John D.R. Atchison — federal prosecutor, married father of three — was a respected figure who coached girls’ softball and basketball in a park a few blocks from his home in this well-to-do beach community.
But all that came crumbling down when he was arrested last weekend in Detroit in an Internet sex sting on charges he traveled to Michigan to molest a 5-year-old girl. Officials say he later tried to hang himself in jail.
Atchison, 53, had been communicating with an undercover sheriff’s detective from Macomb County, Mich., who was posing online as the fictitious girl’s mother and arranged for him to have sex with the child, police said.
He was arrested carrying presents for her, including a doll and earrings, and sexual materials, officials said.
In the community that once applauded Atchison for his dedication to youth sports, people now worry that the assistant U.S. attorney might have held other secrets. But authorities have so far found no cases of child molestation in Florida involving Atchison.
“There were no red flags. He was normal. He went to work at the courthouse Monday through Friday. It’s not like he carried dolls to the ballpark,” said police Lt. Rick Hawthorne, who knew Atchison for more than 10 years and coached softball.
Mayor Lane Gilchrist said: “My first thought was just how stupid it was, particularly someone of his stature. You couldn’t think up something like that.”
Atchison’s lawyer, James C. Thomas, did not return a phone call Friday.
Suspect charged with 3 felonies
As a federal prosecutor, Atchison mostly worked on tax and financial crime cases. According to court records, it appears he never prosecuted child sex abuse cases.
He was charged with three felonies in Michigan, including crossing state lines with the intent to have sex with someone under 12. He could get up to life in prison.
The mayor has tried to reassure parents and other residents alarmed by Atchison’s arrest. “There was nothing involving local children and there should be no implication that there is,” he said.
But City Manager Edwin “Buz” Eddy, who spent years attending youth sporting events with Atchison and his family, said he worries the community has not seen the end of the case.
“Who’s to say that someone won’t come forward with an accusation tomorrow?” he said.
Eddy expressed surprise and a sense of betrayal after the arrest.
“If he called me two weeks ago and wanted my daughter to go on a fishing trip I would have said sure,” the city manager said.
Ron Johnson, a Pensacola criminal defense attorney, worked with Atchison and knew him socially because their children played sports together. The only thing that made Atchison different from some others was his slightly standoffish “intellectual manner,” Johnson said.
“He was obviously a very bright guy and maybe a little eccentric in that sense,” he said.
Atchison’s boss, U.S. Attorney Gregory R. Miller, said in a statement earlier this week that his office was cooperating with the investigation. He said staff members were “deeply saddened by the arrest.”