A Columbus man caught with hundreds of explicit images depicting underage girls having sex pleaded guilty this morning to sexual exploitation of minors.
Superior Court Judge William Rumer ordered Michael Smithart, 50, to serve five years of a 20-year prison sentence, said Assistant District Attorney LaRae Moore. In exchange for Smithart’s guilty plea, the prosecution dropped an additional exploitation charge he faced, Moore said.
The offense to which Smithart pleaded guilty carries a penalty of five to 20 years in prison, she said.
Columbus police confiscated Smithart’s computer while raiding his Victory Drive home on March 28, 2011. Digging through its files, investigators found 215 images and three videos that, though deleted, police still were able to retrieve, Moore said.
The graphic images and videos all were of girls ranging from prepubescence to 14 years old, Moore said. They were not images Smithart recorded himself, but had obtained and made available to others through computer file-sharing, the prosecutor said.
She said Smithart came under suspicion during a Georgia Bureau of Investigation sting operation targeting online child pornography. While tracking such sources online, agents came across an Internet provider address they traced to Smithart’s home in Columbus, so they notified Columbus police, Moore said.
“It originated with a sting operation out of another county,” she said. “The agents who specialize in computer sexual exploitation of children, one of the things they look for is file-sharing programs that appear to be sharing child pornography. You can look at the digital footprints that these files leave behind. You can tell what’s being shared in them.”
Agents can trace those files back to their source, she said: “Once they’re able to track where the IP address is coming from, then they’ll get with local law enforcement to get a warrant to go out to his house and search.”
Though the images had been deleted and Smithart’s computer had been locked so only he could access it, investigators got in and documented his having banked the images and put them online where those who knew where to look could find them, Moore said.
Deleting computer images does not erase them, she said: “The thing is, nothing on a computer is ever deleted. It’s just stored somewhere else.”
The accusation to which Smithart pleaded guilty was that he possessed the images, not that he possessed them with the intent of sharing them with others, she said. That part of the case against him was dropped.
“If it had proceeded to trial, we would have made an argument that he was offering images as well – sharing,” Moore said.