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Saving Justin Berry

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This was apparently as grueling an experience for Eichenwald as for Berry. For Eichenwald’s story, day and night, they reviewed Berry’s many hard drives and downloaded data from the host computer and Neova, the company that handled credit-card processing for JustinsFriends. Eichenwald says Berry showed him the preview video for his Website. It featured him and a kid named “Taylor,” side by side on a bed masturbating. Taylor, Berry said, was just 14 years old.

The idea that another youngster was now sinking into a similar fate occupied Eichenwald’s mind. He worried he was legally culpable to do something but felt his options were few. He could go to the authorities himself, but journalists are loath to be seen as tools of prosecutors. At that very moment, his colleague Judith Miller sat in a federal prison for refusing to reveal a source to a special prosecutor. Eichenwald had a better idea, he says, and convinced Larry Ingrassia, the top editor of the Times business section. They would encourage Berry to go to the authorities, then chronicle the investigation from start to finish.

But they had a problem. Berry could possibly be brought up on charges himself for recruiting, filming, and distributing the Taylor video, a serious federal crime. Going to the authorities was especially troubling to Father Huddleston, who was now praying regularly with Berry. “The problem was that Justin’s age put him in a place where he was too old to be considered a victim, and the adult programs would treat him like he was the perpetrator,” Father Huddleston says.

Eichenwald called Steve Ryan, a former federal prosecutor who had been a source of his over the years, and Ryan agreed to help negotiate immunity for Berry in exchange for telling what he knew about the industry that Eichenwald was uncovering. He arranged for Berry to be interviewed by the FBI in Washington, D.C., on July 25 and 26, 2005. Eichenwald accompanied his source to D.C. (He says he was passing through on a family vacation, but Ryan says Eichenwald was on hand to greet Berry during breaks in his testimony and even offered information himself.)

But the FBI took some 50 days to confer immunity. One day in July, Eichenwald learned that Taylor was planning to travel to Boston with Greg Mitchel. Berry convinced him that Mitchel intended to molest the minor on the trip (Taylor later told the FBI he was never touched by Mitchel, whom he said he loved “like a father”). In a panic, Eichenwald called Ingrassia again, this time proposing an even more unorthodox intervention, to which he says the editor—and company lawyers—finally agreed. Eichenwald initiated an IM conversation with Taylor, impersonating Berry, the youngster’s mentor. He told Taylor to stay clear of Mitchel and to end his porn career, and Taylor apparently agreed.

“In part, I was Justin,” Eichenwald tells me, “because Justin was speaking in part through me.”

When I press Eichenwald on how, as a journalist, he could justify this charade, he explodes in angry self-defense: “Do you think I wanted to be the first journalist to go to jail for allowing a child to continue being raped because I didn’t want to violate some Star Trek–ian nonintervention rule that isn’t written down anywhere?” Eichenwald says he made additional contacts with over a dozen other minors who he believed were producing sexualized images of themselves and persuaded them to stop as well. “It’s the most noble thing I’ve ever done,” he says.

Right or wrong, these actions give an indication of the terrible weight Eichenwald felt was on his shoulders. The world that came into focus for him was a dire one and drove him to peculiar extremes, he admits. “Somebody told me yesterday, ‘You wanted to be the Catcher in the Rye.’ And I realized that’s absolutely true. I wanted—I wanted to save them.”

This hero complex drove him deeper into the rabbit hole. He began to see pedophiles and their victims everywhere—in the shadows at the local water park or massing at a neighborhood hamburger stand. His wife remembers him calling her from the garage in tears, unable to come in from his car. He often woke up screaming in the middle of the night. “He’s a casualty of war,” says Ryan, who now represents Eichenwald as well. “Kurt saw things, or imagined things based on the life that these kids lived—he imagined their lives, through the facts that they gave him. As a human being, he said, ‘What would it be like to be this 13-year-old boy who’s raped?’ ”


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