Wednesday, January 16, 2008

OC man, two others arrested in child predator probe

To date, the child predator unit has a 100 percent conviction rate.

Eric N. Stevenson

An Oil City man and two other men from northwest Pennsylvania were arrested Tuesday by agents from state Attorney General Tom Corbett's child predator unit.

The three are accused of using Internet chat rooms to sexually solicit what they believed were young girls, as well as sending nude or sexually explicit photos and Webcam videos of the girls.

The "girls" were actually undercover agents from the child predator unit, Corbett said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Erie, where he announced the arrests.

Corbett identified the defendants as Eric N. Stevenson, 28, of 129 Lantz Lane, Oil City; Shawn M. Hippo, 26, of Saegertown, Crawford County; and Kevin A. Wible, 53, of Erie. The arrests were made with assistance from local police departments, Corbett said.

"Today's arrests across northwestern Pennsylvania are examples of the growing trend of 'webcam predators' - men who seek sexual gratification by sending nude photos or videos to what they believe are children," Corbett said. "This is part of a growing trend we are seeing across the state, involving predators who hide in the comfort and security of their own homes, using high-tech tools like webcams, digital cameras and online chat rooms to try to steal the innocence of unsuspecting children."

Corbett said the child predator unit was created in January 2005 to conduct proactive undercover investigations to identify and capture Internet predators before they can harm children. The unit has now arrested 120 Internet predators, including 55 over the past 12 months.

To date, the child predator unit has a 100 percent conviction rate.

Corbett said all three suspects arrested Tuesday allegedly followed the pattern of other recent "webcam predator" cases:

* Stevenson allegedly claimed to be 17 years old during his first instant message exchange with what he believed was a 13-year old girl - and used a photo sharing program to send the girl several photos, including two nude images of his private parts, Corbett said.

Stevenson is charged with three counts of unlawful contact with a minor, along with one count of criminal use of a computer, all third-degree felonies and each punishable by up to seven years in prison and $15,000 fines.

The charges were filed through District Judge Doug Dinberg's office, and Stevenson's case will be prosecuted in Venango County.

The incidents involving Stevenson began in October and continued until Jan. 7, according to the criminal complaint filed at Dinberg's office.

* Wible allegedly sent a Webcam video of himself in a sexual act during his first chat with what he believed was a 13-year old girl. During that initial chat, Wible allegedly told the undercover agent that he guessed she was a young girl who was home alone, and asked if she "liked watching."

Wible faces the same charges as Stevenson, and his case will be prosecuted in Erie County.

* Hippo allegedly requested nude photos during his first online chat with an undercover agent, who was using the online profile of a 13-year old girl. The following day, Hippo allegedly sent the girl a nude Webcam video and graphically described the sex acts he wished to perform with her.

Hippo is charged with three counts of unlawful contact with a minor (obscene or sexual performances), three counts of criminal attempted obscene or sexual performances and three counts of criminal use a computer. His case will be prosecuted in Crawford County.

Agents are in the process of executing search warrants on the homes of all three defendants to locate and seize computers, webcams, digital cameras and other electronic devices that may have been used to transmit or store explicit photos or video. Those items will be analyzed by the Attorney General's computer forensics unit.

Corbett said all three cases will be handled by Deputy Attorney General William F. Caye II of the child predator unit.

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