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United States v. Skaggs

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

August 22, 2019




         This matter came before the Court for a bench trial on July 22, 2019 through July 24, 2019. These written findings of fact and conclusions of law augment the oral rulings made at the conclusion of the trial. For the reasons detailed below and previously explicated on the record, the Court finds Defendant Charles Skaggs, Jr. (“Mr. Skaggs”) GUILTY of each of the nine counts of sexual exploitation of a child, and attempted sexual exploitation of a child, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2251(a) (Counts 1 through 9); GUILTY of both counts of possession of child pornography, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 2252(a)(4)(B) and 2252A(a)(5)(B) (Counts 10 and 11); and GUILTY of one count of concealment of evidence, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1519 and 2 (Count 12).


         On December 19, 2017, Mr. Skaggs was indicted by a federal grand jury sitting in Indianapolis, Indiana, on nine counts of sexual exploitation of a child, and attempted sexual exploitation of a child, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a) and (e), two counts of possession of child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(4)(B) and 2252A(a)(5)(B), and one count of concealment of evidence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1519 and 2. Mr. Skaggs was also indicted on nine counts of committing repeated sex offenses involving children, under Title 18, United States Code, Sections 2251 and 3559(e), based on a prior conviction in Clark County, Indiana, for sexual misconduct with a child. On July 2, 2019, the grand jury returned a Superseding Indictment that included notice of the enhanced penalty (rather than charging such penalty as separate offenses).

         On June 27, 2019, while represented by counsel, Mr. Skaggs waived his constitutional right to a jury trial. That same day, the Magistrate Judge held a Faretta hearing, following which the Court denied Mr. Skaggs's request to appoint new counsel and granted his request to represent himself.

         A bench trial was held in this case on July 22, 2019 through July 24, 2019. The United States appeared by Assistant United States Attorneys MaryAnn Mindrum and Kyle Sawa. Mr. Skaggs appeared pro se. Public Defenders Gwendolyn Beitz and Joseph Cleary participated as Mr. Skaggs's standby counsel.

         Findings of Fact

         The Search of Defendant at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport

         In late 2015, Special Agent Ryan Barrett, FBI Indianapolis, received information regarding Mr. Skaggs's alleged involvement in child sex tourism and commenced an investigation into his activities. As a result of the information gathered in SA Barrett's investigation, on December 10, 2106, Mr. Skaggs was searched and interviewed in the U.S. Customs area of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (“MSP”) during his return trip from Ukraine to his home in Indiana.

         Officer Kenneth Duray, Customs and Border Protection, and Special Agent Jared Drengson, HIS-St. Paul, encountered Mr. Skaggs after he was referred to the Baggage Secondary area from the Primary Inspection area. As he approached the Secondary exam counter at the Baggage Secondary area, the agents heard him say, “I'm ready to get fucked” and “This happens to me all the time when I fly to the U.S.”

         Officer Duray obtained an oral Binding Declaration from Mr. Skaggs regarding the luggage he had in his possession. Mr. Skaggs identified the bags as his and stated that he had packed everything in the bags himself and that he was aware of their contents. Mr. Skaggs also placed a cell phone, some papers, and Ukrainian currency on the counter. When asked whether he had any additional cell phones, electronics, computers, hard drives, thumb drives, or any other computer equipment on his person or in his luggage, Mr. Skaggs responded in the negative and remarked that everything of that sort had been stolen while in Ukraine.

         Customs and Border Protection officers searched Mr. Skaggs's luggage and found four thumb drives wrapped in underwear located in a compartment of his backpack. Mr. Skaggs had failed to disclose those items to SA Drengson and Officer Duray when he was asked if he had any thumb drives or storage media in his possession. Those electronic items, as well as a S.D. card and a cell phone, were taken to a different location in the airport for further inspection.

         SA Kevin Lang, HSI-St. Paul, a computer forensics expert, previewed[1] the four thumb drives, including the two thumb drives introduced into evidence as Exhibit 8 (64GB Patriot Memory USB thumb drive) (“64 GB thumb drive”) and Exhibit 9 (128GB Patriot Memory USB thumb drive) (“128 GB thumb drive”). He discovered several images on the 64GB thumb drive believed to be child erotica or pornography.[2] SA Lang relayed that information to SA Drengson. Because images of suspected child pornography had been found on one of the thumb drives, all four thumb drives were seized for further analysis. SA Lang bagged the devices and took them to the HIS-St. Paul Forensics Laboratory, located approximately one to two miles from MSP.

         Following completion of his interview by SA Drengson and Officer Duray, Mr. Skaggs was escorted to the re-check counter to check in for his flight to Indiana.

         Images on the Thumb Drives

         On December 12, 2016, two days after Mr. Skaggs's entry into the United States, SA Ulrich Palmer-Denig, HIS-St. Paul, a computer forensics expert and SA Lang's lab partner, continued the search of the four thumb drives, as well as other digital media found in Mr. Skaggs's possession, at the HIS-St. Paul Forensics Laboratory. SA Palmer- Denig created forensic images of all the devices and worked from those images.[3] Upon examination, SA Palmer-Denig located suspected child pornography and erotica on Exhibits 8 and 9, which included videos and screen captures of what appeared to be a nude teenage female using the toilet and shower. SA Palmer-Denig identified the individual in the images as a relative of Mr. Skaggs, who was a minor child known to law enforcement and referred to as “Child 1” in the Superseding Indictment. SA Palmer-Denig made this identification based on Child 1's school identification card and a rental agreement that contained her date of birth and Mr. Skaggs's name. Once the suspected child pornography was identified, he backed up the images found on Exhibits 8 and 9 to a hard drive (Exh. 12) and turned it over to HIS.

         SA Barrett received the hard drive containing those forensic images as well as the 64GB and 128GB thumb drives themselves and obtained a search warrant in the Southern District of Indiana to search such items for, among other things, evidence of child pornography. Pursuant to the search warrant, SA Barrett searched the 64GB and 128GB thumb drives and located images and videos of child pornography and child erotica, including those videos and images charged in Counts 1 through 10 of the Superseding Indictment. Counts 1 through 9 refer to video files of Child 1 (Exhs. 120 (Count 1); 220 (Count 2); 320 (Count 3); 420, 430 (Count 4); 520 (Count 5); 620, 630 (Count 6); 720, 730, 740, 750 (Count 7); 820 (Count 8); and 920 (Count 9)), Mr. Skaggs's minor daughter, depicting her getting in and out of the shower and/or using the toilet. Count 10 references several of these same video files (Exhs. 320, 420, 430, 520, 620, 630, 720, 740, 750, 820, and 920) as well as two screenshots from the videos (Exhs. 1021 and 1022) stored on the 64GB thumb drive.

         In the videos, Child 1 is at times wearing leopard-print pants and, in other portions of the videos, is completely nude. The backdrop in each of the videos is a very distinctive shower curtain depicting an outdoor scene. In the first two videos, charged in Counts 1 and 2 (Exhs. 120, 220), the camera is focused on Child 1's exposed torso and breasts. See Exhs. 122, 227. Near the beginning of the third video (Exh. 320), a hand is visible in the frame and appears to be adjusting the camera. Exh. 322. After the hand leaves the frame, the camera's focus is lower than before the hand appeared as Child 1's genital and pubic areas are visible. Exh. 327. In all subsequent videos, to wit, those charged in Counts 3 through 9 as well as in the videos and screenshots charged in Count 10, the camera is focused on Child 1's exposed genital/pubic areas and her face is visible only when she bends down or sits on the toilet. Exhs. 422, 424-425, 432-434, 522-524, 624-626, 632-635, 723, 731-732, 741-743, 751-752, 822-824, 923-926.

         SA Barret identified the individual in the video files as Mr. Skaggs's daughter. Mr. Skaggs's daughter, Child 1, was born on May 21, 2000. After her parents' divorce, she and her brother lived with Mr. Skaggs on the weekends in a house on Perkins Street in Carmel, Indiana, beginning when she was fourteen years old until the age of sixteen. Prior to her testimony at trial, she was shown by the government images of some of the videos found on Mr. Skaggs's thumb drives, and she identified herself in those images based on the leopard pants she was wearing and the distinctive shower curtain that was in the frame, which was the shower curtain that hung in the bathroom that she and her brother regularly used in the Perkins Street residence.[4] She also identified the voices that were audible in one of the videos she was shown as hers and Mr. Skaggs's. She was called as a witness at trial and testified that the hand that can be seen in the video charged in Count 3 of the Superseding Indictment (Exhs. 320, 322) is not hers. At trial, Mr. Skaggs admitted that it was his hand depicted in that video and testified that he believes he was checking the time on the alarm clock camera, not adjusting the position or focus of the hidden camera.

         The videos and screenshots of Child 1 were found to have been saved on the thumb drives in an organized fashion in a series of user-created embedded folders. The file structure of the 64GB thumb drive, for example, shows the charged videos and screenshots of Child 1 stored in a folder titled “special video” that is saved within another folder titled “video.” Exhs. 1012-1013. Because this folder structure is not a default setting of the device, the investigative witnesses explained that the user would have had to have created the “special video” folder and saved the specific videos in that folder. Likewise, the videos of Child 1 found on the 128GB thumb drive were saved in a “VIDEO” folder located within a folder titled “random 32G folder.” Exh. 1015.

         SA Barrett located on the thumb drives other clothed images of Child 1 where the camera was focused on her genital or buttocks area. Exhs. 1062-1066. He also located images and videos of child pornography and child erotica not involving Child 1, some of which were charged in Count 10, as well as evidence pertaining to the device user's sexual interest in children, such as fragments of saved web pages and journal articles about pedophilia saved onto the thumb drives. Exhs. 1031-1037; 1041-1044; 1051- 1055. The images charged in Count 10 were saved on the 128GB thumb drive in an organized file structure in a folder titled “SuperTeenzfiles” that was saved within a folder titled “girls, ” which was, in turn, saved in a folder titled “photos.” Exh. 1016.

         SA Barrett determined that the thumb drives also contained numerous images, files, documents, and other personal information associated with Mr. Skaggs, such as tax returns, family photographs, and photographs and documentation of his travels. Exhs. 1081-1082.

         January 9, 2017 Search of Defendant's Residence and Interview of Defendant

         On January 9, 2017, law enforcement officials conducted a search of Mr. Skaggs's residence at 628 Cherry Street, Noblesville, Indiana, pursuant to a search warrant. When officers arrived to conduct the search of his residence, Mr. Skaggs stated that he had been “kind of waiting” for them, presumably since December 10, 2016, when his thumb drives were seized at MSP. In their search of 628 Cherry Street, law enforcement officers found evidence tying Mr. Skaggs to the residence and one bedroom in particular, including credit cards, handwritten notes, mail, and Skaggs's driver's license which was found in a desk drawer in the bedroom. Empty boxes for an alarm clock camera device and a key- fob camera device were also found in the desk in that bedroom. These items were admitted into evidence at trial. Exhs. 15-34.

         That same day, on January 9, 2017, after being advised of his Miranda rights, Mr. Skaggs was interviewed for approximately three hours at his residence by FBI SA Barrett and SA Mike Johnson from the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Skaggs agreed to be interviewed again later that day by FBI SA William Kline at the FBI offices in Indianapolis, Indiana. During those interviews, Mr. Skaggs admitted secretly filming Child 1 while she was nude in the bathroom and shower as well as collecting and possessing other child pornography files. His admission to law enforcement that he knew he had child pornography on his electronic devices came in the context of the discussions regarding the thumb drives seized at MSP. At trial, Mr. Skaggs provided similar admissions regarding his knowledge that the thumb drives contained child pornography, stating that, given his self-admitted proclivities and behaviors, he could not say he was unaware of the likelihood that they contained illegal content. Exhs. 36-37.

         During the January 9, 2017 interview, Mr. Skaggs admitted that he had purchased video equipment (an alarm clock and a key-fob, both equipped with hidden cameras) approximately two years earlier and had placed a hidden camera in the bathroom of his residence at the time at the Perkins Street address. The cameras operated on motion sensors, meaning they would automatically begin recording when someone entered the bathroom and would stop recording when there was no longer any movement. Mr. Skaggs estimated during his interview that he had made seven or eight videos of his daughter getting in and out of the shower and confirmed that at the time of the interview she was sixteen years old, making her fourteen years old at the time he took the videos. Exhs. 36-37.

         He informed SA Barret and SA Johnson that his “target age” and “sexual preference” with respect to young girls was “probably somewhere in the ballpark of 14.” Exh. 36-37. Mr. Skaggs explained, however, that he no longer had a sexual interest, preferring only pictures of people that he thought were “pretty” and “cute.” Id. At trial, he reiterated his lack of sexual interest, testifying that he had placed the hidden camera in the bathroom out of curiosity and because he was a voyeur, not to satisfy any sexual desire or for the purpose of creating child pornography.

         Also, during the January 9, 2017 interview, Mr. Skaggs admitted taking pictures of other girls whom he encountered in public places, such as the photograph of a minor girl's clothed buttocks in Wal-Mart, and nude videos photographed in the bathroom of his home targeting two nineteen-year-old Thai exchange students who were living with him at the time. He admitted that he had previously been convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor for having sexual intercourse with the family's fifteen-year-old babysitter when he was twenty-nine years old. Exhs. 36-37.

         The substance of the January 9, 2017 interviews came into evidence at trial through the testimony of SA Barrett and SA Kline.

         Mr. Skaggs was ultimately arrested on January 9, 2017 and was detained pending trial.

         The Seagate Hard Drive

         On May 17, 2017, Mr. Skaggs telephoned his son, Tyler Skaggs (“Tyler”), from the Henderson County Detention Center (“HCDC”) to request that he visit him in jail in person. Mr. Skaggs mentioned that he wanted Tyler to “do something” for him but could not discuss what that was over the telephone because the call was being recorded. Tyler agreed to come to the jail to visit Mr. Skaggs the following Saturday. Exhs. 46-47.

         At the jail, inmates are placed in a separate room from their visitors and must therefore communicate with their visitors through a glass divider over a telephone. During Tyler's visit to HCDC, Mr. Skaggs held up a handwritten note against the glass for Tyler to read. Whenever a jail guard walked by, Mr. Skaggs removed the note so it could not be seen and returned it to the glass thereafter until Tyler was able to read its contents. Exhs. 49, 51.

         The note, later seized from Mr. Skaggs's cell and identified at trial as Exhibit 52, instructed Tyler to verify that a hard drive “still exists in [the] laundry room, ” specifically “in the ceiling tiles above those stacked bricks, ” and, once its location was confirmed, to leave it there unless Tyler moved from the residence at some future time. The note further instructed that when Mr. Skaggs discussed the hard ...

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