WASHINGTON (AP) — A former Washington private school teacher who was once featured on the FBI's list of most wanted fugitives pleaded guilty Thursday to child pornography charges and faces decades in prison.
Eric Justin Toth, 31, was captured in Nicaragua in April, ending a five-year period on the run that began after images of child pornography were found on a school camera that had been in his possession. His arrest came one year after the FBI publicized his disappearance by adding him to its Most Wanted list, where he filled a vacancy created by Osama bin Laden's death, and offered a reward for information leading to his capture.
He pleaded guilty to three counts of producing child pornography, identity theft and misuse of a Social Security number. The recommended sentencing range is between 22 and 30 years in prison, according to the terms of his plea agreement. He also will have to register as a sex offender and faces at least 25 years of supervised release after he gets out of prison.
Toth did not address the allegations in court except to give mostly "yes" or "no" answers to standard questions from a judge and to correct the age of one of the child victims to whom a prosecutor had referred. His lawyer did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Prosecutors say the ex-teacher's crimes of child pornography spanned years and multiple states and involved hidden cameras and secret videos of children in various state of undress. He admitted to much of his conduct in initial interviews with investigators, and his guilty plea essentially resolved the case eight months after his arrest.
"The guy was on the run for five years. It's hard to say he accepted responsibility, but he did acknowledge his conduct early on, and obviously that's something we look at when we are crafting a plea agreement," U.S. Attorney Ron Machen said in an interview after the plea hearing.
Prosecutors revealed new details about the scope of the abuse in court Thursday.
They say the college-educated and computer savvy Toth took photographs and videos of a sleeping male camper while working as a counselor at a Wisconsin summer camp in 2005 and, over the next two years, filmed himself undressing or sexually fondling a student of his. He also installed hidden cameras disguised as air fresheners in a bathroom at the Beauvoir School, a private elementary school where he worked as a third-grade teacher. The recordings captured 15 children under the age of 10 using the bathroom, prosecutors say.
Toth was escorted off campus in June 2008 after school administrators found images of child pornography on a school camera that had been in his possession. A media card containing more images was found at the school soon after, along with the hidden cameras used to record child pornography, prosecutors say. He fled before police could arrest him, using aliases and stolen identities of men he had met to evade capture over the next five years and living in places including Texas, Arizona and, finally, Nicaragua.
Still, there were clues along the way that tantalized law enforcement.
His abandoned car was located in a parking garage at a Minnesota airport soon after his escape 2008, along with an apparent suicide note. Authorities learned the following year that he was working under an assumed name at a homeless shelter in Phoenix. But he was gone before federal agents could nab him.
Prosecutors said he kept pornographic material even while on the run. As they traced Toth's steps, autorities located pornographic images on a thumb drive left in his car in Minnesota and on a laptop computer he had used in Arizona. He is not being charged for those crimes under his plea deal.
Placing him on the FBI's most wanted fugitives list — a roster normally populated by infamous terrorists, murderers and gangsters — was a way to draw attention to the bureau's emphasis on hunting down child predators, said Timothy Gallagher, special agent in charge of the criminal division of the FBI's Washington field office.
Investigators also believe it helped crack the case; a citizen's tip led authorities to Nicaragua, where Toth was living under an alias and working as a technical writer.
"I don't want to say it was directly attributable to his apprehension, but it contributed a large part," Gallagher said in an interview. "Nationwide, worldwide media attention given to his placement on the list led to a tip placing him in Nicaragua."
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