Kenneth Nighbert lived a block from the beach in Kennebunk, Maine. Two weeks ago, the retired Air Force pilot flew his American flag upside down from his second-floor sun deck, a universal cry for help. Then he went inside, tied a plastic bag around his head and died.
Nighbert, 49, was at the end of a long losing streak. He believed he had been unfairly passed over for promotion to lieutenant colonel. A business he started went bust, forcing him to take a $9-an-hour factory job. Then his wife left him, police said, taking along their teenage daughter.
But the event that likely compelled Nighbert to put his affairs in order, get his uniform ready for burial and then asphyxiate himself on his bedroom couch took place Sept. 3, when he was snared in a 14-nation raid on an Internet pornography ring made up of people who allegedly were producing, selling, trading and, in Nighbert's case, downloading pictures of little kids having sex.
Nighbert is notable not just because U.S. Customs agents had filed suit to seize possession of his home--a weapon they say they will increasingly deploy against Internet-cruising pedophiles--or because he allegedly was a member of a multinational "club" of men who swapped child pornography and commiserated inside a secret, exclusive chat room known as Wonderland. Or that he was swept up last month in the biggest Internet porn sting in history.
What makes his case unusual is the fact that his death was not: Nighbert is the fourth person to commit suicide of the 34 Americans either charged or somehow suspected in the case. Authorities say such deaths have become common, and in most instances the suicide victims are seemingly upstanding people who otherwise might not have been arrested if not for the deceptively anonymous lure of the Internet--and the easy abundance of enough pornography to suit even the most taboo of tastes.
"They realize, 'Oh, God, I'm caught.' They end it," said Special Agent Eugene Weinschenk, head of the Customs Service's cyber-smuggling center. He said a dozen people accused of being pedophiles killed themselves during a big Internet porn sweep two years ago in Belgium and France. "We suspect it will not be the last," he said of the Wonderland suicides.
Weinschenk said the crackdown on the Wonderland Club has generated enough leads for another, perhaps even bigger, series of raids of rings that swap child pornography "like baseball cards." And authorities expect to find more people like Nighbert or the University of Connecticut microbiologist who slashed his wrists a few weeks ago or the Colorado computer consultant who shot himself in the head about the same time: People who think they're indulging in forbidden fantasies in the solitude of their homes only to be interrupted by a firm knock on their door in the dead of night.
These people, experts say, are most likely to find suicide the only escape--not only from a possible prison sentence but also from humiliation and social censure on a scale beyond comprehension.
Michael Bailey, a Northwestern University psychologist who testified last year on behalf of a child molester who sought, and won, a court-approved castration, said no studies have been done on the propensity of pedophiles to kill themselves once they are found out. But the motivation is there.
"In general, people who suffer the humiliation of arrest are clearly at risk for suicide," he said. "Think about how much worse it would be to get arrested for having sexual pictures of children."
Internet Photos of Sexual Assault
The Wonderland Club case is an offshoot of a 1996 investigation into the San Jose-based Orchid Club and the subsequent arrest of men who sexually abused an 11-year-old girl and transmitted Internet photos of the assault.
Evidence in that case eventually led to a computer programmer in England and the much larger Wonderland Club, to which prospective members were required to supply 10,000 images of child pornography to join, Weinschenk said.
Using wiretaps, a seized list of user names and search warrants, the Customs Service, police in 22 states and authorities in 13 other countries carried out raids that resulted in roughly 60 arrests worldwide.
So far, 14 people have been charged in the United States, and Weinschenk said five are actually accused of having sexually abused children. He said perhaps a dozen of the thousands of children who turned up in the photos have been identified; in most cases they were relatives or neighbors of the accused.
The suspects range from a high school teacher to a 15-year-old boy to a quadriplegic man. Three women also were caught in the sweep.
On Monday, 31-year-old William J. Rosa, a former University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill medical student, became the first suspect in the Wonderland case to plead guilty to trading child pornography, though there was no evidence he molested anyone. His sentencing is scheduled for February.
Officials are looking most closely at a case in Missouri, where suspects allegedly supplied original pornography to other Wonderland members and possessed "snuff" photos of dead girls, Weinschenk said. It's unclear whether the pictures were archival crime scene photos or something far more sinister.
One of five people arrested in the case, 34-year-old Scott R. Ahlemeier of St. Charles, Mo., has been charged with making pornography and having sex with a person younger than 12. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The vast majority of the people whose homes were raided, Weinschenk said, were like Nighbert: men who apparently were trading child pornography rather than making it.
On the night of the Sept. 3 raids, Kennebunk police and Customs authorities crept up to Nighbert's home and peered through a back window, said Sgt. David Gordon. "Mr. Nighbert was alone," he said. "In fact, he was on his computer." Agents knocked on the door and the stunned Nighbert was arrested without incident. Gordon said he photographed the premises and Customs agents carted away Nighbert's computer and floppy disks.
Nighbert was charged with possession of child pornography, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and authorities simultaneously filed a civil action seeking forfeiture of the house, which was assessed at $168,000 and owned jointly with his sister. Nighbert was freed on $10,000 bond.
"He was obviously extremely upset and nervous and, actually, crying at the time he appeared in court," said U.S. Atty. Jay McCloskey.
Nighbert's lawyer, Rick Berne, said he believes his client was facing too harsh a penalty for someone who only downloaded pictures, particularly because federal sentencing guidelines have given judges less discretion in such cases.
"I have little children, and nobody is advocating this. But it's out there, and you wonder if, with this kind of general availability, if you should come down this way on people in Ken's position," he said.
Bailey said he believes that pedophiles who only look at pictures are less dangerous than child molesters. "Somebody who is into this pornography is indeed more dangerous than other people. But from the other side, if he never did anything to these kids, what harm has he really done?"
The emotional zeal in prosecuting child abusers or pornography collectors often overwhelms issues regarding privacy and police entrapment, said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
"You have FBI agents going online and claiming to be 14-year-old girls and being flirtatious, and the guy ends up with his house being raided," he said. "These are very easy and sensational investigations for people to undertake."
Although experts disagree about whether access to child pornography aggravates or alleviates the temptation to act on a sexual impulse, McCloskey said people who fit the pedophile profile are more likely to molest a child.
"I think it's an unbelievably growing problem. We have approximately 12 to 18 cases either under indictment or under investigation," McCloskey said of his small district in Maine.
And while few crimes trigger more emotional cries for swift and harsh justice than sexual abuse of a child, the ambiguities of the Internet era have created new sets of moral questions.
Federal officials say more people are ogling bogus child porn, the product of digital imaging technology that can easily transform a photo of a naked adult into somebody who looks decidedly underage. Weinschenk said people can still be prosecuted for possessing what can be perceived as child porn.
People who trade such material also may not be aware that more than the police are looking for them. Weinschenk said cyberspace is coursing with Guardian Angel-style vigilante groups downloading huge amounts of pornography as they hunt for pedophiles on the Internet.
"It's a problem; it really is," said Weinschenk. "They are committing a crime."
In fact, a group calling itself Ethical Hackers Against Pedophilia tipped off Pennsylvania police about a man who had posted child pornography on the Internet. The suspect, a heating and cooling technician for a public school system, killed himself last month.
'They Do Struggle' With Sexual Urges
Dr. Richard Carroll, a Northwestern University psychiatrist specializing in sexual disorders, noted that many pedophiles struggle to control their urges and fall apart when they are found out. "They do struggle with it. They do suffer."
Berne said he believes authorities had no right to attempt to seize Nighbert's house, one of the many factors that he said may have prompted his client to commit suicide. Yet Weinschenk said the Customs Service plans to make such property seizures a practice in pornography cases.
"We have to disrupt this whole process," he said. "We'll be going after anything we can get our hands on. If there was some way I could get the fillings out of their teeth, I would do that too."
Before he killed himself, Nighbert wrote a letter to his lawyer indicating his intentions. Gordon said police went to Nighbert's home and broke down the back door, then kicked open the bedroom door, where Nighbert was found sprawled on a couch.
He had left a spiral notebook on the kitchen table detailing his funeral arrangements and organizing his important documents. The first page was a meticulous index of the notebook's contents.
"He had his uniform hanging in the closet, all ready to go," Gordon said.
Fritz reported from New York and Moore from Los Angeles. Times researcher John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this story.