Russell Freed led a well-ordered life before he found a young woman's cell phone and perused her sexy pics. A switch in his mind flipped, and he plunged down a path that ended Monday with a 20-year prison sentence for producing, attempting to produce, distributing, receiving and possessing child pornography.
Freed, 44, of Brentwood was a civil engineer for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. He has a loving wife of 14 years, two stepchildren and three of his own.
That cell phone, though, spurred him to adopt an alter-ego and embark on an ever-widening hunt for increasingly explicit pictures, including many of girls in their mid-teens. Using threats delivered through the fake identity via text message, email and Facebook, he pushed victims to send him more and more compromising photos.
"When I was committing my offense, I couldn't understand why I was doing what I was doing," Freed said at the 31/2-hour hearing. "Am I crazy? Am I evil? What is it?"
He just kept going. "I had a great life that I threw away."
Freed's is a story for the Internet age, said Allan D. Pass, a psychologist who treated him for nearly a year after he was charged.
"It's a lot easier to engage in fantasy-oriented behaviors, offensive behaviors, when you're not doing it face to face," Dr. Pass said at the hearing. "The Internet nurtures our morbid curiosity, once we log on."
Freed's initial victim, though, was a relative by marriage, in her early 20s, whose phone he found. Using pictures she had taken of herself, her contact list, and eventually Facebook and email accounts he set up in her name, he started trolling for more pictures.
He anonymously extorted her for explicit shots. He traded those with young men and women, including some of her contacts. He used the fruits of those trades to expand his network. Eventually his network grew to include high school girls, around age 15.
Freed also tapped the contacts of a male relative by marriage, who was a minor, U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry said.
When someone would refuse to play Freed's game, he threatened to send the pictures he already had to their friends or relatives. Sometimes he went through with that threat. The judge characterized his method as "severe, prolonged psychological manipulation of young, teenage girls."
"He committed his crimes in a particularly sadistic way that was completely unnecessary to their commission," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Haller. He didn't care that they were young. "One of the victims could pass more easily for a 12-year-old than an 18-year-old."
"It's obvious that I knew what I was doing," Freed told Judge McVerry. He said he didn't know, though, that he had psychological problems, perhaps caused by his isolation from peers in his youth.
Dr. Pass diagnosed him with a sexual and gender identity disorder called paraphilia, and a self-image problem called body dysmorphic disorder. Throw in "the online disinhibition effect," and Freed went down a path in which his fantasies became destructive, Dr. Pass said.
At one point, the relative whose phone started it all came to Freed, confiding that an unidentified tormentor was demanding more pictures, and driving her to consider suicide. Freed counseled that she should comply with the demands -- his demands, unbeknownst to her.
Freed continued to use her identity, Judge McVerry noted, and in doing so "blatantly exposed her to potential arrest and ridicule."
It ended only when a victim alerted police, and the FBI traced cell phone messages to the Turnpike's Western Regional Office in New Stanton. Freed was a respected engineer there, although he had sought employee assistance program help because he was making unspecified, personal use of his work computer.
After pleading guilty in March, he tried suicide in July rather than face sentencing. On Monday, though, he seemed resigned to his fate.
"I know I have to spend a lot of time in prison, and it's going to be terrible," he told the judge. "I know I deserve whatever I get."
Because Freed compelled minors to make pornography, and he distributed it, sentencing guidelines called for a life sentence. Freed's attorney, Ronald Hayward, argued for the statutory minimum of 15 years.
Freed's wife, mother, father and sister pleaded with the judge.
Judge McVerry called the crimes "deeply disturbing" but did not think a life sentence was necessary.
Families of victims, who did not comment during or after the hearing, hugged and cried at the hearing's end.
After release, Freed will be on federal probation for life. He said he might use some of his time in prison to pursue a degree in psychology.
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542.