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Earlier this summer, Roderick McArthur shuffled into a courtroom at the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Building for his sentencing hearing. Hunched over his walker, the 77-year-old Ballwin man was trailed by his wife and two middle-aged women who came in support. McArthur's pale blue eyes welled with tears as he waited for Senior Judge Donald Stohr to take the bench.
On April 2, the judge had found McArthur guilty of possessing child pornography, and now, because of a prior offense, he faced a ten-year minimum prison term. On this Friday morning of July 25, the only question left unresolved was whether Stohr might mete out an even longer sentence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Costantin argued that McArthur deserved a stiffer penalty because he'd shown a pattern of deviant behavior. In 1986, McArthur pleaded guilty to child sodomy, and Costantin read aloud the statement he gave police more than twenty years ago. One of McArthur's supporters buried her face in her hands before the prosecutor finally concluded, "He stated he touched a minor's vagina on two occasions."
Molesting the twelve-year-old girl wasn't the last of McArthur's offenses, Costantin said, reminding the judge that McArthur had come to the attention of investigators after he was caught exposing himself in a West County Center parking lot.
Costantin was referring to the Saturday afternoon of April 1, 2006, when a mall security guard spotted McArthur masturbating in his parked car. The guard tipped off Des Peres police officer Trent Koppel, who pulled over McArthur's Buick LeSabre after he'd begun to cruise through the lot.
A tall, square-shouldered brunette, Koppel stepped out of her patrol car and strode over to the maroon sedan. "Stop, police," she ordered. "Stop this car!" Then, Koppel recounts, she reached through the open window and pressed her palm against his chest.
McArthur had one hand on the steering wheel, the other wrapped around his penis. "He was fully engaged," Koppel says. "He was going at it."
While booking McArthur for public indecency, Koppel came across a photograph in his wallet. Behind the clear plastic window that's normally reserved for a driver's license, Koppel saw a nude toddler. The little boy had one finger in his mouth and was looking down at a superimposed adult penis. She recalls: "This penis was where [the toddler's] was, but it was ginormous!"
McArthur dismissed the photo as a joke. "He said, 'Keep it. It's funny,'" Koppel remembers. McArthur posted a $1,500 bond and was released that same night. But Koppel made sure St. Louis County detectives saw the tawdry photo. "There are certain alarms that go off."
Three days later, county police officers showed up at McArthur's Ballwin home with a search warrant and seized his computer. Although McArthur had reinstalled the computer's Windows operating system since his arrest, forensic specialists were able to retrieve the deleted contents of the hard drive.
Given one last chance to speak at the July sentencing, McArthur insisted on his innocence. He said he visited adult porn Web sites, but that he'd never looked at child pornography. In any case, he argued, he never saved smut of any sort to his hard drive. Bracing himself against his walker he asserted, "I was wrongfully convicted of this supposed crime."
Judge Stohr went on to sentence McArthur to twelve and a half years in federal prison for one count of possession of child pornography. He's now serving time at a penitentiary in Springfield, Missouri.
U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway has made prosecuting child pornography offenders a top priority since her appointment in July 2005. "We will not decline a case here because of a lack of resources," she told police chiefs and sheriffs from the Eastern District of Missouri's 49 counties.
Now, three years later, Hanaway is one of the top prosecutors of child-exploitation crimes in the nation, according to an annual Department of Justice tally of caseloads at each of the 93 U.S. attorneys' offices. (The bulk of offenses in the child-exploitation category involve production, distribution or possession of child pornography.)
For the fiscal year that will end on September 30, the justice department predicts that Eastern Missouri will have generated 76 child-exploitation cases, making it second only to central California. "We're pushing hard; there's no two ways about that," says Hanaway, a former Republican Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives.
Finding child porn on computers has become the fastest and most efficient means of rooting out perverts. Because the obscene images are traded openly on the Internet and stored on hard drives like a winter's worth of acorns, investigators can reel in suspects by the dozen.
Child pornography cases are so commonplace that detective Ken Nix, who oversees a computer forensics unit in Clayton, says the outcome is expected. "The person's going to go to court," he says, "and be found guilty."
The hunt for child pornography has taken St. Charles County Sheriff's Lt. Chris Mateja to dozens of doorsteps over the past five years. Often, he won't bother to obtain a search warrant before he knocks. "A lot of people are pretty forthcoming about it," he notes. "I don't know why."
Mateja speculates that handing over the computer comes as a relief. "I've watched a lot of these [post-arrest] interviews," he says. "A lot of them say, 'I'm really attracted to these kids. It may have gone further. I'm glad you stopped me.'"