FBI deal over internet sex chat saves Disney executive from jail

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The Independent US

A former Disney computer executive who used internet chatrooms for lewd exchanges with underage girls until he was caught trying to solicit sex from a 13-year-old has been told by a federal judge he will not have to serve any prison time because of his exceptional contributions to FBI efforts to track sexual predators online.

A former Disney computer executive who used internet chatrooms for lewd exchanges with underage girls until he was caught trying to solicit sex from a 13-year-old has been told by a federal judge he will not have to serve any prison time because of his exceptional contributions to FBI efforts to track sexual predators online.

In a case that has come to symbolise the difficulty of distinguishing harmless fantasists from dangerous paedophiles on the internet, Patrick Naughton emerged from his year-long criminal prosecution with considerable dignity despite being convicted for the crime of crossing state lines with intent to have sex with a minor.

Since being arrested on Santa Monica pier last summer in a sting operation - the 13-year-old he had met online turned out to be an undercover agent - he has become friendly with his trackers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and voluntarily developed five investigative software packages that could have cost the government millions of dollars on the open market.

"[The programs'] purpose is to protect children from internet paedophiles and it is the view of this court that they would be extremely helpful in doing so," Judge Edward Rafeedie said at the sentencing hearing on Wednesday.

Showing obvious respect for Naughton, the judge not only waived prison time - which could have been as much as 15 years under federal law - but also said the defendant would be under no obligation to help the FBI further during his five-year probation period.

The outcome has been far from obvious since Naughton, using the online pseudonym "hotseattle", first encountered FBI Special Agent Bruce Applin in a chatroom called dad&daughtersex.

A computer whizzkid who helped develop Sun Microsystems' Java script, Naughton was a rising star at Disney's Go network who visited child porn sites as secret relief from the stresses of his job.

He argued in court that his online conversations were about exercising sexual fantasies, not corrupting minors. He did not realistically think he was talking to children (or FBI agents, for that matter). When he arranged the meeting at Santa Monica pier last September, during a business trip to the Los Angeles area from his home base in Seattle, he said he was merely pursuing a thrill, not imagining he would really have sex with a 13-year-old.

His arguments carried considerable weight in court, and the jury deadlocked on whether he was guilty. He was, however, prosecuted on a second charge of possessing illegal pornographic images on his computer - images he insisted he had been sent automatically, not at his request, by the webmasters whose sites he frequented.

In a complex plea bargain, the possession charges were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea on the felony charge of soliciting sex. He began cooperating with the FBI voluntarily and was told his help might well be judged favourably in the sentencing phase.

The case has been devastating for Naughton. He has lost his marriage, his job and 95 per cent of his potential wealth because Disney revoked all his stock options.

And he is not walking away scot-free: he will be electronically tagged for the next nine months and confined to the surroundings around his home. He will be fined more than $20,000 (£12,500) and obliged to register as a convicted sex offender wherever he chooses to live. He is also banned from entering sex chatrooms and from talking to anybody under the age of 18 unless another adult is present.

The details of his software contributions to the FBI are due to be partially released by the court except where their publication could compromise the efficiency of future investigations. Speaking outside the Los Angeles federal courthouse, Naughton said he had used his experiences to distinguish between fantasists and criminals. Using his programs, he said, "they'll catch more people breaking the law. I don't think anyone who is remotely innocent will be swept up in this''.

He said he was looking for another internet-related job. "There are tons of opportunities out there," he told reporters.

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