Mouse Trapped

On a mission: Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro (Photo: Courtesy of the DA's Office).

It was going down the same way it had gone down a dozen times before. Lydia, a criminal investigator attached to the Westchester district attorney’s office, was waiting at a shopping mall in White Plains in her white blouse, plaid skirt, and Skips. This was the uniform she had described to Bruinbud43 in a chat room. Just the thought of this teenage virgin dressed for private school had been enough to make him masturbate. He had wanted to get her off in turn, promising to show her how to get pleasure from her own body. He had sent her a photo of a man and an underage girl having sex. “looks like it hurts!” she’d written back. “no it feels good if done right,” he’d replied.

Online, Bruinbud43 had warned her about chat rooms: “be careful don’t get hurt.”

“thank u i’m sorry for bothering u,” Lydia had written back from her desk in the D.A.’s office.

He’d responded: “just wanted to help you since you new in here. think you’re a doll.”

Lydia sat on a bench in the mall; Bruinbud43 checked out the area until he saw her, approached, and sat down. He was in his early forties, and bald.

The personal slogan on his AOL profile was “Enjoy life for it is short. Take that chance.” Bruinbud43 had told Lydia he made computer systems in Maryland. He loved her and would never do anything to hurt her. After they’d made love, he would look for a new home near her. They would grow old together.

Who really knew? Just as she wasn’t a student at Good Counsel Academy, he probably wasn’t a computer programmer. He probably had no intention of taking her to a hotel room – the car would probably be fine.

Lydia is small and had made herself up, following the advice of her teenage niece, but even so, 30 didn’t look like 13 unless you really wanted it to. She said, “Oh, I thought you had hair.” She gave the signal, and the backups approached. Bruinbud43 was trapped.

Since it began in July 1999, the Internet-pedophile sting has grown from a modest law-enforcement effort into a prosecutorial home run for Westchester district attorney Jeanine Pirro. To date, 50 men have been arrested; 44 have pleaded guilty, and the remaining six cases are pending. So far, no one has been acquitted. Convictions tend to occur at the end of the week. It’s happened so often they have a nickname for it in the D.A.’s office: Pederast Friday.

“We were surprised by the number of arrests,” says Michael Delohery, one of the prosecutors in charge.

What’s more surprising is the profile of the offenders: mostly middle-aged male professionals, some family men, the sort who don’t often show up in the crime columns. They include one priest, one coach, and six teachers. Twenty-five percent of them had regular contact with children. Arrest No. 26 was James Irwin, the principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Bronx. No. 32 was Kenneth Lawrence, a sports director at Club Fit in Ossining who taught children’s programs. No. 41 was a history teacher at the prestigious Harvey School in Katonah. Arrest No. 42, John Castaldo, of Stamford, Connecticut, was not only a priest but the one whom other priests sent young boys to see when they confessed the urge to masturbate.

All these defendants pleaded guilty to the charges arising from the sting. Together they have consolidated Pirro’s reputation as a crusader on behalf of women and children. “There is no question that we have deterred many people from doing what they might otherwise do,” Pirro says. “We are having the effect that we want.” Still, not everyone is a convert. Some argue that there’s less here than meets the eye, that this is prosecution as theater, a way to win the gratitude and votes of middle-class parents in a relatively safe county.

Pirro’s interest in Internet pedophilia began eight years ago in Seattle, where one of the first nationally publicized cases took place. In 1994, a Seattle postman named Alan Paul Barlow began exchanging e-mails with a 14-year-old Mamaroneck girl. Compared with the explicit Instant Messages Pirro’s investigators have been fielding in the D.A.’s office lately, they were almost quaint. Barlow described all the things his “Oscar” would like to do to the girl’s “Love Bunny.”

Eventually, they agreed to meet, and Barlow flew east to visit her. He booked a motel room and picked her up. His plan was derailed only by the remarkable coincidence that the girl’s mother bumped into the two of them at the local mall. The subsequent arrest of Barlow brought law enforcement – including Pirro, in whose jurisdiction the arrest took place – national attention.

There had been this lurking fear of the Internet as a danger to children, and now it was confirmed. The Internet invited the guys in raincoats right into your den. If you happened to be a young, ambitious district attorney with a special interest in abused children, this was the kind of case you couldn’t help but notice.

It took Pirro several years to formulate her response. First, she had to persuade the State Legislature to make typing dirty with a minor on the Internet into a felony. But once that was accomplished, the sting started in earnest. The first man apprehended was one Robert DeCarlo, on July 21, 1999. Among the most recent was Robert Sternberg, an accountant from Spring Valley, New York, arrested in early January. Steady as raindrops, the disgraced names appear in the local paper of record, the Journal News, and on News 12 Westchester. Michael Stavola of Danbury, Connecticut; Timothy Austin of Yonkers; Steven Gellhaus of Rye Brook; Christopher Prato of Katonah.

There have been six men in retailing, three in the building trades, five unemployed, nine corporate executives, four in computer services, an actor, a med-school student, and an employee of the Daily News. One, Nicholas Puner, was the planning chairman of affluent New Castle. For defense lawyers, the sting is a mini-industry. “Basically, every significant defense lawyer in the county has a client,” says Vincent Briccetti, who represented Puner and Castaldo.

The Barlow case was the inspiration for the sting as a law-enforcement strategy, but its emotional roots – the reason it is so popular in the county – stem from the nature of the Internet. “For the first time, the pedophile is in my home. He’s not at arm’s length anymore,” says Pirro. “And that’s shocking.”

The county has always had its share of perverts loitering in school yards and video arcades. That hasn’t changed. What’s different with the Net is the pool of potential victims. It’s all about access. A pedophile sitting in Yonkers can seduce a child online in Rye, Bedford, or Chappaqua – no matter how innocent or protected the child. “You can have absolutely no idea who’s talking to your children,” Pirro continues. So just as in an earlier era police officers went undercover into public rest rooms, now they patrol the World Wide Web.

The idea was seductive enough to catch the attention of Nassau County’s district attorney. “Seeing Westchester’s success, we realized we could do this, too,” says Stephen Treglia, the A.D.A. in charge of the effort, whose department made eight arrests last year. More recently, Suffolk County has followed, as has the New York City Police Department. The Queens D.A. has been in touch. Pirro herself, despite the political damage she sustained after her husband, Albert, a lawyer and Republican lobbyist, was convicted of tax evasion in 2000, was re-elected in November. She won in part, according to Antonio Castro, her Democratic opponent, because of the pedophile sting, which started about a year after her husband’s problems first hit the papers. Not surprisingly, Castro is skeptical of its merits. “It’s all image. It’s all public relations,” he says. “In the last two years, it’s all she’s done to make a name for herself.”

The New York Times endorsed Castro, who had no political experience, in the race, applauding the two-term D.A.’s record but arguing that Pirro’s claims of ignorance of her husband’s tax situation had left a “lingering cloud” that would “undermine trust in her office.” It was a tight contest; with a war chest one sixth the size of Pirro’s, Castro drew within six points.

Pirro’s sting is run from the fourth floor of the courthouse in White Plains. Down the hall, the narcotics and fraud units do their work, but here the talk is of sex. Not that the environment is sexy. It’s a windowless room. The only pictures are of the smiling children who belong to the investigators, Pat (who has two) and Brian (four). Lydia joins them for certain cases, but usually it is just the two of them sitting at their adjoining desks, using laptops seized in drug raids. They have EnCase software and a 60-gigabyte forensic tower to decode the child pornography on suspects’ hard drives. “It’s usually the NSA” – the National Security Agency – “that has this stuff, so it’s pretty good for a local district attorney,” Delohery, their boss, says proudly.

In fact, there is little that is high-tech about this operation. It is classic sting work, requiring patience, focus, and an aversion to fresh air. Pat, 39, who is swarthy with dark hair, is senior on the desk. Previously a member of the organized-crime squad, he was in from the start. He recruited Brian, 36, who calls it “the most satisfying work I’ve ever been involved in.” A former Internal Affairs guy in the Treasury Department, Brian works out and looks firm, gun at his waist; Pat, once a beat cop in Mount Vernon, is softer and more easygoing. “When I first started, people would comment on how cold and clammy I looked,” says Pat. “But now it’s much easier.” He jokes about the work to keep himself sane.

Sometimes they go days without a nibble. Sometimes it takes just minutes. Their record from first contact to meet is three hours. Today it is Pat who gets a bite, from Quickfire9 in an AOL chat room aimed at men.

“Hi. What’s up?” writes Quickfire9.

Pat types back in his best unpunctuated teenagerese: “Hi nothing u?”

Quickfire9: “where are you?”

“how old r u i’m 15 white plains,” replies Pat.

Quickfire9 answers: “38 Porchester. What are you looking for? wy are you in this room?”

“just watching,” types Pat. He edges himself in and out of his chair, sips on a diet soda, and waits. Strategy is everything in a sting.

“have you had sex before?” Quickfire9 types.

That’s easy. Pat has had to deny this more times than Doris Day: “no.”

Quickfire9: “do you like boys or girls?”

Also obvious. Teenagers like to explore. And from a law-enforcement point of view, why limit the pool of potential perps? “both i guess … what are u looking for? if i can ask.”

Quickfire9: “To hookup and have clean safe fun in the nude.”

“cool,” taps in Pat.

Oblivious to what is actually unfolding, Quickfire9 continues: “do you j/o a lot.”

Pat: “what’s j/o?”

Quickfire9: “jerking of.” In his eagerness, he has flubbed the typing.

Pat: “yeah u?”

Quickfire9: “yes.”

“i’ve gotta go soon,” Pat writes before asking: “u ever been with a guy my age b4?”

Quickfire9 says no. Pat is about to log off when, unexpectedly, he gets a bite.

Quickfire9: “but I’d like to try it.

“i suck on your dick till you came,” he adds.

Pat types: “try what?”

Quickfire9: “being with 15 year old.”

The investigator exhales. There are three main defenses accused pedophiles use, and a lot of Pat’s energy goes into taking them off the table. The first is the I-didn’t-know-he-was-illegal defense. That’s gone now.

Quickfire9 is so excited by Pat’s supposed age that he says he has to go. Pat urges him to keep in touch before logging off. He then relays the conversation to Delohery, who arranges a subpoena for AOL so the officers can verify Quickfire9’s subscriber information: Richard Manuli, an EMS worker from Port Chester.

A few days later, in the late afternoon – prime time for pedophiles trolling for teenagers – Quickfire9 is back online and delighted to find Pat logged on. He wants to know when they’re getting together. He’ll skip work so they can meet in the morning.

“school dude remember i’m 15!” Pat objects. Instead, he proposes a Friday afternoon. Quickfire9 agrees. Then Pat asks for a picture, and is pleased when he gets it – Quickfire9 has just lost his second out, the it-wasn’t-me-on-the-computer defense. So he decides to give the guy a little present in return: He says he has to go shower. He laughs as he types it. Quickfire9 answers quickly: “ok don’t play to much.”

“no time,” Pat replies honestly. His family is waiting for him at home.

All that remains is to schedule the meet, but when Pat IMs Quickfire9 a little later, he finds him initially suspicious. Maybe someone has mentioned the sting to Quickfire9. Maybe he has been reading the local paper.

Quickfire9: “your not a cop or anything are you.”

“i am way too young to be a cop!” types Pat. He knows few pedophiles stop at this point. What caution Quickfire9 possesses has been overcome by Pat’s revelation that his penis is “8 1/2 - 8 3/4 hard.”

After he picks him up, where, Quickfire9 asks, can they go?

Quickfire9: “Your house is no good right.”

Pat can hardly keep a straight face as he types back: “NO! if i got caught i’d get killed.”

He suggests a local park. Quickfire9 is unsure; maybe he’s thinking he’s too old to have sex in the grass. So Pat types: “i drive by there sometimes with my mom.”

That does it. “kewl,” exclaims Quickfire9.

Pat: “Friday at 3:00.”

Friday, at 3 p.m., Quickfire9 will lose his third and final defense, the it-was-just-an-Internet-fantasy defense.

The cops say it’s the child porn the pedophiles sometimes e-mail to their potential victims that gets to them most: the pictures of drugged-out preteens being penetrated by faceless men. “Looks like it hurts,” the officers type back. “It’s the one thing about this job that still twists me,” says Pat. Otherwise, they claim they can turn off, put a wall between themselves and their work. They type and plot, tell an occasional joke. Brian says he is always thinking of the next step. It’s like playing chess with a pervert.

After the first few arrests, Delohery and his colleagues asked some of the defendants to critique the cops’ performances. They advised them to spell worse and use less formal grammar: No teen would write, “what r u looking for? if I can ask.” The cops also learned not to be so impatient, and how important control is; how no matter what, the pedophile must be able to feel the inexperience on the other end.

Brian is now corresponding with someone using the screen name Jimmy37777, who tells him to describe himself.

Brian, shoulders squared in his chair, types: “i’m into runnin people say i’m pretty.”

Another day, Jimmy37777 asks him his cup size. Brian replies: “34b.”

“i love b cups,” Jimmy37777 writes back. “hate anything bigger than a c … “

Jeanine Pirro is the first woman district attorney in Westchester’s history. Her office emphasizes domestic crime. It does extensive outreach to victims of abuse, something the previous D.A.’s, whose black-and-white photos line the corridors, might not have thought worth worrying about. She has dispatched 100,000 flyers on Internet safety, provided peepholes for the doors of the elderly, and handed out free cell phones to battered women. She supports the death penalty and the Brady Bill. You don’t need a pollster to see that she could help solve the Republican Party’s problem with women if she were to run for higher office. She was mentioned not only as a replacement for Betsy McCaughey Ross as lieutenant governor under George Pataki but also as a successor to Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Senate.

Those hopes headed south with her husband’s conviction. After serving eleven months in a Florida jail, he was transferred two months ago to a halfway house in the Bronx. Though Jeanine supported him by regularly appearing by his side during the trial, it was damaging, not least because it raised urgent questions about her own awareness of the situation. How come she never quizzed her husband on how he was paying for their enormous $1.7 million home in Harrison, with its ornate $45,000 security gates? And what about the designer pen for the family’s Vietnamese potbellied pigs? What about the jewelry?

“She’s a smart woman with an eye for detail. Should she have known the mother’s Mercedes was charged to the company … ?” her predecessor Carl Vergari asks, trailing off. Because Pirro announced her Internet sting so soon after her husband’s troubles began, her critics have always seen it as an act of political opportunism. “The sting has got a lot of political pizzazz, and parents go for it,” Vergari says.

The photographer Helmut Newton once took a stern portrait of Pirro for The New Yorker. It hangs in her office, as an answer of sorts to all those black-and-white shots of her predecessors. “Maybe I should go into therapy,” Pirro says when I ask her what drives her. She smiles at me from behind her enormous desk. “Maybe I’d understand myself better.” We both laugh; it’s clear she’s not going anywhere near therapy. Then she tells me of a crime that deeply touched her, the beating death of a girl named Christi Bruin on Halloween Night 1979.

“I was pretty new, and it just stayed with me,” she says. “All the warning signs were there. She’d been beaten with a switch, she’d been made to stand in the hallway, and all the neighbors saw it; she would show up with bruises on all the different parts of her body. She was 4 years old and she had old fractures, new fractures, she’d been beaten to death. I couldn’t help but think, Here it is, Halloween Night, and all these kids are running around getting candy and treats. And she’s being beaten to death. It just struck me, and it still does.” She named her own daughter Christi in memory of the victim.

“I saw the sickest thing this morning,” she continues. “This guy was jerking off on a Webcam. We just signed on – you can just sign on, a kid can sign on – and he’s there masturbating. It’s just there and available.” She says she wants to start another sting operation, to go after such people. I inquire as to what law he’s breaking. “The question is,” Pirro continues, undeterred, “is it disseminated to an individual for the purpose or with the intent of harassing, annoying, or alarming, or knowing the individual was a minor?”

The standard understanding of sex offenders is that they need help. “You’re not going to help them surmount their problems with a public branding,” says Dr. Fred Berlin, the founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic. “In fact, it’s counterproductive.” He explains that many offenders were themselves abused as children and go on to repeat the cycle. Pirro is unmoved. “These people are determined; they are devious and calculating,” she says. “They’re evil.”

“It was a searing emotional experience,” says one Westchester mother whose son was abused by a teacher who used e-mail to “cultivate his victim.” “He was very upset. He felt betrayed. He became severely depressed.” She says she had taught him to be careful, too. “We had conversations about pedophiles posing as teenagers,” she says. Pirro has also warned her own children, laying down strict rules for Christi and her 12-year-old brother online. “As soon as someone asks for any communication – for a kiss, even something as minor as that – they immediately sign off.” Delohery closely supervises his son when he’s online. Quickfire9 arrived for the meet with duct tape and a blanket in his car.

I ask Pirro whether the large number of arrests suggests that Westchester is harboring more than its share of pedophiles, and she shoots back, “Westchester by no means has more of this problem than any other county anywhere else across the United States.”

But Parry Aftab of Cyberangels sees something specific to the suburbs here. “You don’t see this problem in the inner city,” says Aftab, whose group works to protect children online. “Ask a kid there to take pictures of himself and send them, and they will say, ‘Are you kidding? Get a life!’ But the kids in Westchester live in houses with fences and burglar alarms. They’re clueless. I wish she’d take all that money that goes into the sting and put it into educating them instead.”

And some Westchester residents find the idea of the sting almost as disturbing as the behavior it uncovers. “Even though the men are creepy, the sting is creepy, too,” says one Westchester father of three.

“People here are frightened,” adds Ben Cheever, the writer, who has lived in the area since he was 3 years old. “People are anxious because of the incredible distortion of the world they see on the news … They trust her to take care of them, but she just makes everyone tenser. It’s a sick relationship.” Ben’s father, John Cheever, famously chronicled suburban life in his fiction – and his homosexual experiences in his diaries, which his son published after his death, to some controversy. Had his father lived in the Internet age, Ben remarks, he might well have fallen afoul of Pirro’s zeal.

The defendants tend to be “middle-class to upper-middle-class, respected members of their community,” as Treglia, the Nassau A.D.A., puts it. “They seem higher up in intelligence than our normal defendant,” says Delohery. They are also obsessional. Nicholas Puner, caught once in pre-sting days and released on probation, wound up caught again and jailed by Pirro’s investigators. There is a pathetic earnestness to the pedophiles’ e-mails. “Would be proud to call you friend,” Lydia’s pursuer typed shortly before leaving to meet her – and be arrested.

Despite the number of arrests and the 100 percent conviction rate, what’s still not clear is the true extent of the problem. Since the sting’s inception, Pirro’s office has received only a “small number” of complaints from parents about adult Internet solicitations of their children. All sex crimes are notoriously underreported, but according to the only professionally conducted survey on the subject, produced in 1999 and led by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, most Internet solicitation actually comes from other teens. The report found “few sexually oriented relationships between youth and adults. In contrast to the depiction in media stories … a lot of the Internet looks and sounds like the hallways of our high schools.”

Kids may also be more savvy than Pirro allows. “Most of my friends ignore IMers they don’t know,” one Westchester teenager told me. “It’s not an issue.” Sandy Sunderland, chairman of the New York State PTA’s juvenile-protection board, disagrees: “The PTA perceives this as a major problem. We believe there is significant risk to our students.”

Of the 50 men arrested to date in Pirro’s sting, 15 were found to have had “some sort of improper contact with minors,” including child pornography or previous Internet contacts. In several other cases, Delohery received complaints from people who said they had been abused by the defendant. For the majority of the men, nothing else has come out.

None of the teachers is known to have abused a former student. In fact, most were admired by their students. When Timothy Austin was arrested, students and parents protested. “I still think he’s a great guy,” says a female student who was in his choral group at Hastings High School for four years. “He was nothing but professional with any of us.”

“He was too good to be true,” says one parent about a teacher who molested her son. “He was in at 6:30 every morning. He ran the outdoor-education program. He got 50 kids to go out for the student newspaper.”

The uneasy question remains: Is the use of a sting operation really netting abusers, or is Pirro’s team creating crimes? Entrapment is a tricky business, and the law provides little help. Technically, entrapment is almost impossible to prove – the defendant has to show he did not have a predisposition to commit the crime, which is unlikely if you’re online busily seducing someone you think is only 14. Morally, the sting is also ambiguous. Consider the following excerpt between Lydia and a Long Island man who used the name Jingantony.

Jingantony: “we can go for a motorcycle ride … i got a suzuki 1200 bandit.”

Lydia: “oh cool! i would like that.”

Jingantony: “how about tomorrow?”

Lydia: “ummm … we would have to talk more and plus there is alot of family here … for the weekend … so i don’t think i could get away.”

Jingantony: “oh … i would like to call you sometime.”

Lydia: “i think i would like to talk to you … what else would you want to do if we met?”

And then what about the meet? The sting’s assumption is that most people who talk dirty on the Internet really want to act dirty. But according to Berlin, who has treated Internet pedophilia, many pedophiles “are secretly ambivalent when they go to the meet. They’re intrigued by the idea, but if the child doesn’t show, they’re relieved.” Sometimes they don’t really think it is a child. They’ve made up an online persona. Why wouldn’t the other person? They go just to see, and by that point it’s too late.

Delohery isn’t buying it. “Not one defense counsel has gone forward and made any type of motion that we have entrapped anyone,” he says. “They look at the transcript and decide not to raise the issue.”

“These are easy cases to win,” protests Castro, Pirro’s Democratic opponent. “First, the evidence of the alleged crime is in writing. Second, the people caught have a lot to lose by drawing out the process of their humiliation. The last thing they want is their names in the paper a second time.” The whole thing works so well, it seems to other prosecutors like cheating. Doubts also seem to gnaw at county judges, who have yet to sentence anyone who pleaded guilty to jail time, even though the D.A. asks for it as a matter of policy. “I am disappointed,” Pirro says. “Maybe it’s because it’s on the Net and there’s a feeling that it’s somehow removed, but you and I know these people are recidivists. They should be put in jail and constantly monitored.”

As Delohery explains, “What they say is the crime.”

The final defense pedophiles often use is fantasy. Anthony Gallichio, a 24-year-old Yonkers man, was arrested last January for asking a 14-year-old boy (in fact a police investigator) to meet him for sex at a Bronxville motel. Gallichio drove by the meet spot, saw no one, and set off home to do his laundry. He was arrested on the way. Gallichio says he thought the person on the other end was a friend kidding around. “I thought it was a joke,” he says. “I thought it was my friend because he’s done that in the past. He set me meeting with people before, and I just bit. I told them that when I was arrested, but they said they didn’t want to hear it.” The 14-year-old didn’t even sound like one. “What 14-year-old talks about doing a ‘book report’?” he asks. He was going to go to trial, but in the end he pleaded guilty, and he’ll be sentenced to probation this month.

“This kid put his hand up and swore he did something he didn’t do,” Gallichio’s mother says, distraught. “I told him to fight it, but he said, ‘Mom, I can’t take that chance.’ “

Statistics bear him out. Anthony Stabile, the only defendant to go to trial to date, made a similar argument. How could he know who was on the other end of the computer? He had no more reason to think it was a 14-year-old than the cops did to think he was 14. He shouldn’t be punished with a fantasy. With every word, he dug a deeper hole.

“He was absolutely right, but it’s hard to make obvious points when you’re dealing with children,” says his lawyer, Robert Collini, who recommended he negotiate a plea. “He got absolutely no sympathy from the judge or the jury.” Stabile was jailed for one to four years.

Pirro, of course, was delighted with the sentence. “You know, we asked middle-school students if they had ever gone online after their parents had thought they’d gone to bed,” she says. “Fifty percent of them raised their hands. Even though their parents had told them not to. Even though their parents thought they were asleep.”

Maxxsam4: “hey, my name is rob … 32 6ft 190 br/ha white plains too.”

Pat: “hey rob im brad 14 5’7 150 blk hr & eyes.”

Maxxsam4: “you have been on all day… . working for jeannene pirro?

Pat: “jeannene pirro?”

Maxxsam4: “yes … the DA … looking to snag guys online.”

Pat: “i go 2 skewl dude dont know what ur talkn bout.”

Additional reporting by Joy Armstrong.

Mouse Trapped