The operators of dozens of teen and preteen “modeling sites” that critics say are nothing more than eye candy for pedophiles have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Alabama for allegedly trafficking in “visual depictions of minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct.”
The indictment, unsealed this week in Birmingham, Ala., charges Webe Web Corp. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and its principals, Marc Evan Greenberg and Jeffrey Robert Libman, with 80 counts of conspiracy and interstate trafficking of the images of teen and preteen girls on dozens of Web sites operated by the company. Both men were arrested Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale and are due to be arraigned on Friday.
Photographer Jeff Pierson of Brookwood, Ala., also was charged with two counts of using a computer to “transport child pornography in interstate commerce” from January 2003 through 2004. Authorities said Pierson is cooperating with prosecutors.
“The images charged are not legitimate child modeling, but rather lascivious poses one would expect to see in an adult magazine,” U.S. Attorney Alice H. Martin said in a statement announcing the indictments and the closure of all the Webe Web sites. “Here lewd has met lucrative, and exploitation of a child’s innocence equals profits.”
In an e-mail interview, Martin told MSNBC.com that prosecutors will press charges against the defendants for photos showing the young girls scantily clothed but not nude under a federal statute that deems images that “show lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area” to be child pornography.
No nudity, but ‘sexually suggestive poses’
“There are no semi-nude or nude images,” she said. “The children are dressed in underwear, adult lingerie, high heels, etc., and placed in sexually suggestive poses which focus the viewer's attention on the genital or pubic area. Some are posed with facial expressions and in positions that suggest a willingness to engage in sexual activity.”
If convicted of all charges, Greenberg and Libman could be sent to prison for up to 20 years and fined up to $250,000 for each count. They also face forfeiture of all proceeds from the Web sites.
Phone calls to the company offices and the homes of Libman and Greenberg were not answered.
MSNBC.com interviewed the woman whose complaint triggered the investigation of Pierson and Webe Web, who agreed to talk on the condition that neither she nor her daughter be identified.
She said she naively answered an online advertisement for preteen models several years ago so that her then-10-year-old daughter could begin to build a portfolio.
She and her daughter drove to Pierson’s home studio, where they met the photographer, his wife and the couple’s 12-year-old daughter.
“They seemed like perfect people,” she recalled. “They said she would have a Web site so that people looking for models would offer her jobs.”
Mother recounts her horror
The woman said that everything seemed on the up and up during the initial visit, which included some test shots of the girl wearing different outfits, so she signed a contract.
But on the second visit, she said, Pierson kept her out of the studio, asking her to remain in an adjacent room where she could see him but not her daughter.
“He said it makes the models nervous,” she said.
The woman said she sat chatting with the photographer and his wife during the daylong shoot and had no inkling what was going on until she walked into the studio when Pierson had left the room for a moment and saw her daughter wearing only a thong and a halter top.
“That feeling is a feeling I don’t wish on anybody,” she said.
The woman said that she and her daughter were frightened to leave because Pierson had earlier displayed a handgun he kept in the house, so they endured several more hours in the studio.
“I said ‘We can’t do this,’ but my daughter said she was scared to leave and let’s get through this and then we won’t come back,” she said. “It was really hard.”
Once they left, the woman said she “went straight to the FBI” in Birmingham and told them what Pierson had done.
Authorities seek other photographers
It is not known how many children Pierson photographed for Webe Web, but Martin said he was responsible for about 30 percent of the photos on the 60 or so sites that the company hosted from the Netherlands and has told prosecutors that the company paid him $270,000 for his work. Martin said investigators were continuing to try to identify other photographers who worked for the company.
Webe Web first drew scrutiny in 2001, when NBC's Miami affiliate, WTVJ, reported that the company was operating a handful of Web sites featuring young girls wearing bathing suits and other skimpy outfits and charging “members” to view additional photos.
Webe Web representatives defended the business model, denying the sites were aimed at pedophiles, but the controversy snowballed, and soon the company was featured in unflattering spots on national news programs like “Dateline NBC” and “Oprah.”
The sites also attracted the attention of Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who in 2002 introduced a bill called the Child Modeling Exploitation Prevention Act to attempt to tighten restrictions on the sale of photographs of minors. The bill died in committee amid objections from civil libertarians and commercial interests.
Foley resigned from Congress in September after it was reported that he exchanged inappropriate e-mails with a teenage page.
The filing of criminal charges against Webe Web is at least the second federal criminal case brought against operators of Web sites featuring minors in provocative poses. Two Utah men, Matthew Duhamel and Charles Granere, are facing federal child pornography charges for a child modeling site that featured minors in lingerie.
Will juries buy ‘child porn’ argument?
But Frederick Lane, a lawyer who specializes in Internet issues and author of "Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age," said it is an open question whether the hardball legal tactic will prove effective.
“It quickly gets into a legal gray area, like parents taking photos of their kids, so prosecutors have been reluctant to use it as a tool,” he said. “… From what I’ve seen, there’s too much gray area there in terms of persuading a jury that the photographs actually constitute child pornography.”
But he said that the “financial piece” — the fact that Webe Web charged customers $20 a month to subscribe to each girl’s Web site — may help the prosecution overcome that obstacle.
“That’s one of the things that is more persuasive to juries, a sense of exploitation of these girls,” he said.
For the defense, he said, the argument likely will hearken back to the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s oft-repeated comment about "hard-core" pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
“For the defense point of view, the argument is, ‘Here is real child pornography, and that is not what this child is doing,’” he said.
No matter the outcome of the criminal case, it will do little to discourage other operators unless it leads to new legislation with clearer strictures against risqué photos of minors, said Don Austen, who has been active in pressuring ISPs to drop clients running preteen and teen modeling sites.
New laws needed, advocate says
“Just winning a case is not going to affect anything unless this brings to light what’s going on,” said Austen, who also runs the Thursday’s Child hot line for teenage runaways.
He also said that while some defend the “modeling” sites as harmless, they desensitize the young girls to sex. He said he knows of two girls who started out as teen “models” on such Web sites that graduated into adult pornography after they turned 18.
“It’s not just that she’s feeling embarrassment and feeling used. … It changes lives,” he said.
The damage isn’t exclusive to the children, said the woman who told authorities about Pierson.
She said she remains wracked with guilt because she didn’t sense that she was putting her daughter at risk until it was too late. Now, she said, the girl is fearful of being alone with men and recently broke down when a male doctor sought to examine her.
“I blame myself so much, but I never dreamed that could happen,” she said. “I thought love would protect her, but I guess I was just stupid.”