DENVER - A Montrose, Colo., man was sentenced on Friday by U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Blackburn to serve 10 years in federal prison for coercion and enticement of a minor. The sentence was announced by U.S. Attorney David Gaouette, District of Colorado, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey Copp.
Vernon L. Estes, 54, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Denver on April 23, 2009. He pleaded guilty before Judge Blackburn on Sept. 25, and was sentenced on Dec. 11. After he completes his prison sentence, Estes will also serve five years on supervised release. He will also be required to register as a sex offender. Estes, who appeared in court in custody, was remanded.
According to the plea agreement, starting in March 2008, Estes accessed the Internet from his home computer in Montrose, Colo., to "chat" in a Yahoo! Chat room. Estes, using a made-up persona, purported to be a modeling agent but was actually soliciting young teenage girls so he could manufacture child pornography. As part of the solicitation, Estes distributed videos and photos of child pornography.
However, Estes was in fact "chatting" with undercover agents from three separate and independent law enforcement agencies: the Oregon Intercept Task Force, the Washington County Sheriff's Office, and the Bay County, Florida Sheriff's Office.
On April 29, a detective with the Bay County, Florida, Sheriff's Office posed as a 13-year old girl. Estes introduced himself as a modeling agent living in Hawaii. He told the girl that he represents girls from 8 years old through high school age. Estes initially sent non-sexual pictures of young girls. The undercover officer, posing as the 13-year old girl, asked questions about the type of modeling and whether it was nude modeling. Estes then sent samples of child pornography.
From April 29, 2008 until May 12, 2008, the Estes continued to entice the person who he believed was the 13-year old to engage in sexual activity. Based on investigative information gathered from Oregon, Washington, and Florida detectives, ICE agents in Grand Junction received a search warrant for Estes' home.
On June 10, 2008, ICE agents visited Estes' home. When confronted, according to the plea agreement, Estes admitted that he had been posing as a modeling agent and visiting chat rooms on Yahoo! trying to get girls under age 18 to send him live images of themselves modeling in the nude.
Four computers were seized from the defendant's home. Digital forensic analysis conducted by ICE resulted in the discovery of 660 chat log files, including chat logs from Estes' made-up persona. Images and streaming videos of child pornography were also found on Mr. Estes' computers.
"Anyone who produces, buys, shares or possesses child pornography should take special note that five law enforcement agencies cooperated with this investigation and prosecution," said Jeffrey Copp, Special Agent in Charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Denver. "ICE routinely works with our law enforcement partners to bring justice to the victimized children, and, we hope, to deter anyone who might be tempted to engage in this perverted hobby." Copp oversees a four-state area which includes: Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
"The criminal conduct of this defendant shows how someone using only their home computer can set in motion a string of events aimed to entice innocent young girls to enter the world of child pornography by submitting photographs that will be traded among other criminals and even worse, remain on the internet for years to come," said U.S. Attorney David Gaouette. "Today's sentence is not only appropriate for this defendant but will hopefully serve as a deterrent to others who see nothing wrong with engaging in similar criminal acts."
This case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with substantial help from the Oregon Intercept Task Force, the Washington County Sheriff's Office, and the Bay County, Florida Sheriff's Office.
Estes was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle M. Heldmyer, and the sentencing hearing was handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Smith, both from the District of Colorado.
This investigation was part of Operation Predator, a nationwide ICE initiative to protect children from sexual predators, including those who travel overseas for sex with minors, Internet child pornographers, criminal alien sex offenders, and child sex traffickers. Since Operation Predator was launched in July 2003, ICE agents have arrested more than 12,000 individuals.
ICE encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free hotline at 1-866-DHS-2ICE. This hotline is staffed around the clock by investigators. Suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children may be reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an Operation Predator partner, at 1-800-843-5678 or http://www.cybertipline.com.
This case was prosecuted as part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse launched in May 2006 by the Department of Justice. Led by U.S. Attorneys' Offices and the Criminal Division's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS), Project Safe Childhood marshals federal, state and local resources to better locate, apprehend and prosecute individuals who exploit children via the Internet, as well as to identify and rescue victims. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, visit www.projectsafechildhood.gov.