Federal prosecutors announced Wednesday that they had broken up a major online international child pornography ring that at its peak had more than 1,000 members trading millions of sexually explicit images.
More than 50 people have been arrested in several states since the 2008 start of the investigation, U.S. Attorney Tim Morrison said in a statement, and authorities said they are seeking the extradition of several suspects from overseas. Immigration and postal agencies also took part in the investigation, along with state and local police.
"This is the largest crimes against children case brought anywhere by anyone," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D. DeBrota said.
One suspect, 47-year-old Edward Oedewaldt, who was arrested April 23 in Arcadia, La., was brought to Indianapolis on Wednesday to face charges of conspiracy to advertise and distribute child pornography and was ordered to remain in federal custody pending trial. He has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Howard Bergstein, declined to comment Wednesday.
Prosecutors said 35 ring members have been convicted of various child pornography distribution charges. Some of them have received sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
Besides Indiana and Louisiana, suspects came from California, Alaska, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, Virginia and Florida, DeBrota said.
"This was a social networking site, really," he said.
The investigation was kept secret for so long to avoid tipping off suspects, Morrison said.
The government is working with police in several countries, including France, Germany and England, to investigate other suspects, DeBrota said. Investigators also believe the group had members in Asia, Africa and South America.
The U.S. is working to extradite the group's alleged ringleader, Delwin Savigar, who is serving a 14-year prison term in England for sexually assaulting three underage girls, DeBrota said.
Savigar created and ran a password-protected website from which members could access collections of sexual images — some including as many as a million files — share their fantasies about having sex with children and give advice to each other about how to build their collections and avoid getting caught, according to DeBrota.
Several members were found to have been personally sexually abusing children, sometimes producing images of the abuse. But the group focused on trading explicit images, not producing them, he said.
"Making the material was not part of this group's conspiracy," DeBrota said.
The website had a hierarchy and members were given ranks that gave them varying degrees of access to the pornography. Savigar was the "root administrator," and the ranks descended from "administrator" to "moderator" to "grand master" to "trusted member," DeBrota said.
The group had about 1,000 members at its peak but had culled its membership to about 500 when U.S. officials took down the website in 2008. DeBrota said prosecutors went after high-ranking members or those that had records of abusing children.
To join the group, a person had to be sponsored by a member and voted on by other members, DeBrota said. Some members knew each other only by their screen names, but some knew each other outside of the ring, he said.
Investigators were able to infiltrate the ring after taking over the online profile of a member who was arrested in Alabama as part of a separate case, DeBrota said.
Many suspected ring members were charged in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis. Conspiracy charges can be brought anywhere an alleged conspiracy occurs, and investigators discovered early on that four members of the group were from Indiana, DeBrota said.
A rapid-response computer forensics team led by the Indiana State Police traced the groups' high-ranking members from one computer to the next, he said.
Sixteen of the child victims have been identified, prosecutors said.