US child porn suspect captured after 5 years
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 in Washington after being confronted about images of child pornography taken with a school camera in the man’s possession.
It ended over the weekend when Nicaraguan authorities, acting on a tip, found him living in that Central American country — with phony passports, driver’s licenses and credit cards, authorities said. The FBI is investigating why Toth was living there and has previously said he may have been advertising as a nanny or tutor while on the lam.
Now, investigators are trying to piece together how he avoided capture even after he was added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, a notorious designation reserved for those considered dangerous criminals and that has featured the likes of Osama bin Laden and Whitey Bulger. Prosecutors are encouraging any other abuse victims to come forward as they proceed with a federal child pornography case against the 31-year-old Toth, who was ordered held without bond during a brief court appearance 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.
A federal public defender assigned to Toth didn’t 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, in a city near Nicaragua’s border with Honduras, ended a frustrating international manhunt for the computer-savvy third-grade teacher and former camp counselor.
There were tantalizing clues along the way — a fake suicide note in Minnesota, an apparent sighting at a shelter in Arizona, a tip that led agents on an extensive search of South America. Yet Toth continued to elude authorities, even as pictures of his bespectacled and sometimes bearded face were featured on news programs, billboards around the country and the FBI’s list.
The big break came from a tip last week after a female tourist who encountered Toth in a social setting recognized him and contacted authorities, said FBI spokeswoman Jacqueline Maguire.
Toth first arrived in Nicaragua in October and appeared to have spent at least part of his time there 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. Toth was living under an assumed name, authorities said, and the FBI used records of a recent purchase to pinpoint his whereabouts.
Federal prosecutors unsealed a criminal complaint 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 he 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 video in which Toth allegedly appeared alongside an undressed young boy — were located in June 2008 on a media card found inside his classroom 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 one of Toth’s classes.
“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 — the DC Children’s Advocacy Center, which helps abused children.
The media card with the pornographic images was found in 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 nightmare, said Ron Machen, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.
Those include photographs and videos showing the hand of an adult male fondling a boy, the complaint says. Another video, taken in what appears to be a classroom at the school, shows a man investigators believe to be Toth with an undressed prepubescent boy.
Toth was fired after the images were discovered by fellow school employees and escorted from the school. He disappeared immediately, long before anyone could arrest him.
But there were soon clues that would set agents in motion.
His car was found later that summer in a long-term parking lot at the Minneapolis airport along with a fake suicide note inside that claimed he was going to kill himself in a nearby lake. But no body was found, and investigators concluded it was a ruse.
“Clearly he was trying to throw investigators off at that point,” said FBI Special Agent Kyle Loven, an agency spokesman in Minneapolis.
He was believed to have been sighted in Phoenix in 2009, apparently working as a quasi-counselor at a shelter under an assumed name, the FBI has said. He was gone before agents could get to him.
Authorities also believe Toth, who is from the Midwest, traveled while on the run to Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
In April 2012, the FBI, concerned that the trail was going cold and that Toth’s experience in interacting with children and earning their trust might be putting other kids at risk, announced that it was adding him to the bureau’s Most Wanted fugitives list, where he filled a slot left vacant by the death of bin Laden.
Ron Hosko, then the special agent in charge of the criminal division of the FBI’s Washington field office, said at the time, “This is a dangerous person because of his nature, because he is a child predator, because of his ability to groom both adults and potentially these children to develop some sorts of bond of trust.”
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York and writers Luis Manuel Galeano in Managua, Nicaragua, and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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