Several Recent High Profile Federal Prosecutions Bring Sex Crimes Back into the Spotlight
Recently, law enforcement authorities in the United States and abroad have signaled a strong interest in prosecuting domestic and international human trafficking and child pornography cases. Many of these cases are brought by the government in federal court and those convicted face extremely harsh sentences along with social stigma for the rest of their lives.
A few months ago, Jared Fogle, who became famous for losing 245 pounds after adopting a strict daily diet and exercise routine, which included eating Subway sandwiches, was prosecuted and sent to prison for manufacturing and possessing child pornography. Beginning in 2000, Fogle filmed more than 300 commercials for Subway highlighting how his “Subway diet” helped him dramatically lose half his body weight. By 2003, the New York Daily News reported Fogle’s net worth to be $15 million dollars. This whirlwind fame and fortune came to a screeching halt in late 2015. In an extreme embarrassment to the Subway restaurant chain, the government obtained evidence that its former pitchman, Mr. Fogle, traveled across interstate lines in 2012 and 2013 to allegedly have sex with a minor. The restaurant chain has reportedly severed all ties with Fogle, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The sordid saga started when CNN reported on July 7, 2015 that FBI and other law enforcement agencies raided Jared Fogle's home, located in a northern suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana. Authorities reportedly seized computers from Fogle’s home after entering the premises just after 6 am. According to The Washington Post, Fogle had established the Jared Foundation in 2004, prior to these allegations surfacing. The non-profit was designed to raise awareness for childhood obesity and provide educational programs as well as tools for children, parents and communities to combat this growing epidemic.
Law enforcement became suspicious of Fogle soon after Russell C. Taylor, 43 of Indiana, who served as the Jared Foundation’s Executive Director, was arrested in May 2015. Taylor ultimately entered a plea deal with the government admitting his guilt to twelve counts of sex exploitation of a child and one count of distribution and conspiracy to distribute child pornography. Slate magazine reported that when law enforcement authorities searched Taylor’s office and home in May 2015, they seized more than 400 videos and images of child pornography.
On August 19, 2015, federal prosecutors filed a 2-count Criminal Information against Mr. Fogle charging him with distribution and receipt of child pornography and conspiracy to distribute and receive child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 2252 and interstate travel to engage in illicit conduct with a minor in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 2423.
According to the Criminal Information, between March 2011 and January 2015, Taylor secretly filmed nude and sexually explicit imagines of minor children at his residence in Indiana, including some children as young as 13 years old, and distributed these images and videos to Fogle and others. Moreover, during the alleged time period, Taylor allegedly also sent other sexually explicit images and videos of minor children, filmed overseas to Fogle. Some of the children depicted in the sexually explicit images that were filmed overseas were allegedly as young as 6 years old. Finally, the Criminal Information alleges that Fogle traveled to New York City from Indiana in 2012 and 2013 to have sex with a minor female at the Plaza Hotel and the Ritz Carlton. Moreover, the government alleged that Fogle offered to pay the minor female in New York City, as well as others, to recruit girls as young as 14 years old to have sex with him in exchange for U.S. currency.
The New York Post reported that Fogle pleaded guilty to both counts in federal court before U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, in Indianapolis, Indiana. According to The New York Times, on November 19, 2015 Judge Pratt sentenced Fogle to 15 ½ years in prison and ordered him to pay a $175,000 fine in addition to $1 million dollars in restitution to the victims. In addition to the prison term, fine and restitution order, The Washington Post reported that Fogle’s wife has announced she is seeking a divorce. The Indianapolis Star reported that Judge Pratt sentenced Taylor to 27 years in prison, on December 10, 2015.
In addition to prosecutions for child pornography, sex trafficking and other related offenses here in the United States, federal prosecutors and federal law enforcement authorities have shown an increased priority to arrest and prosecute international sex crimes and related offenses commonly referred to as “human trafficking.” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Child Exploitation Investigations Unit along with the FBI and other federal, state, local and international law enforcement agencies have authority to investigate these cases.
On December 16, 2015 a Wisconsin man named Steven Richard Smasal, 48, was sentenced in federal court by U.S. District Court Judge John R. Tunheim in Minneapolis to 51 months in prison for allegedly attempting to travel to a foreign country to have sex with a child, according to a federal law enforcement agency press release. U.S. law, specifically 18 U.S.C. Section 2423, makes it unlawful for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident to travel across state lines or to a foreign country for the purpose of having sex with a minor. Anyone convicted of this offense faces a maximum penalty of up to 30 years in prison and/or a fine.
On July 24, 2015, Smasal pleaded guilty to attempting to travel to a foreign country for the purpose of having a sex with a minor. According to the government’s evidence Smasal had planned to travel from the Twin Cities to Beijing, China, via Toronto, Canada. During his planned overseas stay, Smasal had arranged to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a 14-year old minor girl living in the Philippines. The government alleged in its press release that Smasal brazenly sought to have sex with the 14-year old Filipino victim and her mother, but ultimately agreed to settle for sex with the minor girl only.
More recently federal authorities in Texas disrupted an alleged international brothel in Houston run by a woman from Honduras which employed underage prostitutes from as far away as Mexico. The Houston Chronicle reported that Maria E. Gonzales Munoz a/k/a “Merci,” 45 of Honduras, was scheduled to be arraigned and plead guilty in federal court in the Southern District of Texas on January 21, 2016, to charges related to conspiracy to commit international sex trafficking. At least one of the prostitutes allegedly working for Munoz was a 15-year old girl from Mexico, who was paid $15 for each sex act that she performed. According to the FBI, Munoz met with a confidential informant and another woman posing as an underage female who had illegally entered the United States. The FBI reported that Munoz offered to help the undercover juvenile female work as a prostitute and promised to help her apply “make-up” to her face so that she could pass as an adult. Munoz also allegedly offered to help the teenager obtain a fake identification card.
18 U.S.C. Section 1591 makes it unlawful for anyone to commit or attempt to commit sex trafficking of minor children. The statute provides for enhanced penalties for anyone who commits or attempts to commit sex trafficking by means of force, threats of force, fraud, or coercion. Anyone convicted under this statute faces a maximum penalty of up to 20 years’ incarceration or life in prison depending on the circumstances of the offense.
If you have been contacted by law enforcement or have other reason to believe you are being investigated for manufacturing, possession, or distribution of child pornography, traveling across state lines or to a foreign country to have sex with a minor, or other types of human trafficking you should speak with a competent and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney immediately who can help you preserve and protect your rights. An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can help you discuss your options, consider potential defenses that you may raise and evaluate the evidence against you.