It took a federal jury slightly more than an hour Wednesday to find an Auburn, Ala., man accused of being a child sexual predator not guilty.
Ji Won Kim, 26 was one of 21 men arrested in November as part of a multi-law enforcement agency sting in which investigators posed as children online. Though he was arrested by Columbus Police in early November, Kim was indicted Nov. 16 on the federal charge of attempted online enticement of a minor.
He was tried this week in the Middle District of Georgia in front of Judge Clay Land this week.
If convicted, Kim would have faced a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum term of life in prison and/or a $250,000 fine up to a lifetime term of supervised release, and mandatory sex offender registration if he had been convicted.
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Kim’s attorney, Bernard Brody of Atlanta, said the case should never have gone to trial. Some of the jurors hugged Kim outside the downtown Columbus courthouse when the three-day trial was over.
The prosecution contended Kim drove from Auburn to Atlanta for the purposes of having sex with a 14-year-old girl he had met online. Kim’s defense was he did not know the girl was 14 and that she led him to believe by an online photo and a phone conversation that she was much older.
The jury of seven women and five men got the case at 11 a.m. and returned an acquittal at 12:25 p.m.
“The jury agreed that Ji Won was not a predator and had no intention or desire to meet a 14-year-old girl,” Bernard said. “Also, they found that Ji Won clearly did not believe she was 14, which is what the government was required to prove at trial.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Georgia issued a brief statement. The prosecutor was Assistant U.S. Attorney Crawford Seals.
“We are disappointed with the verdict but we respect the jury’s decision,” said spokesperson Pamela W. Lightsey.
Kim is the first of the defendants arrested in the sting called “Operation Hidden Guardian” to go to trial. At least four of the defendants have entered guilt pleas in front of Land: Kenneth Jordan, 29, of Columbus; Edwin Nieves, 55, of Columbus; Christopher McGowan, 32, of Mechanicsburg, Pa; and Dereck Weldon, 30, of Columbus.
Each man pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of use of interstate facilities to transmit information about a minor, a felony that carries a possible fine and up to five years in prison.
During Operation Hidden Guardian, which launched Nov. 9, investigators posing as children had more than 600 exchanges with people on various online platforms, including social media and chat rooms. In more than 400 of those exchanges, the suspect initiated contact with the “child” and directed the conversation toward sex.
The agencies involved in the investigation were the Columbus Police Department, Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office for the the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes Unit, and the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
The operation fell under a task force called the Internet Crimes Against Children, which was started by the United States Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Brody said.
The operation, at least in Kim’s case, was flawed, Brody said.
“He responded to an ad on Backpage.com looking for a prostitute,” Brody said. “The ad was created by ICAC and it contained pictures of Hayleee Peacock, a 26 year-old GBI agent. “According to the agents, many people responded to the ad who were not looking for children but most of them turned away once the agent said she was 14.”
Ji Won initially asked the agent to send him a selfie so he could be sure that the picture in the ad was real as many ads on Backpage contain fake pictures, Brody said. The agent said she was 14 and he was shocked since he had never run into a minor on Backpage before.
“She then sent the selfie of herself and it was clear that she was at least in her 20s,” Brody said. “Then he called back and said, ‘You’re not really 14, right?’ she stuttered and he then realized she was lying. Although she kept saying she was 14, he decided to go out to the house anyway. She was very attractive and he just was sure that she was not 14. He then got arrested and told the agents that he in no way believed she was 14, pointing to the ad, the selfie, her voice, etc.”
A search of Kim’s phone showed no evidence of child pornography or any communications with minors, according to evidence presented at trial.
Kim was born in South Korea and moved to the United States when he was 12. He graduated from Auburn High School, and was in the final semester at Georgia Tech. He earned his engineering degree in December, but was not able to walk for the graduation because he was in jail.
He had been free since late January when Land released him on an $80,000 bond.