Seventeen Rhode Islanders, including a co-owner of a popular reptile store and a city maintenance manager, face charges of possession of child pornography after state, federal and local law-enforcement agencies executed search warrants across the state early Wednesday.
“Today's sweep ... had one objective: to protect children,” U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha said at an afternoon news conference.
The arrests came after an undercover online investigation by a state police task force aimed at fighting Internet crimes against children, in conjunction with state and federal prosecutors.
Dubbed Operation Safe Child, the months-long probe identified 20 Rhode Island residences involved in actively obtaining and sharing pornographic images involving children, according to the state police.
The state police targeted the users exchanging the highest volume of child pornography using a software program that searched peer-to-peer, or file-sharing, networks, Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch said. Investigators then secured downloads, often of images involving young children and even infants, from the suspects by persuading them over the Internet to share a pornographic file, according to the state police.
The police got search warrants for the residences based on the downloads and retrieved thousands of photographs and videos featuring child pornography. More than 70 authorities executed the warrants Wednesday morning.
“These images are so vile and disgusting,” Lynch said at a news conference late Wednesday.
It appears at this point that no Rhode Island children were featured in the images, state police Col. Brendan P. Doherty said. But investigators will continue looking at pursuing possible child-pornography manufacturing and trafficking charges, said Bruce Foucart, special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Boston office.
Neronha noted that the detectives had to view very disturbing images in the course of the investigation. “It takes a toll on police and prosecutors to work this,” he said.
Those facing a charge of possession of child pornography include Shawn Fay, 39, of 1023 Danielson Pike, North Scituate, a co-owner of Regal Reptiles in Providence and Little League coach, and Miguel Escobedo, 38, a maintenance manager for the City of Providence, state police Capt. David Neill said.
Two juveniles were also arrested.
Kyle Martin, 22, of 31 Willis Drive, Cumberland, was charged with possession of steroids and does not face a child-pornography charge.
With the exception of Girard Proux, 43, of 522 York Ave., Pawtucket, all of the adults arrested were released on $5,000 personal recognizance after arraignment or appearances before a bail commissioner. Proux was released on $5,000 bail with surety.
The state police Internet Crimes Against Children task force is funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant. It's made up of state police detectives as well as detectives from the Providence, West Warwick and Coventry police departments and an ICE agent. Other agencies to participate in Wednesday's raids were ICE, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Naval Criminal Investigative Services, and probation and parole officials. Child protective services workers from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families and the Children's Advocacy Center also assisted.