession of child pornography. During his arraignment on Thursday, Romo pleaded not guilty and was ordered to stand trial on November 27. Romo was ordered detained pending trial.
The FBI-led sweep resulted in the arrest of six other defendants last week. Each of those defendants has entered not guilty pleas and are facing trials later this year. Those arrested on September 26 and 27 pursuant to grand jury indictments are:
- Christopher Norman Strinden, 57, of Long Beach, who is charged with three counts of possession of child pornography he obtained from a now-defunct website called Playpen, which was operating on the dark web. Many of the more than 17,000 images in this case allegedly involve minors under the age of 12, including toddlers.
- Kenneth Rudy Smith, 31, of Lawndale, who is charged with one count of possession of child pornography involving victims under the age of 12 that was found during a search of his residence.
- Justin Schobey, 19, of Canyon Country, who is charged with production, distribution and possession of child pornography. Schobey allegedly used text messages to coerce a boy in another state to produce child pornography.
- Jorge De Los Santos, 31, of South Los Angeles, who is charged with two counts of receipt of child pornography and one count of possession. De Los Santos allegedly used an online peer-to-peer network to obtain sexually explicit videos depicting young males.
- Fernando Vazquez Garcia, 30, of South Los Angeles, who is charged with receipt of child pornography, as well as possessing videos he allegedly obtained over a file-sharing network.
- Nathan Pham, 27, of Long Beach, who is charged with both receipt and possession of child pornography obtained through a peer-to-peer network. The possession count alleges images involving minors under the age of 12.
“No crime impacts us as law enforcement agents and as parents more deeply as the abuse of an innocent child,” said Joseph Macias, Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Los Angeles. “As these cases vividly illustrate, the internet has left our children vulnerable to exploitation by sexual predators not just around the corner, but around the globe. The staggering number of arrests achieved through interagency cooperation is a testament to our combined passion to prevent future harm to innocent children.”
In recent weeks, federal prosecutors have filed cases against additional defendants who allegedly committed child exploitation offenses. Those case include:
- A former music teach from Ventura – John Zeretzke, 60– who is charged with production of child pornography, attempted enticement of a minor, and traveling to the Philippines with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct. This case is being investigated by the United States Postal Inspection Service.
- Members of the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force arrested a Long Beach man on charges of coercing a minor to produce child pornography and travelling to Mexico to engage in illicit sexual conduct. Jonathan Sandoval-Lepe, 31, was taken into custody by deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and FBI agents pursuant to a five-count indictment.
- Israel Sanchez, 52, of Sylmar, who was arrested on August 30 pursuant to an indictment that charges him with 13 counts of production of child pornography and one count of possession. Sanchez was arrested after he was released from state custody on child molestation charges involving one of the very young victims in the child pornography case.
- Alex Primitibo Campos, 25, of Palmdale, who was arrested on September 5 on charges of distributing child pornography and three counts of possession. The distribution charge relates to videos depicting children as young as approximately 7 that Campos allegedly made available to others via download from a peer-to-peer network.
- Joseph Natale, 24, of Lancaster, who was indicted on September 18 on two counts of distributing child pornography and two counts of possession. This case stems from an undercover FBI investigation in which agents downloaded images that Natale allegedly made available via a peer-to-peer network.
There have been developments recently in other child exploitation cases being prosecuted by the United States Attorney's Office. Those cases involve:
- Michael Joseph Farber, 50, of West Los Angeles, who pleaded guilty on September 14 to one count of possession of child pornography. Farber specifically admitted that he possessed videos showing a child under the age of 12 engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Farber is scheduled to be sentenced on December 10.
- Richard Celestino, 48, of Green Valley (on the eastern edge of the Antelope Valley), who pleaded guilty on July 30 to possession of child pornography, admitting that he used a peer-to-peer file-sharing network to distribute and possess child pornography, including images depicting children under the age of 2. Celestino's sentencing hearing is now scheduled for November 19.
- Edward Anthony Contes, 36, of San Pedro, is scheduled to be tried on January 29 on charges of traveling to Mexico for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct with minor boys, use of the internet in an attempt to entice a minor to engage in prostitution, and attempted sex trafficking of two boys in the Los Angeles area. Contes was arrested in June after allegedly traveling to Tijuana in May and making contact on the internet with a person he thought was a child sex trafficker, but who in fact was an undercover law enforcement agent. In addition to seeking a boy in Mexico, Contes allegedly made arrangements with the undercover agent to pay to have sex with a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old at a hotel in Long Beach. This investigation is being conducted by HSI's Long Beach Child Exploitation Investigation Group and the FBI's Long Beach Resident Agency.
- An elementary school teacher from Burbank, Sean David Sigler, is scheduled to be tried on April 11, 2019, on charges related to the sexual exploitation of a 15-year-old student. Sigler has been in custody since his arrest in May.
- Daniel Patrick Diaz, 34, of Wilmington, was arrested in July pursuant to a six-count indictment that alleges the production, distribution, receipt and possession of child pornography. Diaz is currently scheduled for trial on January 22.
- Charles Patrick Miller, 49, of Lancaster, was sentenced on August 13 to nine years in federal prison for distributing child pornography on a peer-to-peer network. Miller admitted possessing tens of thousands of images and videos depicting child pornography, and his distribution of child pornography continued even after the FBI served a search warrant at his residence. Once he completes his prison sentence, Miller will be on supervised release for the rest of his life.
An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.
The charge of producing child pornography carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in federal prison and a statutory maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.
The charges of distributing and receiving child pornography carry a five-year mandatory minimum sentence and a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Possession of child pornography does not carry a mandatory minimum sentence, but a conviction on this charge can bring a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.