Middle District of Florida Ranks First in the Nation for Project Safe Childhood Cases
Orlando, Florida - United States Attorney Robert E. O'Neill announces today that the Middle District of Florida (MDFL), in fiscal year 2011, had the highest number of cases in the nation charged as part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative of the Department of Justice designed to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse. Project Safe Childhood began in May 2006 by marshaling federal, state, and local resources to better locate, apprehend, and prosecute individuals who sexually exploit children, and utilizing these combined resources to identify and rescue victims. In each of the 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the country, an Assistant United States Attorney serves as a Project Safe Childhood Coordinator, dedicated to the prosecution of Project Safe Childhood cases as well as building and coordinating law enforcement and community partnerships, training, and increasing public awareness.
From October 1, 2010 through September 30, 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, with the close assistance of numerous federal, state, and local agencies, brought 114 Project Safe Childhood cases – the highest of any district in the country. The charges in those cases vary by defendant, but they include sex trafficking of children, coercion and enticement of children to engage in sexual acts, production, distribution, possession and receipt of child pornography. These cases were brought by each of the five offices of the MDFL. Summaries of significant Project Safe Childhood cases prosecuted out of each of the offices in fiscal year 2011 can be found at the end of this release.
From the inception of Project Safe Childhood, the MDFL has been a leader in prosecuting individuals who sexually exploit and abuse children. In fiscal year 2009, the District led the nation in Project Safe Childhood prosecutions. In fiscal year 2010, the MDFL was tied with the Western District of Texas, with the second highest number of cases. Project Safe Childhood cases in the MDFL are investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Postal Inspection Service, the United States Marshals Service, as well as many state and local agencies throughout the MDFL.
U.S. Attorney Robert E. O'Neill stated, “From the beginning of Project Safe Childhood, the United States Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida has been a national leader in prosecuting these types of cases. Our office remains committed to working with our law enforcement partners to aggressively investigate and prosecute those who prey on children."
Timothy Scott Bidwell was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for using the internet to attempt to induce a minor to engage in sex acts with him. According to court documents, Bidwell posted an ad on an internet website soliciting a mother who was willing to share her daughters for sex. For two days, Bidwell communicated via e-mail and instant chat messages with an undercover detective, who Bidwell believed to be a mother willing to allow him to have sex with her 11 and 14-year-old daughters. Bidwell was arrested when he traveled from Sarasota to Clearwater, to meet with whom he believed to be the mother and daughters.
Wesley William Brandt was sentenced to 90 years in federal prison for three counts of producing child pornography. According to court documents, Brandt posed as a 17-year-old boy, befriended several minors online and coerced them to send him sexually explicit photos of themselves. Once Brandt had the photos, he threatened to publish them unless the minors continued to send him more photos.
Brendan O’Neill was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for sex trafficking of a child and attempted enticement of a child for sex. According to court documents, O’Neill used the Internet to recruit a minor to work for him as a prostitute. O’Neill contacted the minor online using the social networking website “Tagged.com,” characterized his business as an escort service, and brought her to Tampa to begin working for him. The minor was located during an undercover law enforcement operation designated to recover juvenile victims of domestic sex trafficking. In a separate investigation, O’Neill used the social networking website “MySpace.com” to communicate with an undercover detective, who was posing as a 15-year-old girl online. O’Neill made plans to meet with the minor for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity and traveled to the agreed upon meeting place, where he was arrested.
Robert J. Harnois was sentenced to 27 years and three months in federal prison for distributing and possessing child pornography. According to court documents, Harnois chatted with numerous users on a website known to be used to trade child pornography. He chatted about his sexual interest in young girls and posted images of child pornography on the website. Harnois also distributed images and video of child pornography to an agent acting in an undercover capacity. All of the images and videos that Harnois distributed depicted the sexual abuse of prepubescent girls, toddlers and infants.
Dennis Devlin was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for sexually exploiting a minor and ordered to forfeit his interest in the Desert Inn motel. Michael Ehmen was sentenced to seven years in federal prison; followed by 15 years of home confinement for sexually exploiting a child. According to court documents, on January 20 and January 22, 2011, Devlin and Ehmen persuaded a 13-year-old child to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing visual depictions of that conduct. They drove the child to the Desert Inn motel and, using an iPhone and video camera, took sexually explicit pictures and video of the child.
Robert Allan Cowan was sentenced to 140 years in federal prison for using a minor to produce images of child pornography, receiving child pornography, and possessing child pornography. According to evidence introduced during trial, Cowan, who was a middle school guidance counselor in Jacksonville and had been employed in Duval and Nassau County public schools since 1993, had produced images of a 4-year-old child engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Cowan was arrested on August 18, 2009, and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detectives subsequently obtained computer media from his residence in north Jacksonville, from his office at Ft. Caroline Middle School, and from a storage shed in Jacksonville. Subsequent forensic analysis revealed that Cowan’s computers, smart phone, external hard drives, and other media contained hundreds of images and videos of child pornography, including those which he himself had produced. Many of the images and videos were downloaded by Cowan from the internet and stored on his computer media since July 2008, and many depicted very young children being raped and sexually abused.
Ian Sean Gordon was sentenced to life in federal prison for child sex trafficking. On February 24, 2010, the 15-year old female minor victim and several friends ran away from a juvenile treatment and rehabilitation center in Jacksonville. She went to an apartment where she was encouraged to use crack cocaine and then was introduced to prostitution as the way to obtain more crack cocaine, or the money necessary to feed her addiction. Later, the victim was introduced to Gordon to engage in prostitution. During the next two weeks, Gordon prostituted the child at least 50 times, beat her, raped her, and harbored her in a hotel, where he gave her food, shelter and drugs. He photographed her naked and disseminated her photo via his cell phone to potential customers. The child eventually escaped, found her mother, and together they reported the sexual assault to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Six additional individuals were charged involving the same minor victim, including Oris English. English, a repeat sex offender was recently sentenced to more than 15 years in federal prison for obtaining the child for a commercial sex act.
Doyce Dean Griffis was charged with seven counts of production of child pornography, two counts of receiving child pornography, and one count of possession of child pornography. According to the indictment, Griffis operated and maintained a tanning bed in an outbuilding at his residence in Starke. He allegedly engaged in a business operation in which customers paid to use the tanning bed by placing payments in a slot in the wall of the room of the outbuilding and then using a code, provided by Grffis, to unlock the door. Unbeknownst to his customers, the room had been equipped with a two-way mirror that allowed Griffis to view the room from a second concealed room. He also made a hole in an air vent near the foot of the tanning bed that allowed him to view the customers as they lay inside the tanning bed. Griffis surreptitiously made video recordings of dozens of female customers, including minors. Griffis is scheduled for trial in April 2012.
Candice Marie Miller was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for producing, transporting, and possessing child pornography. According to court documents, Miller knowingly produced images of her two minor children engaging in sexually explicit conduct and sent approximately 100 of these pornographic images over the internet, to a man whom she met in an internet chat room. Miller possessed in excess of 500 images of child pornography.
Aaron P. Winchester was found guilty by a federal jury of transporting and possessing child pornography. According to court documents, following the execution of a federal search warrant was at Winchester's residence in Wildwood, agents seized a desktop computer and a laptop computer. A forensic examination of the computers revealed approximately 400 images of child pornography, and approximately 60 videos containing child pornography. Chat logs found on the computers included discussions of sexual abuse of young children, as well as the exchange of pictures over the internet of children being sexually abused. Winchester faces a mandatory minimum of five years in federal prison up to a maximum penalty of thirty years in federal prison. The sentencing hearing is scheduled for January 26, 2012.
These cases were prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Amanda Kaiser, Josephine Thomas, Stacie Harris, Laurel Moore Lee, D. Rodney Brown, Mac Heavener, Yolande Viacava, Samuel Armstrong, and MDFL’s Project Safe Childhood Coordinator Karen L. Gable.
For more information about the cases profiled in this release and other Project Safe Childhood cases throughout the Middle District of Florida, please contact William Daniels. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, please visit www.projectsafechildhood.gov.
An indictment or criminal complaint is merely a formal charge that a defendant has committed a violation of the federal criminal laws, and every defendant is presumed innocent unless, and until, proven guilty.