He called himself “MrMature” and logged on to the Internet with questionable intentions. He visited an America Online (AOL) chat room called Preteen. In fact, he lurked around in many other cyberswampsit didn’t matter as long as it was a place where pedophiles talked over the tricks of the trade and swapped photos. Sometimes he called himself “Dd4SubFem,” which is compu-speak for Dad Searching for Submissiveor possibly Sub-teenFemale. The particulars weren’t important.
MrMature found that his fellow chatters were only too eager to share their most precious artifacts. “Oldie but goodie,” noted one of them when sending him some kiddie porn. “PRETEEN lez, the most beautiful sight on Earth! : ),” wrote another. One of these images depicted a prepubescent female, maybe 8 years old, having sex with an adult male. Another depicted a girl, also around 8, leaning back as another female performed oral sex on her. There was one of a girl in her early teens wearing nothing but a T-shirt and tennis sneakers, seated on a table, her legs spread; there was an image of another 8-year-old girl using a vibrator; and there was one of three preteen or early teenage girls lying on a bed fondling one another.
The man behind the nom-de-screen of MrMature was Larry Matthews, a then-53-year-old freelance journalist and sometime producer for National Public Radio. As MrMature, he wandered around various chat rooms and downloaded the images throughout 1996 as he sat at either of his Macintosh computers in the comfort of his Silver Spring home. Once, in September, Matthews also forwarded one of the images to others listed in the chat room. One way or anotherand the difference would become criticalMatthews was excited by what he had found.
Unfortunately for Matthews, at least one of his chat room chums was an undercover FBI agent assigned to the Bureau’s Mid-Atlantic Region Child Exploitation Task Force. Operation Innocent Images, based at the FBI’s Calverton office, was mounted to snag pedophilesspecifically those manufacturing and trading kiddie porn, as well as those using the Internet to arrange trysts with minors. The agents added MrMature to their list.
A grand jury indicted Matthews on July 28, 1997, charging him with 15 felony counts of receiving and sending child pornography on the Internet. While Matthews doesn’t dispute that he trafficked in these images, he says that his reasons for doing so had their roots in public interest, not in prurience or a psychosexual disorder.
Matthews is a journalist who says all of his forays into the slimy world of kiddie porn were reportorial in nature. Back in September 1995, Matthews broadcast a three-part series on WTOP-AM about the online availability of child pornography. After being downsized out of a job, he says, he planned to continue his pursuit of the issue and write a freelance magazine article on the subject. He says that his guise of MrMature was part of immersing himself in the subject, insinuating himself into the digital subculture of pedophilia. He was lurking, all right, but it was all part of an effort to find out “what else is under the rock. I think that child pornography is a kind of big tent for other forms of abuse of children,” Matthews says. He says he wanted to lift the rock and shed light on what he believes to be a vile thread of human behavior.
In early July, however, U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. decided that Matthews was not entitled to use the First Amendmentwhich guarantees freedom of the pressto defend himself against the charges. Matthews offered a conditional plea of guilty a week later so that he could more quickly appeal his case to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richmond. But before he can appeal, he will be sentenced by Judge Williams in a hearing slated to begin Dec. 11. The maximum penalty is 15 years in prison and a $250,000 finefor each one of the 15 counts.
Matthews’ attorney, Michael Statham of the Greenbelt firm of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, says that without a First Amendment defense, Matthews has no recourse.
“Right now, he’s basically naked,” Statham says. “Hopefully, he’ll be clothed by the 4th Circuit….Without a First Amendment defense, I have shit. I would have just gone before the jury and said, ‘Eh!’”
The U.S. Attorney’s office doesn’t see how The United States of America v. Lawrence Charles Matthews has anything to do with press freedoms. U.S. Attorney Lynne Battaglia, First Assistant Stephen Schenning, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jan Paul Miller and Deborah Johnston say that Matthews’ jaunts as MrMature and Dd4SubFem were criminal, regardless of motivation. To the prosecutors, it’s as simple as A plus B equaling C. Transmitting kiddie porn is against the law; Matthews admits he did so; hence, he is guilty as charged. But they don’t leave it at that.
“We’re saying we don’t believe that he was operating as a journalist when he did itthat’s No. 1,” says a member of the U.S. Attorney’s team who declined to be named. “And No. 2, that’s not an excuse. You guys”he says, indicating the reporter”just don’t get a pass.”
First Amendment activists and media outlets disagree. An alphabet soup of organizations has weighed in with support for Matthews, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapters of both D.C. and Maryland, plus media organizations NPR, WTOP, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
The debate over whether Matthews is a poster child for the First Amendment or just another warped freak who got caught with his pants down may well end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. If the conservative 4th Circuit rules against Matthews, as many anticipate, attorney Statham says that Matthews’ last chance lies before the nation’s highest court. Statham believes that the issue of freedom of the press combined with the newness of the Internet will make his client’s case irresistible to the Supremes. The U.S. Attorney’s office is prepared to prosecute the case wherever need be.
Matthews may emerge as a Gideon or Miranda for the rights of investigative reporters or, conversely, provide a cautionary tale to scare reporters away from tough stories conducted independently. Or it could be a lot more simple than that: Regardless of whether he was working on a story, he engaged in what the government believes was definitively criminal conduct. The First Amendment offers a fair number of permissions, and breaking the law isn’t one of them. But it’s all Matthews has. Without it, the prosecution won’t even have to get out of bed to paint him as just one more pervert who got caught.
At around noon on Dec. 11, 1996, Matthews was Christmas shopping at the Columbia Mall, buying some clothes for his wife.
Meanwhile, half a dozen or so officers and agents with Innocent Images converged on his home. The FBI agents gained entry into his house through a housekeeper, and, armed with a warrant, began confiscating computers and looking for anything else incriminating.
Matthews’ wife, Molly Mahoney Matthews, then 44, came home for lunch and found the uninvited visitors. She was approached by Special Agent Lynn Ferrante, an FBI employee for 10 years, who had been with Innocent Images since 1995.
“‘We have reason to believe that your husband is trafficking in child pornography,’” Molly Matthews recalls Ferrante saying. “[Ferrante] was nice to me, as if I was going to face the reality of my husband not being who I thought he was,” Molly Matthews says. “But that’s not the case….’Look everywhere,’ I said….’I’m so confident that you’re not going to find anything.’”
“I knew about his investigations [into child porn],” Molly Matthews says. “This is how this man works. He jumps out of airplanes; he gets tear-gassed. This is how he wins Peabodys; this is how he wins awards. It’s consistent with him as
Molly called her husband’s cell phone and left a voice-mail message for him to call her at once. When he called back, she told him that their home was filled with G-men. Matthews asked to speak with the person in charge. Ferrante got on the line and said she wouldn’t talk about the case over the phone. She told Matthews he should come home.
A number of cars were parked out front as Matthews pulled up in his green Dodge Intrepid. He didn’t think this encounter was going to be a big deal. Just a mix-up, is all. After all, he had contacted the FBI in the course of his research. At first glance, his image is all nondescript WASP-dad plainnessunobtrusive glasses, gray hair with a tidy side partbut Matthews’ demeanor is something else: He clearly, concisely articulates what he thinks with the rugged frankness of the self-educated, old-school radio journalist he is. Matthews was confident that he would be able to handle this misunderstanding soon enoughhe just had to clear things up.
The lean, slightly hunched Matthews entered his homea single-family house with yellow siding, tan trim, and green shuttersthrough the side door. There he found his wife sitting at the kitchen table with Ferrante and Detective Manuel “Nick” Rodriguez, a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal on the task force. Ferrante stood and introduced herself to Matthews, flashing him her badge.
Matthews sat down at the kitchen table. Rodriguez was on his left, Ferrante on his right. They gave Matthews the option to speak to them without his wife present, but he said, “I have nothing to hide,” and they proceeded with
It was an intense hour. Ferrante led the discussion in a cool, detached manner. Every now and then, Rodriguez would stand and walk around the room, occasionally hovering behind Matthews.
Matthews explained that he had been researching a “story on child pornography and what was going on online and the availability of this, what law enforcement was doing,” according to a motion transcript. The prosecution disputes this version, maintaining that Matthews “advised agents that he was not working on a story on child pornography.”
Ferrante and Rodriguez showed Matthews some pictures of kiddie porn and asked him if he had transmitted them. He said that he might have. Eventually, Matthews asked Ferrante if he should have an attorney present.
“You’re only under investigation,” she said. “You’re not under arrest.”
But he grew more circumspect in his answers. Ferrante, according to a transcript, judged his behavior “hostile” and “evasive.” Matthews and his wife left their home to pick up their son from school. On their way out, they asked Ferrante what was next.
“Your next step would be to contact the Assistant United States Attorney who is assigned the case.” Matthews realized the case wasn’t going away any time soon.
The FBI agents who work for Innocent Images are selected chiefly for their computer skills, but they tend to get passionate about the mission fairly quickly.
“It tugs at your heartstrings to see what happens to these children,” says Special Agent Peter Gulotta, who worked for Innocent Images in 1995. “They’re victimized at the beginning, when the sexually explicit photographs are taken, and that’s got to leave a scar; they’re victimized again when the photographs become distributed. Then they’re victimized again when they become available to child molesters and people who have a proclivity to have sex with young children.”
The task force was established by FBI agents in 1993 as a result of a missing boy they were never able to find. The FBI had been working with the Prince George’s County police department to find a missing 10-year-old boy from Brentwood named George Stanley “Junior” Burdynski. One of the more promising leads in the case involved two suspects who had “allegedly exploited a number of juvenile males in the Mid-Atlantic region for 25 years,” according to Gulotta, who now works in the Bureau’s Baltimore office. Although the two suspects were never linked to Burdynski’s disappearanceand his case remains unsolvedfurther investigation into the lives of the suspects revealed that they had been using the Internet extensively to advance their hobby.
“The Internet allows pornographers to have access to tremendous numbers of people,” Gulotta says. “It certainly is a threat if not utilized properly….The Internet is a tool those seeking to have sex with minors can work from the confines of their residence.”
Two squads of agents now work out of the FBI’s Calverton office, assuming the characteristics of these ’90s, cutting-edge pedophiles in order to target them. “The agents [log] on using an undercover server name,” Gulotta says. “They go to areas of the Internet where people who have these sexual desires
As of July 8, Operation Innocent Images had under its belt 429 search warrants, 303 interviews, 182 indictments, 185 arrests, 207 convictions, and 73 cases in which the suspect pleaded out. If you read about some scumbag being put away for trying to arrange a romp with a minor through his laptop, chances are that agents from Innocent Images are the ones who snagged him.
The image of the pedophile as the unemployed greasy guy down the street doesn’t stand up when juxtaposed with Innocent Image’s hit parade. Diplomats, scientists, and, yes, journalists, have been found to have prurient sexual interest in prepubescent children. Recent arrestees include a former Belgian diplomat, who was charged in June with attempting to arrange a tryst through the Internet with a girl he thought was 14; a 38-year-old Sterling aerospace engineer, who in April admitted he had engaged in sex acts with two 16-year-old Maryland girls he had met in online chat rooms; and a 64-year-old computer consultant from Rockville, who last fall was sentenced to two years in prison after contacting more than 100 young girls online and having sex with a 14-year-old. When 30-year-old Brant Brockdorff logged on to his computer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center last summer and tried to arrange a rendezvous with a 13-year-old girl, “Britneyluv” turned out to be Howard County Detective Diana Peters, who was working for Innocent Images. The cops snagged him at Mazza Gallerie, where Brockdorff had arranged to meet Britneyluv.
The men and women behind Innocent Images believe that they are protecting children from sexual predators. They are convinced that their cause is just, that they are alwaysin every sense of the wordright. They do not mess around. They have heard their share of excuses, and they aren’t impressed with the ones Matthews gave when they busted him.
Matthews comes from a long line of fighters. His grandfather left a leg in France during World War I. His dad was a career military man, serving for 27 years and fighting in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Matthews himself served with the Army’s Special Operations unit for a few years in the early ’60s, an experience he will share nothing about.
But the Matthews boys don’t always win, as he well knows. “My family’s been involved in two losing wars,” he jokes, referring to his and his father’s experiences in Vietnam, as well as his great-grandfather’s turn with the Confederate army.
He had few roots growing up as a military bratstops included Massachusetts, Japan, Texas, Germany, and Missouri. His transient upbringing was good training for reporting, he says: “You learn how to get along in different environments. You learn how to get along with a lot of different people.” He joined the Army right out of high school, wanting to get his military obligation out of the way as soon as possible.
In 1964, at the age of 21, Matthews began what would prove to be a rather uninspiredand uncompletedcollege career at George Washington University. He was one of the oldest guys in his class, one of the only ones who had been in the Army, and he didn’t particularly fit in. Always having wanted to be a writer in some capacity, Matthews wandered down to a Woodbridge radio station one day and successfully auditioned to be a disc jockey. He continued DJ-ing at small stations at the Beltway’s periphery: Manassas, Warrenton, Quantico. In ’67, he joined the staff of WAVA in Arlington, the area’s first all-news station. Through a high school friend, Matthews was set up on New Year’s Eve 1966 with Jane Lane. In 1967, he married Jane, with whom he would have three children: Bruce, now 29; Derek, 27; and Karen, 26.
A year later, Matthews hopped to WWDC, “something that no longer exists,” he says, “a rock station with a big news department.” News was hot and wild. Riots. Anti-war protests. Assassinations. Matthews loved it.
Matthews says that in order to really get a storyto understand its nuances and subtextyou have to submerge yourself in its world. Most reporting is like looking at a pond, he says: All you get is surface. “But if you want to get to the ecology of the pond, you have to go into it, swim in it, put on goggles and see what kind of fish, what kind of wildlife are there….That, to me, is what gets me the joy of being in this businessthe thing that I actually like is telling a story. You gotta get your hands dirty.” Otherwise, he asks, “how do you know what the truth is?”
Near the end of the war, the soldier-turned-reporter went to Canada, where he tracked down draft dodgers with the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, young men who claimed to have been chased all the way to the Canadian border. His subsequent 12-part story, “Draft Is a Four Letter Word,” received an award from the Chesapeake AP. It also earned Matthewsfor the first timethe attention of the FBI.
“The FBI requested my raw notes and raw tape,” Matthews says. But he refused, and the station backed him up. WWDC management told the FBI that it could subpoena Matthews and the station, or take them to court, but they were not handing over the information willingly. “The FBI got rather hostile,” Matthews says. “They said I was aiding the enemy and that I was anti-Army. Considering I had just been in the Army, I thought that was a rather weak argument….It’s not like I came from a family of draft dodgers.” The FBI eventually went away.
He spent a decade or so jumping from job to job: WRVA in Richmond; then stations in Cleveland, San Antonio, and Detroit; then finally back to Washington in 1981, at WMAL, where he stayed for more than a decade. A year later, he won a Peabody Award for “They Served With Honor,” a story about Vietnam veterans that tied in with the opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
John Matthews, news director of WMAL (and no relation), remembers a particularly grueling Matthews story from 1983. Reporting on homelessnessthen a fairly new issue”he basically disappeared for like a week,” John Matthews says. “He went and became homeless.”
Matthews wrote about being on the streets in a piece in the Washington Post’s Outlook section. “‘You reporters just come around, ask questions and leave,’” Franky, a homeless man, said. “‘If you want to know what it’s like to be out here, you should live with us for a few days.’” His short recollection for the Post was full of hard-won details: “I wake up in my bed at the shelter,” Matthews wrote. “The blankets smell of urine. The room reeks of unwashed feet. It is cold. Shortly before 5 a.m., three of the men in my room get up in a round of coughs, grunts and squeaking floors and leave.”
“I thought he was crazy as a loon to go out on the street unprotected like that, but that was Larry,” says Jane Matthews, who separated from Matthews in 1984 and divorced him three years later. “He is a zealous reporter.”
It was a week of hell, and the payoff was just a 20-minute story on the radio, plus a series of three 3-and-a-half-minute pieces. Even though the story was solid, and it paid off in another great storyabout a Virginia man who was exploiting the homeless in a kind of indentured servitudeto say Matthews enjoyed living on the streets would be a lie. In fact, he says, “prior to this present circumstance, it was the worst idea I ever had.”
“Of all the people I’ve spent time with, he’s the reporter most able to throw himself into a story,” says Pat Anastasi, now a senior producer for msnbc.com, who worked with Matthews for more than seven years at WMAL. In addition to the week Matthews spent on the streets of D.C., Anastasi most vividly recalls Matthews’ coverage of the Marine Corps Marathon. “He was in training for several weeks,” Anastasi says, preparing to cover the eventas a participant. Matthews ran a full seven miles, miked up, with a truck nearby. “He would interview runners,” Anastasi says. “He ran up to a woman in her late 60s who was running her first marathon. He was huffing and puffing and barely breathingwe thought he was going to have a heart attack right
on the air.”
“I think we tried to get him to do it a second year,” Anastasi chuckles. “But he declined.”
In 1987, he married Molly Mahoney Hanson, also divorced, a former PR professional whom he had started dating in ’85. He had three kids from his previous marriage; she had two. In 1990, they had a son, Daniel. Matthews began some freelance TV work for a syndicated TV show called First Business. In 1992, his former colleague at WMAL, Anastasi, brought him over to be WTOP’s business reporter. It was an opportunity to try something new; he had been at WMAL for 11 years, a long time in the transient world of radio journalism. The workload at his new job was lighter, allowing Matthews to pursue more freelance work like First Business.
It was during his tenure at WTOP that his professional interest in kiddie porn first came to light. Matthews reported a major three-part series about online kiddie porn. Michelle Komes Dolge, news director of WTOP, was then managing editor. She says Hal Brown, the former news director, approached her, telling her, “‘Larry pitched a story about Internet and pornography.’ He had been doing some research and was going to produce some reports for us.”
Matthews was WTOP’s business editor, but his work off his beat wasn’t unusual for the small newsroom, according to Dolge. Dolge says that Matthews was clued in to the potential and hazards of the Internet long before anyone else at WTOP: “We were a computer-illiterate newsroom, and Larry had a good sense of how to use the Internet for research….He used his computer for research for his business reporting and kicked out some pretty dang-good business reports as a result.” She says that his online skills enabled him to broadcast from his Silver Spring home, where he was snowed in during the January 1996 blizzard. He called in his business reports on the phone after gathering information from the Internet.
The three-part series on Internet kiddie porn ran over a weekend in September 1995. Due to poor archiving, only one of the three parts survives. The 50-second report included the following information:
“The FBI arrests of several pedophiles”which Matthews curiously pronounced PEEDophiles”seems to have had the desired effect. A spot-check of America Online over the weekend found traffic in child pornography was down; rooms where such activity normally takes place were either empty, or talk was about the FBI, not pictures of children. WTOP has been investigating the child pornography online issue for nine months now, and most of the time such materials have been readily available despite America Online’s efforts.”
You can hear whatever you want to hear in the tape depending on whether you think Matthews is a determined journalist or a pedophile hiding behind a pen. His claim of a “spot-check” of America Online assuredly meant that he had logged on to the sites to check them out for himself. His pronouncement that for “most of the time such materials have been readily available” certainly implied that he had been able to gain access to the “available” dirty pictures. Regardless of assumptions, his acknowledgment that “WTOP has been investigating the child pornography online issue for nine months now” was news to Dolge, the managing editor, but Matthews says that Hal Brown, the news director, knew all about his months of research.
During the course of those online explorations in August 1995, Matthews came across a Roanoke prostitute who identified herself only as “Martha4u.” Matthews says he was horrified to learn that she was allegedly willing to sell her two daughtersages 8 and 13for sexual favors. Unable to sleep because he was so worried about Martha4u’s daughters, Matthews called the FBI. That’s a fact, not something he conjured up now that he is in a jam. According to an FBI report of August 29, 1995, Matthews contacted the FBI on August 4, 1995. “During Matthews’ last correspondence with Martha4u,” the FBI report states, “he became so repulsed that he told Martha4u he was going to tell law enforcement about her proposition.Between August 4 and 22, 1995, Matthews has sent Martha4u numerous E-mail messages, however, she has not reciprocated.”
Whether or not Matthews’ juices started flowing when he first laid eyes on the kiddie pornand this is impossible to know, though he claims nothing could be further from the truthit is indisputable that in 1995, Matthews was investigating kiddie porn online for WTOP, and when he witnessed behavior that seemed to put children in immediate peril, he called the FBI.
In January 1996, WTOP downsized, and Matthews, along with seven others, was phased out of a job. He continued his work with First Business, covered the Maryland Assembly for Maryland Public Television, and freelanced for NPR’s Morning Edition and WAMU-FM, a D.C. public radio station.
He was still intrigued about kiddie porn. Not only by the vast quantities of filth online, he says, but by what it says about the world we live in. “The topic itself of sexual abuse of children goes against everything we as a society believe in,” Matthews says. “It’s evil. But it’s something that we need to talk about….We need to know what the hell is going on. Reporters oughta be out there digging stuff up….Is this a big problem or a small problem? Who’s taking these pictures? What else is going on under that rock? Are children being prostituted?”
Matthews says that the availability of kiddie porn online wasn’t “news,” that it had been widely reported. “What I thought was news,” he says, “was that the FBI didn’t seem to be able to do much about it…and that there seemed to be some evidence that there were more than just photographs going on here…in other words, prostitution, the abuse
He decided he could tell the story and tell the story well, he says, so he contacted a few magazine editors to see if they were interested. “I told them I had worked the previous year on this whole thing on child porn on AOL and it was still available…as it always had been, despite the FBI’s efforts to shut it down,” Matthews says. Since Matthews’ journalistic experience was in radio, he had almost no written clips to show the editors and even fewer contacts in the highly competitive world of New York City glossies. “‘We haven’t heard of you; we’ve never seen you,’” Matthews says the editors said. “‘Write it up and send it in.’” So in June of 1996, he started researching the story even though he had no outlet committed. It’s a fact that bothers prosecutors a great deal.
“If somebody was legitimately working on a story,” says a member of the prosecution team who declined specific attribution, “it would seem to me you’d have letters of correspondence….You’d be able to produce one, two, three editors….who’d say, ‘Yeah, I knew he was working on this.’ I’ve never been a journalist, but I’ve talked to guys, and they say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been a stringer, and [you get a contract]. That’s the way it works.’”
In his initial reporting forays, Matthews did not profile as a fellow traveler among the pedophiles. He says he logged on as “LCMinMD,” identified himself as a journalist, and watched as the chat rooms cleared, as if he were a nearby bolt of lightning and they were swimmers fleeing from the pool. “I would log on, and the other guys in the chat room would say, ‘See him,’ or ‘He’s a cop,’ or ‘He’s a reporter,’” Matthews says.
Matthews says he changed approaches and started logging in using the four subaccounts AOL offers each subscriber to identify himself as MrMature and Dd4SubFem, adopting the nomenclature of those around him. “I was constantly in search of new screen names,” he says. “I picked names and things other people had done, phrases and such.”
People who know Matthews well say it was relentlessness, not pathology, that drove Matthews.
“He couldn’t get [the story] going through the front door,” says Jane Matthews, his ex-wife. “So he went through the back.”
And even if rutting around in kiddie porn sites is suspect, Matthews says the FBI was well aware of his activity. “During the course of all of this, I told them what I was doing,” Matthews maintains, pointing to the Martha4u episode. “They didn’t ‘catch’ me.”
The prosecution disagrees. “What he infers from that is ‘They knew what I was doing, and they didn’t tell me to stop,’” says a prosecutor. “I think he contacted the FBI twice about that kind of contact….Our response is ‘That may be so,’ but I don’t think you can infer from that that he was given some sort of sanction or OK to transmit and receive child pornography. Maybe he could draw the inference that ‘The agents didn’t tell me that I couldn’t transmit and receive child pornography.’” But that hardly constitutes permission, says the prosecutor.
But an FBI report dated Sept. 23, 1996, indicates that the FBI was aware Matthews was investigating a story about kiddie porn online. And according to an FBI report of Dec. 18, 1996a week after his house was searched by FBI agentsSpecial Agent Phil Coghlin stated that he had been contacted at least two or three times after Matthews’ initial call to the FBI on Aug. 4, 1995. The FBI declined to comment on the contacts they may have had with Matthews.
“Of course the FBI knew,” says Statham. “How the fuck else would he know about Martha4u if he wasn’t online?”
Matthews understands that from a distance, it looks as if he ceased being a journalist and went native, but he argues that the nature of the Internet and kiddie porn calls for extraordinary reporting measures. From his perspective, he had to adopt an electronic persona because that was the beat he was working. “When I was doing a regular investigative piece,” he says, “I was dealing with real people. I could use my eyes and determine what reality was. I could stand on a street corner and see stuff. I could go along with narcs, and I could see stuff. I could go into the waiting room of a doctor who I believed to be selling methadone against the law, and I could see stuff. Online, it’s a fog. You don’t have a clue what’s real….So you have to use your experience to determine patterns to know:…’OK, this is probably a cop, this probably is something else, this probably is just a jerk.’”
WTOP news director Dolge says she buys Matthews’ explanation. “Based on the fact that he used to take on the stories as if he was part of it, [it] sounds credible to me,” she says.
Matthews “doesn’t just report a story,” says ABC Radio’s Johnny Holliday, the voice of the Maryland Terrapins, who used to work with Matthews at WWDC. “If he was going to do something, he tried to get into it as much as he could….I’ve known him for 30 years, and I’d be shocked if he were doing this for any other reason.”
But even if he was able to lurk without arousing suspicion as MrMature, Matthews crossed yet another line on Sept. 19, when he sent some of the questionable photographs to at least seven others in the chat room. Matthews says that it was the only way to get chatters to talk to him; otherwise, he feared he would be dismissed as a cop because “he doesn’t return.” (A cop wouldn’t likely be sending out porn images in return for receiving them.)
But prosecutors say his argument is specious regardless of the reporting challenge. “That’s like saying, ‘I’m a journalist and I’m doing a drug story, and I need to do dope so the drug dealers trust me.’…You guys just can’t break the law,” a prosecution source says.
Besides, the prosecutor says, Matthews had no idea to whom he was sending the kiddie porn. “That person could be an FBI agent and could be a 13-year-old kidhe doesn’t know.”
Attorney Statham acknowledges Matthews made a mistake when he transmitted the image. “I’m not going to deny that point, but he’s not charged with” transmitting kiddie porn to a minor. Statham says a more telling question is, “‘Did he save it? Did he put it to any physical use?’”
The answer to that question appears to be no. When the FBI raided Matthew’s hard drive in December 1996, agents were unable to find any kiddie porn. Not in any of the house’s three computers, not tucked away in file cabinets, not hidden in the bookcase. Matthews and Statham note that the FBI search warrant listed “items to be seized” other than his computers: books, magazines, films, video cassettes, visual depictions, and mailing lists pertaining to minors engaged in sexual conductnone of which were found. (Kiddie porn
aficionados generally squirrel away huge caches
Matthews says that after receiving the images and downloading them to confirm what they were, he immediately dragged them into his computer’s trash and deleted the files. The prosecution, Statham points out, had to employ an expensive, sophisticated computer program to decode the deleted files. Though the prosecution says that a couple of the less inflammatory images were still on his computer, Matthews says he “made a policy of trashing everything that was sent to me….I didn’t want it around. Why would I want it around? It’s like keeping insects around.”
“Isn’t that suspicious?” the prosecutor asks. “If this guy’s a journalist writing about this, wouldn’t he have it? Wouldn’t he have notes?”
“It’s a song that they like to sing a lot,” Matthews says of the prosecution’s interest in his notes. “First of all, I have notes,” he says. But they’re not the kind of comprehensive notes with date and time that FBI agents and lawyers might be used to. “I’m messy and I scribble things down,” he says.
More importantly, Matthews says, at the time of the raid he was at the very beginning of his investigations. “I get impressions, and I ponder the impressions. This wasn’t a news conference where you sit and write liner notes like ‘He says he’s going to run for city council.’ This is where you sit and try to sort out something that’s misleading into something that makes sense….I didn’t really have the story. I had a lot of leads and a lot of directions that I thought I could go in. But essentially, what I had was an idea. I wasn’t ready to sit down and start banging it out….I didn’t know what I was going to be writing. I still don’t know.”
“If I were to produce notes for them, would that make this case go away?” Statham asks, infuriated when told about the prosecutor’s statement. “I don’t believe it would make any difference to them. They would take those notes and shove them down his throat.” Says Statham of the U.S. Attorney’s office: “They’re such fucking assholes. And you can quote me on that.”
If Matthews were truly a sexual deviant, Statham says, the U.S. Attorney’s office would have more than this case to paint a portrait of Matthews in the dark and haunting shades of a pederast: “There’s nothing in his background. He has no prior criminal record. Has he ever been suspected of this before? No.”
Not long after his home was searched, Matthews says, a law enforcement officer who specializes in kiddie porn “testified before a House subcommittee and said the people who are interested in this kind of thing never get rid of it. I don’t fit the profile. Except for the fact that I’m a white male.”
“The first time you see stuff like that, it’s a little like looking at carnage. It’s repulsive….I have kids. When you look at anything involving the pain and abuse of children, it affects you as a parent,” Matthews says.
Ex-wife Jane Matthews can’t reconcile the charges with the guy she used to be married to. “During the almost 20 years we were together, I never saw any evidence that he had sick thoughts along those lines. I couldn’t stand behind him 100 percent if I thought he was capable of that kind of behavior….I don’t have to support him now; we haven’t been married in 11 years.”
Karen Miller, Matthews’ 26-year-old daughter, also says that the prosecutors are completely off-base. “I know there’s no truth to it,” she says. “My father didn’t even bathe me as a kid. He’s not like that….My father gave me privacy as a little girl.”
But Innocent Images has built up its ranks and FBI budget by snagging perp after perp who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the salivating, trench-coat-wearing freak huddling at the edge of the playground. “I don’t think you can stereotype the people that we have arrested,” says Special Agent Gulotta. Their investigations have turned up pedophiles “who are police officers, who are working in elementary schools….They come from all walks of life.”
John Matthews, WMAL’s news director, is skeptical of the charges and says that his gut tells him that Matthews is not guilty. But reporters know never to say never. “The journalist part of me says, ‘You never know,’” he says.
Chicago reporter Michael Sneed’s work played a key role in the genesis of the relevant kiddie porn laws. Statham’s defense papers mention that much of today’s legislation against child pornographyTitle 18 of the Federal Criminal Code, Section 2252was born in a 1977 investigative piece by Chicago Tribune reporters Sneed and George Bliss. Bliss is dead, but Statham might want to think twice before he calls Sneed to testify.
Sneed, now a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, says that in 1977 no one had even heard of child pornography. She “went undercover with the Chicago police department for a long time, and it practically destroyed me. I never thought I’d see the things I saw. I sometimes wish I’d never done it….It’s enough to destroy your attitude towards men. And it was terrifying.”
“We tracked down pornographers all over the country,” Sneed says. “Back in the mid-’70s, they were using Fotomat to get their pornography processed quickly, and Fotomat would turn it into the police department. So one of these guys ran a camp for young girls, and we were able to find his pictures. So finally we waited until there was going to be a child pornography sessionthey were going to take pictures of these kids in a motel room. So on this one particular night they were arrested, and as a result we did this huge series. As a result of that, the Judiciary Committee in the House held hearings in Washington, which we flew to.”
After the Matthews story broke, Sneed says, “CNN called about it. Based on what I’ve read, none of this smelled right to me. I can’t believe [his] being at this since 1995that’s a long time to be downloading porn. I can’t imagine anybody downloading child pornography and sending it to someone else. I don’t know anything about computers, and obviously our child pornography investigation was different from what’s going on on this Internet right now. But I think if you’re going to investigate child pornography, you don’t do it on the slyyou do it with an organization. Somebody out there downloading it secretly because he’s going to expose this? That sounds fishy to me. But I don’t know the guy, and I’m not very familiar with the case.”
In its court filings, the prosecution refers to the September 1997 conviction of another freelance writer, Troy Upham, Maine’s first conviction for trafficking in kiddie porn on a personal computer. Uphamwho had downloaded more than 1,400 images of naked kidsclaimed that he was researching materials for a book on sexual abuse. The jury didn’t buy it.
Matthews insists that his investigations should conjure forth memories of Sneed’s work in 1977, not Upham’s more dubious Internet “research.” “You know, the genesis of this law was investigative reporting by two reporters in Chicago….Isn’t it ironic that if those two guys did it today, they’d be arrested?”
Matthews’ case spills into the fault line naturally dividing Our Men in Blue and the Fourth Estatetwo groups who fancy themselves the last line of defense between society and Sodom. Cops are loath to allow reporters the same discretion and benefit of the doubt they afford one anotherlaw enforcement training requires time, commitment, and rigorous regulations, after all, whereas any schmuck with a fedora and a typewriter can say he’s a reporter. Reporters, for their part, often think of cops as brainless bullies. The professions enjoy the wary relationship of any two predators in the woods who hunt similar game and occasionally feel the urge to chow on one another.
“I think the FBI was a little ticked off that my dad was able to get more information than they were,” says Karen Miller. Statham asserts that every other individual logged on to the AOL chat room that day was in law enforcement. “I have no indication that there was anyone other than an FBI agent that he transmitted to,” he says.
Matthews acknowledges that one aspect of the story he was investigating was law enforcement’s role. “What’s the FBI doing?” he asks. “Besides nailing me?” He notes that Innocent Images has been on the case for five years, and yet the “sickening” images are still as available as ever. “As we’re talking now,” he says earnestly, “there are thousands of these images that are available on the Internet, and anyone who has even a modest interest can find it easily. Why is that? What does it mean…that so much of this stuff is available?”
But Matthews’ trial doesn’t just touch on the tensions between police and reportersit is posing new questions for the never-ending debate. Statham asks if Judge Williams truly means to decree that “only the government can investigate the Internet and child pornography? That means that we can’t ever challenge what they’re doing to combat the problem.”
In his court decision, Judge Williams seemed to suggest that you don’t have to wallow with the pigs in order to write about the barnyard:
While the Court is hesitant to give news gathering tips…other legal avenues of investigation are available. For example, a reporter could study the number of prosecutions brought by the government and examine the public records in those cases. A reporter could develop sources, including victims of child pornography and people already convicted of violations. Finally, a reporter could examine reports to public interest groups that track incidents of child pornography distribution.
But those avenues preclude the possibility of a journalist’s observing both the criminal behavior and the ensuing enforcement efforts. “I think that what Matthews was engaged in is a very valid inquiry,” says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a D.C. nonprofit that examines civil liberties on the Internet. “There have been a lot of very good questions raised about the methods the FBI uses in its investigations….To my knowledge there has really been no public airing of the techniques used by the FBI. Certainly some of the lawyers I’ve spoken to…have had serious questions concerning entrapment.”
In any case, Matthews is going to have a tough time getting his First Amendment argument by the 4th Circuit. The same Judge Williams ruled in 1996 that Paladin Press couldn’t be held liable for murders committed according to the guidelines of one of its bookson how to be a hit manbecause of the vast freedoms stemming from the First Amendment. His ruling was overturned by the 4th Circuit Court in November 1997. If the 4th Circuit continues this limited view of the First Amendment with Matthewsand the Supreme Court decides not to muddy its hands with this caseStatham and his client will be a little short on ammo in the coming fight.
“We think he ought to have a right to explain to the jury what he was doing and why he was doing it,” says Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area, which filed an amicus curiae brief on Matthews’ behalf. “I have no way to judge” Matthews’ motivations, Spitzer says. “That’s what the jury is for. Certainly somebody doesn’t escape criminal prosecution just because he is in possession of a press pass.” But Matthews, according to Spitzer, should at least have been allowed to present his defense.
There’s no question that Matthews is guilty of downloadingand, in one instance, transmittingpornographic images of children. Statham says that the relevant law isn’t “a correct law,” and that “if you believe that there’s no protection of anyone to go online and investigate, then that flies in the face of the statute itself.” The law doesn’t allow cops to do what Matthews did, either, Statham says.
But, if you accept that Matthews did, in fact, break this one lawwhat else is he guilty of? Is he guilty of taking his tendency toward immersing himself in stories one step too far? Or is he guilty of using his professional identity as a beard for a much darker component of himself?
Sit with Larry Matthews for even a few minutes, and you get the feeling that he is not the one, not the creep who spent his time snaking his mouse around images that just plain should not exist, let alone be traded. He is a gentleman, a father. He works at NPR, for Godssakes.
But then, what does a consumer of kiddie porn look like? If the FBI’s Innocent Images task force proves anything, it is that the array of people interested in porn featuring pre-sexual children is vast and difficult to generalize about. Innocent Images has given the U.S. Attorney’s office something that doesn’t work well for Matthews’ defenseExhibit A, horrifying photographs of little girls recovered from the trash of Matthews’ Macintoshes. The prosecutors’ case depends on the FBI agents who are convinced that Matthews, at the very least, crossed a lineone not only in action but in thought. Matthews’ transmission of the kiddie porn leaves even his bombastic defense attorney speechless.
Matthews says that, regardless of what he did, he is a victim, not a victimizer.
“This wrecks your life,” Matthews says. “To have the federal government bring these charges against you…what it does to you emotionallyI mean, what you said earlier, ‘Have you ever thought about going to prison?’…I have no desire to go to prison. I have no desire to be one more person writing a book about how we need prison reform.”
He’ll get a crack at writing that book if the prosecution has its way.
“The bottom line is, These are real kids engaged in sex acts,” the prosecutor says. “Congress outlawed the stuff, and we’re just doing our jobs. It’s a pretty straightforward case.”
It is, in fact, anything but. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs By Darrow Montgomery.