(Clockwise from left) Norris “Nick” Stauffer; Michael Spatz; Ryan Hoberg; Sebastian Protel; Tyler Ehredt; Devin Parrish; and Joshua Chambers.

(Clockwise from left) Norris “Nick” Stauffer; Michael Spatz; Ryan Hoberg; Sebastian Protel; Tyler Ehredt; Devin Parrish; and Joshua Chambers. All but Stauffer have been sentenced on charges that resulted from a federal child pornography investigation.

Provided photos/Cook County Sheriff’s office; Wisconsin Department of Corrections; Arizona Department of Corrections

Feds’ child porn sweep on Telegram app leads to arrest of Chicago man, more than a dozen others

The work of Homeland Security Investigations in Arizona, dubbed Operation Swipe Left, led to Norris “Nick” Stauffer. It also resulted in criminal charges against more than a dozen people elsewhere — including at least two with political ties — amid allegations of livestreamed abuse, kidnapping threats and the production and distribution of child pornography.

A Chicago man faces several child pornography charges in Cook County after a federal investigation infiltrated the encrypted media app Telegram and found a cross-country network of people sexually exploiting children, the Sun-Times has learned.

The work of Homeland Security Investigations in Arizona, dubbed Operation Swipe Left, led agents to Norris “Nick” Stauffer, 27, who is charged here with disseminating child pornography, records show.

It also resulted in criminal charges against more than a dozen people elsewhere — including at least two with political ties — amid allegations of livestreamed abuse, kidnapping threats and the production and distribution of child pornography.

A federal judge called some of the allegations “horrific.” When agents raided one suspect’s home, video depicting the sexual abuse of an infant was allegedly playing on a screen. And Cook County Circuit Judge Mary Marubio stressed to Stauffer in February 2022 that “this is not a victimless crime.”

“This is a crime that preys on children and exploits children,” the judge said, according to a court transcript.

Missing Children

Project iGuardian

Homeland Security Investigations, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces have partnered to develop Project iGuardian.

Project iGuardian aims to keep children and teens safe online and explain how to report abuse or suspicious activity. More information about Project iGuardian can be found at www.ice.gov/topics/iGuardians.

Suspected child sexual abuse or missing children may be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children through this 24-hour hotline: 1-800-843-5678.

At least 17 people have been charged in all, including in Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., California and South Africa, authorities say. Judges have handed significant prison time to nine of them. Ages of the group’s victims ranged from 6 months to 17 years old, according to a Homeland Security Investigations official.

Four children were rescued in “real time” from abuse, while six had been abused in the past, the Sun-Times was told.

Kevin Bolger, Stauffer’s defense attorney, said his client “did not produce child pornography,” “did not have any interaction with any children,” and his case “has nothing to do with Telegram.” He acknowledged the broader investigation ultimately led to the charges against Stauffer, though. 

Assistant State’s Attorney James Murphy told Marubio in February 2022 that Stauffer’s arrest “was the result of an extensive investigation” involving Telegram. But he said authorities then discovered Stauffer had used a Snapchat account to send two MEGA storage links to someone in another state.

Murphy said the links contained 21 files, mostly featuring videos and images of children under 13.

Stauffer faces 13 counts of disseminating child pornography, according to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. His case, previously under seal, appeared publicly in the court record Thursday. Stauffer has pleaded not guilty.

Federal authorities count Stauffer among the Operation Swipe Left defendants. They also count Joshua B. Chambers, who was sentenced to three years in prison last month in Outagamie County, Wisconsin, for possession of child pornography.

Adam Hageman and Ruben Verastigui, prosecuted in federal court in Washington, D.C., are also on that list. Each has a tie to the national Republican Party, which prompted previous news reports about the cases against them.

Still, the Sun-Times is the first to detail the broader investigation, which prosecutors hinted at in charging papers.

Hageman agreed to cooperate with investigators and led them to Stauffer and others, federal court records in Chicago have revealed.

Eric McLoughlin, deputy special-agent-in-charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Phoenix, Arizona, said most of the defendants charged come from more varied backgrounds than Hageman and Verastigui. They included a youth soccer coach, an amusement park employee and the son of a police officer, McLoughlin said. 

Worked for grocer

Records show Stauffer worked for a grocery chain.

“We often see that the types of individuals involved in these horrific acts, really, they come from all different walks of life,” McLoughlin said.

Prosecutors wrote that members of one Telegram group “were actively abusing children, sharing production images with the other group members, and threatening to kidnap children.”

Prosecutors wrote that members of one Telegram group “were actively abusing children, sharing production images with the other group members, and threatening to kidnap children.”

AP/Matthias Schrader

The investigation began on June 12, 2020, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police discovered a video depicting the sexual abuse of a minor, McLoughlin said. Geographic data had been embedded in the video, and it pointed to Arizona.

Within hours, McLoughlin said, investigators were able to rescue the child and identify Michael William Spatz of Tempe, Arizona, who was arrested and charged with various sex crimes. The Arizona attorney general’s office said Spatz had recorded his sexual abuse of a small child. McLoughlin said the abuse started when the child was 7 months old.

A defense attorney who previously represented Spatz declined to comment.

Spatz used a proximity-based dating application to find people willing to discuss “taboo subjects,” McLoughlin said. But he protected the ensuing conversations with end-to-end encryption, “where they thought they could be safe from law enforcement.” He said the material shared in those forums included video of the rescued child.

A judge in Arizona sentenced Spatz in January 2022 to 30 years in prison for sex crime charges. Meanwhile, investigators began to trace Spatz’s “spider web” of contacts, McLoughlin said. That led them to Hageman, Stauffer and others.

Federal court records detailing the ensuing investigation say it focused on messages traded in groups on an unnamed “Application A.” Court transcripts and sources have revealed “Application A” is Telegram. 

Telegram representatives did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Telegram places a premium on privacy, and its website says its structure means “no single government or block of like-minded countries can intrude on people’s privacy and freedom of expression. Telegram can be forced to give up data only if an issue is grave and universal enough to pass the scrutiny of several different legal systems around the world.”

‘Actively abusing children’

Prosecutors wrote that members of one Telegram group “were actively abusing children, sharing production images with the other group members, and threatening to kidnap children.” The purpose of another group, they wrote, “appeared to be live-streaming sex abuse images of children.”

They also allegedly mocked the police, believing they could not be caught because they were in an encrypted chat.

Hageman lived in Arizona until moving to Washington, D.C., in May 2020 to work for the U.S. Department of Commerce, records show. A LinkedIn account, which appears to be Hageman’s, says he also once worked as an events administrator for the conservative group Turning Point USA.

Turning Point USA did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Hageman said in certain chats that he preferred children ages 12 to 16, and he was frustrated that the pandemic limited his ability to see children at urinals in public restrooms, according to prosecutors. He also asked members of a group to “find a dad with a young kid he will rent out to us” so he could “start crossing fantasies” off his list, they said.

Authorities arrested Hageman in November 2020. His decision then to “fully cooperate” was revealed in an affidavit filed in Chicago’s federal court in February 2021 as authorities sought to search Stauffer’s apartment.

That document indicates Hageman let the feds take over his Telegram account, where they recorded the content from a group called “No Limits” from Oct. 6, 2020, until Nov. 14, 2020. In the hearing before Marubio, Murphy said Stauffer admitted being a participant in that group.

Adam Hageman is seen in 2019 at the Turning Point USA headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona.

Adam Hageman is seen in 2019 at the Turning Point USA headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona.

M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico via AP Images

In a separate case, a prosecutor explained to a judge how someone allowing investigators to see a Telegram chat gives them a glimpse at something “we could never access otherwise.”

Federal prosecutors in Chicago eventually told a judge they had “chosen to decline all charges” against Stauffer and referred the matter to local authorities. Cook County Circuit Court records show a child pornography charge was first filed against Stauffer in February 2022. A broader indictment was filed the next month.

Separately, federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., filed charges in February 2021 against Verastigui, who has been identified as a former Republican National Committee staffer in multiple news reports. Prosecutors alleged Verastigui told a group he “can’t stop thinking about touching, raping and killing a newborn baby.”

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., sentenced Verastigui to 12 12 years in prison for receipt of child pornography last April. Another judge sentenced Hageman to 5 12 years in prison for the same charge in September. 

Both men have pleaded guilty. 

Verastigui’s defense attorney, Kira Anne West, told the Sun-Times “Ruben is a fine young man who made a mistake. … People make mistakes, and that doesn’t define the individual.”

Hageman’s attorney, Christopher Macchiaroli, noted his client “immediately accepted responsibility,” saying Hageman’s sentence “reflects somebody who made a terrible mistake” and “is paying the consequences for it.”

12 others charged

Others charged as a result of the investigation: 

• Raymond Glover, who is set for trial in federal court in Washington, D.C., in May;

• Sebastian Protel, who was sentenced in Arizona to six years in prison; 

• Zachary Marsh, who was sentenced in Arizona to probation; 

• Devin Parrish, who was sentenced in Arizona to six years in prison; 

• Tyler Ehredt, who was sentenced in Arizona to 16 years in prison; 

• Jesus Jimenez-Cornejo, who was sentenced in Arizona to probation; 

• Ryan Hoberg, who was sentenced in Arizona to six years in prison; 

• Edgar Martinez, who was sentenced in Arizona to 10 years in prison;

• Shawn Grenier, whose case in Arizona is pending; 

• Ryan Showell, whose case in Arizona is pending;

• Marthinus Gerhardus Lourens, whose prosecution is in Cape Town, South Africa;

• Quentin Joseph Carbajal, whose case is pending in California.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui called the allegations against Glover “horrific” during a November 2021 hearing in Washington, D.C. Prosecutors say that video of the sexual abuse of an infant was playing on a screen when authorities raided his one-bedroom apartment. His attorney did not respond to messages seeking comment.

In a separate hearing before U.S. District Chief Judge Beryl Howell regarding Glover, Assistant U.S. Attorney April Russo explained that “individuals who engage in this activity have made a lifestyle habit of hiding what they do from everyone around them.”

“They live two separate lives, and they know how to lie,” Russo said. “They know how to hide things because they have had to do that for years.”

Russo also told Faruqui that every child identified in the videos allegedly found with Glover was “going to receive a notification that another stranger, another pedophile, another person they’ve never met has been looking at their images.”

“These people, some of these children, are now well into their careers,” Russo said. “They’re lawyers, they’re doctors, they’re accountants, and they are getting these notices. And it is a harm to them.”

Contributing: Matthew Hendrickson

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