US 'child predator' evaded FBI for 5yrs

2013-04-24 14:01
US citizen Eric Justin Toth, aged 31, is presented to the press by the police of Nicaragua following his capture in the city of Esteli, in the headquarters of the National Police in Managua. (Hector Retamal, AFP)

US citizen Eric Justin Toth, aged 31, is presented to the press by the police of Nicaragua following his capture in the city of Esteli, in the headquarters of the National Police in Managua. (Hector Retamal, AFP)

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Washington - US investigators say Eric Justin Toth's five-year run as a fugitive began when he was fired from his teaching job at a prestigious private school after a fellow employee found images of child pornography taken with a school camera the man had been using.

It ended over the weekend when Nicaraguan authorities acting on a tip found him living in that country illegally, with phony passports, driver's licenses and credit cards.

The FBI has said it is investigating why Toth was living there, but the bureau has previously said that he may have been advertising online for work as a nanny or tutor.

Now, investigators are trying to piece together how he avoided capture even after being placed on the FBI's most wanted list, a notorious designation reserved for dangerous criminals that has featured the likes of Osama bin Laden.

They are encouraging any other potential abuse victims from other states to come forward as prosecutors proceed with a federal child pornography case against the 31-year-old Toth, who was ordered held without bond during a brief court appearance on Tuesday.

"The fact that he is a known child predator and that he's been on the run for five years, we assume that there's potentially other victims in other places that he's been over the past five years," said Valerie Parlave, the head of the FBI's Washington field office.

FBI’s most wanted

A federal public defender assigned to Toth did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Phone listings for possible relatives of Toth either declined to comment or did not return phone messages.

The arrest on Saturday, near the border with Honduras, ended a frustrating international manhunt for the computer-savvy teacher and camp counsellor.

There were tantalising clues along the way - a fake suicide note in Minnesota, an apparent sighting at a homeless shelter in Arizona, a tip that led agents on an extensive search of South America.

But he continued to elude the authorities, even as pictures of his bespectacled and sometimes bearded face were featured on news programs, billboards across the country and the FBI's list of 10 most wanted fugitives.

The big break came last week when a female tourist who encountered Toth in a social setting contacted authorities after recognising him, said FBI spokesperson Jacqueline Maguire.

Toth first arrived in Nicaragua in October and appeared to have spent at least part of his time in that country creating false identities and ID documents, police said.

When his house was raided, police found passports, driver's licenses and credit cards from three banks, under different names, suggesting he was preparing new false identities to use, said national Police Chief Aminta Granera.

Every parent’s ‘worst nightmare’

Federal prosecutors unsealed a criminal complaint on Tuesday charging Toth with possessing and producing child pornography, charges that together carry a maximum 50-year prison sentence.

Toth wore a blue jail jumpsuit, his hair considerably longer than in the photographs the FBI had made public, and spoke softly in response to a judge's perfunctory questions.

Prosecutors revealed no new details of their case in court, but according to the complaint, multiple images of child pornography - including one in which Toth allegedly appeared alongside an undressed young boy - were found on a media card in his classroom in June 2008.

Toth had been teaching third grade at Beauvoir, a private elementary school on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral. Although "not the most socially adept guy," he was an engaged teacher who helped students think outside the box in math and logic and who even incorporated lessons on why people do or don't do the right things, recalled Michele Booth Cole, whose daughter was in Toth's class.

"He wasn't teaching from the textbook. It was really much more creative and thought-provoking for the kids," said Cole, executive director of Safe Shores, an advocacy centre for abused children.

The media card with the pornographic images was found in a box addressed to Toth at the school's address, the complaint says. Although some of the images showed children laughing and playing, others were every parent's "worst nightmare," said US Attorney Ron Machen.

Those include photographs and videos showing an adult male fondling a boy, the complaint says.

Toth was fired and escorted from campus after the images were discovered. He disappeared immediately, long before anyone could arrest him.

Read more on:    us  |  child abuse  |  pornography

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