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U.S. Attorney’s Office
Middle District of Florida
Thursday, November 17, 2022
Orlando, Florida – U.S. District Judge Wendy W. Berger today sentenced Justin Dwayne Johnson, Sr. (48, Sanford) to 170 years in federal prison for four counts of production of child sexual abuse material, one count of production and attempted production of child sexual abuse material, and one count of possession of child sex abuse material. Johnson had pleaded guilty on July 7, 2022.
According to court documents, in January 2022, an investigation was initiated into Johnson after Child Protection Services was alerted that Johnson was secretly recording his foster children. Johnson disclosed to an acquaintance that he had cameras in his home to record the children in the nude and that he had videos of him touching the children. During the investigation, law enforcement officers seized several devices belonging to Johnson. Forensic examinations of Johnson’s cellphone and other electronic devices revealed numerous images and videos of child sex abuse material. Specifically, the evidence showed that Johnson used the children under his care to produce depictions of sexually explicit conduct. Johnson’s cellphone also contained numerous visual depictions of child sex abuse material depicting young children. So far, the FBI has identified at least 18 victims that were sexually exploited by Johnson.
“Protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation is one of the highest priorities of my office,” said U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg. “This defendant victimized children who were especially vulnerable because they needed the protection of the foster care system. I am proud of the outstanding work by our local and federal law enforcement partners and my office that brought this predator to justice.”
“Instead of offering a haven for foster children, this predator betrayed the children with a home of horrific abuse,” said FBI Tampa Special Agent in Charge David Walker. “The FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force is committed to identifying, locating, and recovering the innocent victims of sexual abuse and ensuring their abusers are brought to justice.
“Johnson’s crimes are particularly disturbing, in that he was in a position that is expected to provide protection and care to already vulnerable children, and he exploited that role and further victimized these young children,” said Chief Cecil Smith of the Sanford Police Department. “I hope his sentence brings some comfort to those who he has abused.”
“As you can imagine, investigations of this nature can present overwhelming challenges,” stated Seminole County Sheriff Dennis M. Lemma. “However, the dedication of our teams, their diligence, and the collaborative efforts of the law enforcement professionals assigned to this case resulted in a successful prosecution and a sentence that sends a strong message that there are severe consequences for those who prey upon and exploit the most precious members of our community.”
This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with assistance from the Sanford Police Department and the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. It was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Courtney Richardson-Jones and Ilianys Rivera Miranda.
This is another case brought as part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative launched in May 2006 by the Department of Justice to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse. Led by the United States Attorneys’ Offices and the Criminal Division’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Project Safe Childhood marshals federal, state, and local resources to locate, apprehend, and prosecute individuals who sexually exploit children, and to identify and rescue victims. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, please visit http://www.justice.gov/psc.
Brands Suspend Ads From Parts of Twitter Over Child Pornography Concerns
Some major advertisers including Dyson, Mazda, Forbes, and PBS Kids have suspended their marketing campaigns or removed their ads from parts of Twitter because their promotions appeared alongside tweets soliciting child pornography, the companies told Reuters.
DIRECTV and Thoughtworks also told Reuters late on Wednesday they have paused their advertising on Twitter.
Brands ranging from Walt Disney Co., NBCUniversal, and Coca-Cola Co. to a children’s hospital were among more than 30 advertisers that appeared on the profile pages of Twitter accounts peddling links to the exploitative material, according to a Reuters review of accounts identified in new research about child sex abuse online from cybersecurity group Ghost Data.
Some of tweets include key words related to “rape” and “teens,” and appeared alongside promoted tweets from corporate advertisers, the Reuters review found. In one example, a promoted tweet for shoe and accessories brand Cole Haan appeared next to a tweet in which a user said they were “trading teen/child” content.
“We’re horrified,” David Maddocks, brand president at Cole Haan, told Reuters after being notified that the company’s ads appeared alongside such tweets. “Either Twitter is going to fix this, or we’ll fix it by any means we can, which includes not buying Twitter ads.”
In another example, a user tweeted searching for content of “Yung girls ONLY, NO Boys,” which was immediately followed by a promoted tweet for Texas-based Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital. Scottish Rite did not return multiple requests for comment.
In a statement, Twitter spokesperson Celeste Carswell said the company “has zero tolerance for child sexual exploitation” and is investing more resources dedicated to child safety, including hiring for new positions to write policy and implement solutions.
She added that Twitter is working closely with its advertising clients and partners to investigate and take steps to prevent the situation from happening again.
Twitter’s challenges in identifying child abuse content were first reported in an investigation by tech news site The Verge in late August. The emerging pushback from advertisers that are critical to Twitter’s revenue stream is reported here by Reuters for the first time.
Like all social media platforms, Twitter bans depictions of child sexual exploitation, which are illegal in most countries. But it permits adult content generally.
Twitter declined to comment on the volume of adult content on the platform.
Ghost Data identified the more than 500 accounts that openly shared or requested child sexual abuse material over a 20-day period this month. Twitter failed to remove more than 70 percent of the accounts during the study period, according to the group, which shared the findings exclusively with Reuters.
Reuters could not independently confirm the accuracy of Ghost Data’s finding in full, but reviewed dozens of accounts that remained online and were soliciting materials for “13+” and “young looking nudes.”
After Reuters shared a sample of 20 accounts with Twitter last Thursday, the company removed about 300 additional accounts from the network, but more than 100 others still remained on the site the following day, according to Ghost Data and a Reuters review.
Reuters then on Monday shared the full list of more than 500 accounts after it was furnished by Ghost Data, which Twitter reviewed and permanently suspended for violating its rules, said Twitter’s Carswell on Tuesday.
In an email to advertisers on Wednesday morning, ahead of the publication of this story, Twitter said it “discovered that ads were running within Profiles that were involved with publicly selling or soliciting child sexual abuse material.”
Andrea Stroppa, the founder of Ghost Data, said the study was an attempt to assess Twitter’s ability to remove the material. He said he personally funded the research after receiving a tip about the topic.
Twitter’s transparency reports on its website show it suspended more than 1 million accounts last year for child sexual exploitation.
It made about 87,000 reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a government-funded non-profit that facilitates information sharing with law enforcement, according to that organization’s annual report.
“Twitter needs to fix this problem ASAP, and until they do, we are going to cease any further paid activity on Twitter,” said a spokesperson for Forbes.
“There is no place for this type of content online,” a spokesperson for carmaker Mazda USA said in a statement to Reuters, adding that in response, the company is now prohibiting its ads from appearing on Twitter profile pages.
A Disney spokesperson called the content “reprehensible” and said they are “doubling-down on our efforts to ensure that the digital platforms on which we advertise, and the media buyers we use, strengthen their efforts to prevent such errors from recurring.”
A spokesperson for Coca-Cola, which had a promoted tweet appear on an account tracked by the researchers, said it did not condone the material being associated with its brand and said “any breach of these standards is unacceptable and taken very seriously.”
NBCUniversal said it has asked Twitter to remove the ads associated with the inappropriate content.
Twitter is hardly alone in grappling with moderation failures related to child safety online. Child welfare advocates say the number of known child sexual abuse images has soared from thousands to tens of millions in recent years, as predators have used social networks including Meta’s Facebook and Instagram to groom victims and exchange explicit images.
For the accounts identified by Ghost Data, nearly all the traders of child sexual abuse material marketed the materials on Twitter, then instructed buyers to reach them on messaging services such as Discord and Telegram in order to complete payment and receive the files, which were stored on cloud storage services like New Zealand-based Mega and U.S.-based Dropbox, according to the group’s report.
A Discord spokesperson said the company had banned one server and one user for violating its rules against sharing links or content that sexualize children.
Mega said a link referenced in the Ghost Data report was created in early August and soon after deleted by the user, which it declined to identify. Mega said it permanently closed the user’s account two days later.
Dropbox and Telegram said they use a variety of tools to moderate content but did not provide additional detail on how they would respond to the report.
Still the reaction from advertisers poses a risk to Twitter’s business, which earns more than 90 percent of its revenue by selling digital advertising placements to brands seeking to market products to the service’s 237 million daily active users.
Twitter is also battling in court Tesla CEO and billionaire Elon Musk, who is attempting to back out of a $44 billion deal to buy the social media company over complaints about the prevalence of spam accounts and its impact on the business.
A team of Twitter employees concluded in a report dated February 2021 that the company needed more investment to identify and remove child exploitation material at scale, noting the company had a backlog of cases to review for possible reporting to law enforcement.
“While the amount of [child sexual exploitation content] has grown exponentially, Twitter’s investment in technologies to detect and manage the growth has not,” according to the report, which was prepared by an internal team to provide an overview about the state of child exploitation material on Twitter and receive legal advice on the proposed strategies.
“Recent reports about Twitter provide an outdated, moment in time glance at just one aspect of our work in this space, and is not an accurate reflection of where we are today,” Carswell said.
The traffickers often use code words such as “cp” for child pornography and are “intentionally as vague as possible,” to avoid detection, according to the internal documents. The more that Twitter cracks down on certain keywords, the more that users are nudged to use obfuscated text, which “tend to be harder for (Twitter) to automate against,” the documents said.
Ghost Data’s Stroppa said that such tricks would complicate efforts to hunt down the materials, but noted that his small team of five researchers and no access to Twitter’s internal resources was able to find hundreds of accounts within 20 days.
Twitter did not respond to a request for further comment.
Attorney General’s investigation faults Danvers officials in hockey scandal
DANVERS, MA – Danvers school officials failed in many ways to properly respond to racist, homophobic, antisemitic, and sexually abusive behavior in the high school boys’ ice hockey program, creating “a toxic team culture,” according to an investigation by the state attorney general’s office.
In response to the inquiry, Danvers school leaders signed a resolution Monday agreeing to develop additional initiatives aimed at preventing and responding to bullying, harassment, and biased misconduct. Under the resolution, the attorney general’s office concluded its investigation without issuing any formal factual or legal findings but will oversee the new initiatives through the 2023-24 school year.
“Racism, homophobia, and bigotry of any kind have no place in our locker rooms, rinks, or playing fields — we need to create a safe and supportive environment for our students to grow and learn,” Healey said in a statement. “With today’s resolution, the Danvers Public School District has committed to making needed changes to improve the culture in its schools and athletics program, protect students’ rights, and ensure that incidents of hate and bias are never overlooked again.”
Healey’s civil rights division launched the investigation after The Boston Globe reported in November that Danvers school and police officials had for more than 16 months concealed from the public details of alleged violent racist and homophobic bullying in the hockey program, as well as a group text chat among members of the 2019-20 team that was rife with deeply offensive racial, homophobic, and antisemitic language and images.
Danvers school officials, in agreeing to the resolution, did not contest numerous faults cited by the attorney general’s office in the town’s handling of the episode. The attorney general’s office said the school district cooperated fully with the investigation and agreed voluntarily to the resolution.
The Danvers case is part of a wave of troubling alleged misconduct over the last year in Massachusetts high school sports that have shaken communities and captured the attention of human rights leaders and government officials.
“This agreement places schools districts on notice that they have a responsibility to respond to bias incidents and take prompt action when hate infiltrates school programs, especially athletics,” said Robert Trestan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We welcome Danvers’ acceptance of responsibility and commitment to change, which represents a path forward for the entire community.”
The Globe focused on alleged misconduct involving the 2019-20 Danvers hockey team. But the attorney general’s investigation found that Danvers police Sergeant Stephen Baldassare, who coached the team from 2015 to 2021, permitted problems to develop several years earlier and to persist because he “failed to properly supervise the team and locker room in violation of district policies,” according to a letter Healey’s office sent last week to Danvers school leaders requesting they sign the resolution.
What’s more, the Danvers athletic department, led by Andrew St. Pierre, who is not named in the letter, regularly reviewed Baldassare’s performance but failed to identify any problems with the team culture, the letter states.
St. Pierre, however, remains on the job, unlike other school officials who were involved in the controversy, including longtime Superintendent Lisa Dana, who went out on medical leave in December and agreed last month to resign before the next academic year.
It was Dana’s office that permitted Baldassare to continue coaching the hockey team even after school officials became aware of the alleged misconduct — a decision the attorney general’s office noted in its resolution letter.
Troubling, too, the letter states, was the school district’s handling of “multiple, overlapping investigations” of the hockey allegations.
A member of the 2019-20 team told the Globe, the police, and school officials teammates restrained him in the locker room and beat his face with a plastic sex toy because he refused to shout the n-word as part of a ritual. In another ritual, the player said, he was touched on the buttocks after team leaders directed players to strip naked in the dark.
Danvers police attributed the conduct to “immature behavior” and “poor attempts at humor” and determined no crimes occurred. .The attorney general’s inquiry, led by Abigail Taylor, chief of the civil rights division, and Assistant Attorney General Jon Burke, found school officials then may have responded inadequately to the misconduct allegations based on the police findings.
“School officials are responsible for enforcing school policies — not criminal laws — and must independently investigate and respond to allegations of biased misconduct in order to protect students’ rights at school,” the letter to the school district states.
Only after the school board later launched an additional investigation by an outside attorney did the extent of the hockey team’s problems become clearer, the letter indicates.
“The outside investigator concluded that misconduct on the team was significantly more severe than originally identified by either” the school district or police, the letter states.
Yet even then school officials apparently failed to initiate proper disciplinary procedures for the alleged perpetrators, according to the resolution letter.
Healey’s office also challenged the school district’s public statements that the hockey players could not be disciplined for alleged racist, homophobic, and antisemitic texts because they were private, off-campus communications. The attorney general’s letter asserts the district did have legal standing to sanction the students because the group texts were used by players to coordinate team activities and included messages that were exchanged on team bus trips.
“Moreover, schools have the authority to discipline students for even ostensibly private speech that involves, encourages, or fosters an environment that results in bullying or harassment,” the letter states, citing Massachusetts case law.
Danvers school leaders also were faulted for not effectively communicating with the public about the hockey allegations.
Under the resolution, Danvers agreed to submit its new policies and procedures for the attorney general’s approval before implementing them. The district also must train coaches, teachers, and other staff on policies involving complaints, investigations, discipline, and communicating with the public.
In addition, Danvers is required through the 2023-24 school year to report any additional incidents of bullying, harassment, or biased misconduct to the attorney general’s office.
Last month, the North Shore NAACP completed its own investigation of the scandal and called for changes.
“We are grateful that the AG’s office proactively investigated this case and negotiated an appropriate resolution,” chapter president Natalie Bower said. “We now hope the entire town of Danvers — the school, police department, town hall, and individual community members — all take to heart their individual responsibility.”
Police seek charges against seven students after Woburn locker room incident
Woburn, MA – Police are pursuing criminal charges against seven students at Woburn Memorial High School after a freshman football player, 14-year-old Johnathan Coucelos, was allegedly assaulted by a throng of teammates last fall in a locker room and attacked twice afterward in the school, according to the boy’s parents and attorney.
A hearing is scheduled Tuesday in Lowell Juvenile Court before a clerk magistrate to determine whether probable cause exists to issue criminal complaints against the seven students, said the family’s attorney, Peter Hahn.
Johnathan’s parents, Kevin and Jeanny Coucelos, also notified Woburn’s city solicitor that they plan to sue the city and school department for $750,000 for the trauma Johnathan and the family have suffered over his ordeal.
“No one in the school administration has been held to account despite what has happened to Johnathan — no coach and not Principal [Jessica] Callanan,” the parents stated in their letter.
“I want them to get what they deserve,” Kevin Coucelos added in an interview.
City Solicitor Ellen Callahan Doucette declined to comment, other than to say the letter has been sent to Woburn’s insurance carrier.
The Woburn case, first reported by the Globe in December, is among a wave of troubling alleged misconduct in Massachusetts high school sports in the past year, from Duxbury to Danvers and beyond.
Woburn School Superintendent Matt Crowley said he “takes this matter seriously and is treating it with the utmost sincerity and gravity.”
“We acknowledge and support the student and family that had the strength to come forward to report this deeply troubling matter,” Crowley said in a statement.
Crowley said the school district has retained outside counsel, Patrick Hanley and the Butters Brazilian law firm, to conduct a Title IX investigation, which will be followed by “a thorough administrative review and policy analysis” by a second outside firm led by former Massachusetts secretary of public safety and security Daniel Bennett, former State Police colonel Kerry Gilpin, and attorney John Benzan.
“We pledge to be forthcoming regarding the results of those investigations and pledge to enact their findings and recommendations,” Crowley said.
Johnathan, who stopped attending the Woburn school in December out of fear for his safety, plans to enroll soon at the Cambridge Matignon School, where officials have pledged the community will welcome him, his parents said.
The Globe does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they give their consent.
Johnathan and his parents said they appreciated hearing from Woburn police Wednesday and the Middlesex district attorney’s office Thursday that a joint investigation had produced sufficient evidence for the police to seek charges against his alleged assailants. The family expressed frustration, however, that nearly four months had passed since they reported the incident, while a football player who allegedly groped Johnathan during the locker room episode was permitted to remain on the football team and compete in the program’s first-ever Thanksgiving week game at Fenway Park. Two other players who face possible charges remained on the team as well.
“It’s outrageous,” Kevin Coucelos said. “If there was an assault and battery on Main Street, someone would have been arrested on the spot and gone before a judge. It never should have taken this long.”
Worse, Coucelos said, is that none of the football coaches or the athletic director has been disciplined for their alleged failure to properly supervise the team and monitor the locker room. Johnathan’s parents particularly blamed athletic director Jim Duran, head football coach Jack Belcher, and assistant coach Chase Andrews.
Johnathan said he immediately reported the locker room incident to Andrews but felt ignored by him. Hahn said prosecutors declined a request to file charges against Andrews, but that the family has not ruled out pressing charges.
The Woburn police and Middlesex DA’s office declined to comment.
As for Belcher, Hahn said, “There needs to be at least some disciplinary consequence to the head coach because it’s his coaching squad and his team.”
The Globe’s attempts to reach Belcher, Andrews, and Duran were unsuccessful.
The Coucelos family said Callanan, the school principal, failed to protect Johnathan in part by waiting to impose a safety plan on the student who allegedly groped him until they obtained a harassment prevention order against him in juvenile court in December, more than two months after the incident.
Efforts to reach Callanan also were unsuccessful.
If the clerk magistrate finds probable cause Tuesday to issue criminal complaints against the students, they would go before a Juvenile Court judge for arraignment. Police have applied for criminal complaints of assault and battery against all seven students, and an additional charge of indecent assault and battery for the student who allegedly touched Johnathan’s genitals.
Johnathan said he was attacked in the freshman locker room Sept. 25 as retribution for junior varsity and freshman players being disciplined after he fought a student who repeatedly poked him under the bleachers during a varsity game Sept. 10. The players had been instructed not to congregate under the bleachers.
A video recording of the locker room incident shows about a dozen players swarming Johnathan, spraying him with water, and throwing water bottles at him. One player is seen punching him and another is heard shouting, “Take his [stuff],” before one of them rips his Apple watch from his wrist.
Another teammate is seen bending toward Johnathan, who said the player pulled down his pants and grabbed his genitals.
Johnathan said he later was targeted by students who chided him for not fighting back and for “snitching.” One student who faces a possible assault charge allegedly punched him several times in a school bathroom.
Another student, a former football player, allegedly entered Johnathan’s Spanish class, grabbed him by the shirt, and warned him to stop snitching.
Johnathan’s parents said he was vibrant and outgoing before the attacks. He has since become isolated, withdrawn, and distrustful, and is now receiving psychiatric care, they said.
Jeanny Coucelos said the experience has made her fearful for the safety of all four of her children. She has been diagnosed with severe anxiety and panic disorder, she said, and has been unable to resume her job as a day care and pre-kindergarten teacher since December.
Kevin Coucelos, a construction foreman and machine operator, said his job performance also has suffered because of the stress.
Since January, Johnathan has been tutored remotely by a Woburn school teacher. Now, six months after he proudly joined the Woburn football program, he is preparing for the challenge of starting a new life at Matignon.