Two local men caught in a state sting operation that tracked child pornography transmitted through computer file-sharing pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of sexually exploiting children.
Investigators said they are still poring over computer files seized during the crackdown, and more arrests may follow.
“We’ve seized some computers from some other locations that we’re going to have to do a more thorough analysis of before we determine whether we’ve got what we need to make a charge,” said Lt. J.R. McMichael of the Columbus Police Department’s predator crimes unit. “The forensics that we have to go through take a good bit of time.”
He identified the two Columbus men snagged in Georgia’s “Operation Shattered Innocence” as Army Spc. Michael Mayes, 24, and Steven Commander, 21. Both men waived their preliminary hearings Thursday in Columbus Recorder’s Court, where Judge Michael Joyner set a $2,500 bond for each count. Facing only one count, Mayes received a $2,500 bond. Commander faces three counts and got a bond of $7,500. Both were bound over to Muscogee County Superior Court.
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Columbus is among the local agencies affiliated with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which tracked particular images being shared among network users.
GBI spokesman John Bankhead compared the network to Napster, through which users once shared music files.
“It’s a peer-to-peer type situation,” he said.
McMichael said it was an exchange network “where you can open yourself up to receive and to also distribute different files, and depending on what kind of search terms you put in, that determines what kind of stuff comes to you. ... It’s like a lot of people do with music or legitimate movies. That’s how a lot of things are pirated, by using these networks.”
Some files through prior court cases had been authenticated as pornographic material depicting underage subjects. Particular file names were keyed for the program law enforcement was using to monitor the network, allowing investigators to identify Internet addresses through which those files were being housed or transferred. Then authorities tracked down the computer users “just doing some basic police intelligence work,” McMichael said.
McMichael said investigators first served a search warrant at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday on a mobile home at Lot 801, 3150 Plateau Drive, where they found some of the files they sought on a computer in a bedroom Commander occupied. He was arrested there at 10 a.m., police records show.
Also arrested at the trailer was his mother, Pamela Ritter, who faces a misdemeanor charge of possessing marijuana, the lieutenant said.
In serving the second search warrant about 11:30 a.m., police were aided by Fort Benning authorities, who brought Mayes from his job on post to his home at Apartment B, 2824 Hatcher Drive. There police seized another computer after finding it had one of the files they had been tracking, McMichael said. Mayes was taken to police headquarters, where he was charged at 1:30 p.m.
If convicted of the charges, each defendant faces penalties of five to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $100,000 on each count, said McMichael, who added that officers can charge a separate count of exploiting children for every computer file they find. Sometimes that’s not practical, he said.
“It gets redundant after a point,” McMichael said. “Some of the guys — and I’m not saying these guys had this many images — but some of these guys had thousands and thousands of them.”