Pulling the strings behind a stage peopled with angels, high “priestesses” and a mysterious billionaire philanthropist, John Gabriel was the wizard in his own “twisted world of Oz,” a federal prosecutor said Thursday.
But Gabriel, 79, looked more like the unmasked “wizard” at the end of the classic 1939 movie, as he sat in a wheelchair listening to prosecutors tell a jury that his theatrics were a ruse aimed at getting a vulnerable 17-year-old girl to pose nude in explicit photos.
“He preyed upon her shyness, loneliness and her naiveté,” prosecutor Shoba Pillay told jurors during closing arguments in a trial that began Monday in the Dirksen Federal Building.
The jurors agreed. After just three hours of deliberation, they foundGabriel, a retired journalist from Joliet, guilty of both manufacturing child pornography and obstructing justice by damaging a computer that allegedly contained evidence against him.
Prosecutors said Gabriel, claiming he was her “spiritual mate,” manipulated the victim into coming to his home to photograph her in July 2012 and then posted those images online.
Gabriel’s attorney, MiAngel Cody, unsuccessfully argued it was a “he said, she said” case without solid proof against her client.
“My client, John Gabriel, he is old, cantankerous, he can’t whisper . . . ” Cody said. “He’s all of those things, but he’s not guilty.”
As the lawyers spoke, Gabriel frequently cupped a hand over his right ear in an apparent attempt to hear better.
Prosecutors said Gabriel created a fantasy religion and, through dozens of emails, convinced the victim she’d been selected to participate in a “program” with a godly mission that involved having sex with troubled young boys. Gabriel used various aliases, including posing as an angel, to lure the victim into the program.
Pillay asked jurors to remember that if the victim seemed oddly gullible, it was important to remember she was young and had recently split with her boyfriend.
In one email to the victim, the “angel” said each time someone in the program had sex with a troubled boy, a wealthy donor bought guide dogs for the blind and paid for a wing for children’s hospitals.
Some of the emails warn of the need to maintain absolute secrecy. Others described the work of the program as a fight against the devil.
“There is a devil in this [case] and that devil is John Gabriel,” federal prosecutor Barry Jonas said, jabbing a finger toward the defendant. “Find him guilty.”
A sentencing date has yet to be set.