A Michigan man built an online profile posing as a good-looking single dad and caring psychologist and persuaded mothers across the country to sexually assault their children as a form of therapy, then send him the images of the attacks, authorities said Monday.
Since authorities arrested him in October, seven children were rescued and at least three mothers have been arrested. Prosecutors say all of the children are now safe.
Steven Demink, 41, of Redford Township, Mich., appeared in federal court in Detroit to enter his plea on six charges related to the sexual exploitation of children. Seven charges were dropped as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. He faces 15 years to life in prison when he is sentenced in June.
Court documents paint a picture of a man who targeted single mothers, and in some cases, promised them a date if they followed through with his directions. He would identify himself in conversations as Dalton St. Clair, a single father of a 14-year-old girl, prosecutors said, and posted pictures of male models as his headshots.
He connected with mothers in New Hampshire, Idaho, Florida and elsewhere from April 2009 until September 2010, authorities say, and got them to engage in sexual acts with their children and send images via e-mail or through a live web stream. The children ranged in age from 3 to 15.
In one case, Demink started online chats with an Oregon woman about the sexual development of her eight-year-old autistic son, according to a plea agreement. He told her to engage in sexually explicit conduct with her son as a way to teach him about sex, and she did so while Demink watched on a web camera, prosecutors say.
"Demink intimated to these women that the result of the therapy would be healthier children," the document said.
Federal agents were tipped off to his operation by the Teton County Sheriff's Office in Idaho, said Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Homeland Security Investigations, which led the probe. The mother of a woman who had been chatting with him called sheriff's officials in late 2009.
The woman's mother, Eileen Schwab, said she knows little of how Demink convinced her daughter to follow his orders, but knows she "met him on the Internet and he promised her the world." Schwab said her daughter was "depressed and lonesome" after her divorce. Her daughter pleaded guilty to lewd conduct with a child under 16 in May of last year, and is currently in prison.
"I don't know how he wrangled her in," Schwab said. "She could have turned off the computer and gone the other way. He must have had a power over her."
The arrested mothers also include a woman who lived in New Hampshire when prosecutors say the crimes occurred. She pleaded guilty in December to producing child pornography, which carries a possible sentence of 15 to 30 years in prison, and is scheduled to be sentenced in March. The Associated Press left a message seeking comment from Larry Dash, a federal defender representing her.
A woman from Lee County, Fla., also has pleaded not guilty to five counts and was being held without bond in Florida and faces a May trial in federal court in Fort Myers, federal defender Martin DerOvanesian said. Prosecutors say Demink also is linked to four other mothers in Indiana, Georgia, Illinois and Oregon but has not been charged with crimes related to those communications. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Mulcahy said those cases are not part of the indictment but can be considered during sentencing.
The Associated Press is not naming the women to protect the identity of the children. The AP generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse.
In court on Monday, Demink told U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen he understood the charges and that he was giving up his right to a trial by pleading guilty. When Rosen asked how Demink was feeling, he said, "Nervous, your honor."
Demink told Rosen that before his arrest, he worked as a car salesman for about six months and before that for about five years at a local bank. He said he completed a U.S. Customs and Border Protection training program in 2002 and worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service for about a year.
Demink's attorney, Timothy Dinan, said his client "has expressed a lot of remorse" for what he did and has taken responsibility by pleading guilty. Dinan said Demink's parents, who were in court but declined to be interviewed, are praying for their son as well as the victims and their families.
"It's a shame he couldn't ask for help," Dinan said.
Associated Press writer Corey Williams contributed to this story.