A Mislabeled and Malicious Torrent, and What Happened After

The time has come to speak on a subject that I have been necessarily silent about for the past six months, though much of the Pagan community has been made aware of it through reporting in prominent Pagan journals and the gossip engendered by social media. I speak of course of the legal turmoil in which I have been embroiled for the last half-year, and from which I am only now beginning slowly to emerge. To give a proper accounting of things, however, so that people may understand how things fell out, we must begin even earlier, during Independence Day Weekend, 2016.

That weekend my wife Amber and I had a longtime friend, Eric, down from Baltimore, my home city, to visit and celebrate the holiday and the long weekend. As we were cooking dinner late that night of July 3, we started talking about finding a movie to watch, and eventually settled some time around midnight of July 4 on a lighthearted Western comedy—the Jackie Chan/Owen Wilson vehicle Shanghai Noon, to be precise. Now, finances had for the past couple years been quite tight, and so our access to streaming and rental services was extremely limited. So we took the route that many poor folks do in our local community (including many Pagans, who I would like to take the opportunity to strongly warn against the practice)—we looked the movie up on BitLord, a torrent client program.

The first file I tried to download, at the top of the queue, was tagged as being the movie we were looking for, though the actual file name was some unmemorable string of letters and numbers. When I opened the partially downloaded folder to check on its progress, I saw that what was inside it was not the sought-after video file, but a collection of images. I opened one to see what it was, and discovered immediately that it was very much not what I’d been trying to download. I was horrified. My wife describes the transformation my face underwent as “a wave of disbelief washing over it, basically a combination of shock, horror, and what-the-f*ck-am-I-looking-at?” Eric asked what on earth I was looking at. I told him he didn’t want to know. He pressed, and I revealed to both him and Amber what had happened. They were of course equally horrified. However, we deleted the file and the torrent immediately, and went about the rest of our evening, the mishap fading quickly into unpleasant but blessedly distant and quiet memory. We thought no more about it. (It bears pointing out that Eric had been texting his mother throughout that evening, and still retains the text messages, photos, Facebook statuses, and receipts corroborating the details of everything we did that entire weekend and that night in particular.)

Fast forward three months. Tuesday morning, October 18, Amber and I were awoken in the early morning hours by the sound of loud knocking on our door. I stumbled downstairs that morning and opened the door, still half-asleep, to the sight of two city police officers and an FBI agent. As I awoke to the situation it gradually it became clear that they were there with a warrant, on the basis that a city taskforce assigned to the protection of women and children in conjunction with a nationwide FBI sting had detected a commonly shared malicious file being uploaded from our IP address, and according to the warrant it had occurred in the small hours of July 4. As it was explained to me, first by the police and afterwards by my lawyer, there are a number of such files that cycle regularly through torrent sites and clients, which have flags attached to them that send out alerts to the police whenever they are downloaded—accidentally or not. In my case, since the torrent client I was using was automatically configured to ‘seed’ or upload anything that was being downloaded, it was intercepted by the investigating detective, who now stood outside my apartment. He proceeded to interrogate me as to my internet viewing habits, interests, community involvement, and all manner of things. Meanwhile, the other officers were going through every room in our apartment, taking pictures, while my wife sat terrified and bewildered at the bottom of the stairs. They asked her questions about our altars and religious views, about the plants she was growing outside, and how we knew the people in pictures on our walls (as Amber’s mother works in the city police department and they therefore recognized her). Finally, when the detective was finished questioning me, they left, taking with them my laptop, and told me they’d be in touch. The detective called me later that day, and thanked me for being so cooperative, and (he felt) honest. He asked me for the access passwords to my computer so they could more easily open it up and copy its hard drive to run forensics on it, and I willingly supplied them.

It took fully two weeks for those forensics to be complete, and on November 1 the detective called me again. He told me once again that he appreciated how honest and cooperative I had been with him, how uncomfortable this all had been, and that he personally believed I had just “made a mistake and got caught up in a bunch of bullsh*t,” and was “not any kind of a menace to society.” (He repeated this later to my wife and mother-in-law.) However, he had in fact found the history of the file he’d intercepted on my computer—as it turns out, even if you delete a file from a computer, it’s not really gone, and remains retrievable by those with the tech and know-how—and on that basis he was legally obligated to charge me with something. He told me that because he believed in the innocence of my intent and basic decency he was charging me as low as he feasibly could—with Dissemination of Obscenity, a rarely used and vaguely worded crime that has an extremely broad range of application (e.g. in North Carolina it extends so far that one could be charged with it for uploading a video to an adult website, or the spreading of offensive literature or symbols—most bathroom graffiti falls squarely in its category). In my case, it applies to the fact that the offending images—despite them being accidentally accessed—were then seeded/disseminated and intercepted by the police. He emphasized, however, that what I was being charged with was not a sex crime and did not entail registration as sex offender, or even jail time.

He asked me to come in to the Sheriff’s Department the following morning to meet him and speak with the magistrate. So there I arrived the morning of November 2, and spoke very briefly with the detective, who told me that he’d already spoken with the magistrate and explained my situation as we’d discussed the previous day, and that all I needed to do was simply to go up to the counter and tell them my name, charge, and that I was there to turn myself in and speak with the magistrate. Before I knew it, and much to my surprise (since no mention at all had been made that this would be part of the process), I was being led through the full booking process, stripped of my possessions, and prevented from calling anybody except a bondsman. The latter required a minimum $3000 deposit in order to post my bail, and because I had nothing like that amount, or any kind of equity, I was left with resorting to telling him that my mother-in-law—my only local family—worked for the City Police Department and asking if he might be able to contact her. He said he’d try, and that was the last thing I knew before spending the rest of the day behind bars, unable to contact my place of work (which, as I’d been scheduled to work later that day, ultimately cost me my job), terrified and unable to know when or if I would be getting out, and worst, unable to contact Amber and tell her what had happened. (She found out by way of a friend messaging her in alarm after the local newspaper, the Gaston Gazette, wrote the piece that soon found its way across the entire Pagan internet and published it on its Facebook.) Late that night, my bond was posted after a collection was taken up among friends, and Amber and her mother met me outside the station. When I arrived home, I discovered that same article—essentially a distorted and sensationalized rendering of the police blotter—had been sent straight to the ADF Mother Grove and was being actively discussed on email lists and social media. My own Facebook wall was being peppered with insulting comments, and people who I’d thought were friends were dropping in droves from my contacts list. I soon found that everything from my place of work to anyone the Druid group I’d been leading had been in contact with, and most of the groups and organizations with which I had any involvement, had been broadcast across the internet in a way that made my family and I feel distinctly unsafe, not to mention prematurely condemned.

My reaction to all this consisted primarily of a) minimizing my online presence for more than the next two months, as I tried my best to find solid footing again, and b) voluntarily stepping down from my positions as North Carolina Deputy Regional Druid of ADF and Grove Organizer of Raven’s Hollow Protogrove, as well as Local Coordinator for Piedmont Pagan Pride, in order to spare ADF and the Pagan Pride Project the difficult situation that had been laid at their feet. Because the title of Grove Organizer cannot be transferred to another Protogrove member, this decision cost Raven’s Hollow its charter as an entity affiliated with ADF. Nonetheless, and despite full knowledge of all that had gone on, my fellow Raven’s Hollow Druids collectively insisted on carrying on holding regular ritual and fellowship with me, and continuing the project we’d begun a year earlier.

That brings us very nearly to the present; since mid-November my wife and I have been living in my mother-in-law’s house, having been evicted from our apartment on the basis of a no-police-presence clause in the lease and that Gazette article publishing our address. After my case having been delayed a number of times for reasons to do with the schedules of my lawyer and the District Attorney, the final hearing occurred this past Tuesday, April 4. Very fortunately as a general rule, but unfortunately in my particular case, the D.A. in question is exceptionally harsh in these sorts of situations, despite the fact that there were two witnesses to the events, and so the ultimatum I was presented with was to plead no contest to my charge, to dissemination of obscenity—which it must be remembered is not a sex crime—or to take my case to trial, which was far outside the reach of what I could afford. As it was, I was forced by my own severely limited resources to depend on the generosity of friends and family to afford the services my lawyer had thus far provided, and no one I knew had access to anything like the $10,000 his office told us would be the minimum cost to try my case before a jury. Furthermore, my lawyer advised me that because I have made no secret of my religious affiliation in an area where conservatism and Southern Christianity dominate (to the extent that our Pagan Pride events get whole Christian counter-festivals set up down the street to protest us), it was extremely unlikely that I would receive fair treatment from an unbiased jury. For those reasons, I was left with little option other than to plead No Contest, and bear the penalty for a charge that resulted primarily from a low income and perhaps questionable taste in slapstick comedy films. My lawyer made it very clear to me, however, that if the arresting officer and the D.A. had not believed the witnesses and myself, I would not have received such a low charge to begin with. This gives me some small solace, though getting to this point has been incredibly painful, and I fully expect the road forward to be just as difficult.

From here, my wife and I will be going through the long, difficult process of rebuilding our lives and trying to reestablish some semblance of the standing we once had in the Pagan community. I understand very well that a lot of trust has been shaken, and it will take a lot of work to rebuild. At the same time, I have throughout this week been in communication with the Wild Hunt to share my story, as have the other witnesses to the events (who are also sharing their testimonies on social media), and many people have come forward to express their understanding and support. For these, and especially for those who have been there throughout this ordeal, I have nothing but the deepest gratitude.

UPDATE — 8 May, 2017

Because it has come to my attention that certain parties have purchased the copyrighted court transcript—which is not publicly available, but is protected behind a substantial pricewall—and have seen fit to share this document as broadly as they have been able, it is natural that further questions have arisen based on the nature of what the prosecuting attorney said as part of her closing statement, which are only fitting that I address.

I was as surprised as anyone when the assistant district attorney—who in the Gaston County court system serve as prosecuting attorneys, and are not bound by oath, as defendants are—made the allegation that I had confessed to the investigating officers in October that I had deliberately downloaded and made use of the files under investigation. Unfortunately, because my plea had already been set forth, my right and ability to appeal or even to contradict her was taken away, and all I was able to do was to silently shake my head in flat denial of her allegations. At a certain point, the judge gave me an opportunity to “add anything”; however, I was still reeling in shock at the allegation, and to my mind saying anything to contest what the D.A. said would, well, violate the terms of “no contest” and that—since she’d just demonstrated that she was perfectly willing to try to make things worse for me, that’s exactly what would happen.

As above, when the police came to our door last October, they questioned me in front of my wife about all aspects of my life, including my internet and pornography viewing habits. At no point whatsoever did I tell them that I deliberately downloaded or made use of underage images, and I expressed extreme disgust and revulsion at the very idea. The police confiscated my computer to perform forensics on it, and the investigating detective thanked me for my cooperation. Two weeks later, he told me that he had been able to recover the history of the accidentally downloaded torrent file I have talked about, and that therefore he would have to charge me with something. However, because he did not find any other evidence, and because he felt that I had been honest with him, he charged me as low as he possibly could, with the lowest class felony that exists which could possibly be associated with this sort of offense. It is very important to bear in mind that if I had told him that I had been intentionally downloading and using those images, I would have been arrested on the spot, not two weeks later, and charged with second degree sexual exploitation of a minor (i.e. possession of underage pornography). The detective had no indication that I was guilty of such an offense, or he would not have hesitated to charge me anything like so low as he did.

I do not know what changed in the six months between that exchange and the assistant DA’s words in court (which were delivered as a closing remark, not as prosecuting evidence, and so could not be objected to by my lawyer). I can say that my lawyer informed me beforehand that while this prosecutor was generally fair, in cases that related to underage sexuality, no matter the context, she could be especially vicious—and again, she was by no means bound to tell the truth, and may have wanted simply to drill the point home just how seriously she takes cases like this, which she would ordinarily prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, provided she had evidence (e.g. a confession) to do so. I was not prepared, however, for any statements to be made like the ones she did. I had already signed my plea of no contest, which had on it only my charge listed—not any record of admission of guilt, wherein lies the chief difference between a no contest and a guilty plea—if I’d already confessed to police, what would be the point of refusing to admit guilt in court, if the punishment would be the same in either case? A number of local pagans were in court with me that day, friends, community leaders, and members of groups I belong to, and all of them saw how shocked I was. I have related the events in court to numerous people in the local and broader pagan community through personal communication, so this is not exactly the breaking news people seemed to think it was Friday. I am complying with the terms of probation that the state has deemed appropriate (which are the standard conditions applicable to all NC probationers), and even my probation officer has told me that in her twenty years of doing her job, she has become a pretty good judge of character, and she doesn’t believe me to be guilty either (which of course doesn’t slacken the terms of probation). It may also be important to reiterate that the treatment program I have been assigned to complete is distinct from the Sex Offender Control Program—a point my probation officer has made very clear—the latter requiring registration and strict conditions and restrictions about where one can be and when. The treatment program is more of a general sexual harassment reeducation and group therapy, which I am told is not at all uncommon for non-sex offenders to be assigned to, depending on their charge.

I hope that this helps to answer some people’s questions. I do not hope to persuade people that have already made up their minds on the matter, especially those that do not know me or have a basis of trust established, but persuasion isn’t my intent. My intent is to relate the truth as it happened, and to, if I can, prevent anyone else from falling into the same difficulties as I have.

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