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Airline Executive Found Guilty In Child Porn Case

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File photo of prison. (Credit:  TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of prison. (Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — Jurors convicted the founder of a Texas cargo airline on child pornography charges Monday, siding with prosecutors who said he had explicit online chats with undercover officers posing as young teenage girls and collected numerous illegal images.

Robert L. Hedrick, who founded Pan American Airways, was found guilty of distribution and possession of child pornography, transfer of obscene materials to a minor, and attempted sexual exploitation of children. He spoke quietly with his lawyers after the verdict was read, but otherwise showed no reaction.

He could get up to 20 years in prison on just one count of distributing child pornography when sentenced on Aug. 27.

Federal authorities arrested the 61-year-old last summer after undercover detectives in Wisconsin and Louisiana traced the sexually explicit chat-room exchanges from an online account registered to Hedrick. Investigators said they later found 2,400 pornographic images saved on three hard drives in his home.

After leaving the court, defense attorney Ed Stapleton said Hedrick has always maintained his innocence.

“Just as a matter of principle he was not willing to plead guilty,” Stapleton said. “If he had pleaded guilty, because of his age, he would have died in prison. At least this way he’ll have an appeal.”

In their closing remarks earlier Monday, prosecutors reviewed evidence tying Hedrick to the chats with undercover officers posing online as 13 and 14-year old girls. Defense attorneys denied it was Hedrick at the keyboard, trying to use the Internet’s thin veil of anonymity to raise doubts among jurors, and claimed he had a long list of enemies with the motivation and money to set him up.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Violet LaTawn Warsaw told jurors that Hedrick’s ultimate goal was to convince teenage girls to send him nude photographs of themselves. To that end, he searched for them in Internet chat rooms, began conversations that quickly turned sexually explicit and sent them pornography.

“It was persistent. It was unrelenting. It was constant,” Warsaw told jurors.

Warsaw reminded jurors of a video of Hedrick masturbating. Government officials testified that is was live-streaming video during a chat with an undercover police detective in Louisiana. But Hedrick, while admitting that it was him, said it was a video he made for his wife during marriage counseling. There was also a recorded phone conversation between that same detective and a man who prosecutors said was Hedrick. Hedrick acknowledged that the voice sounded like his.

But Stapleton told jurors that prosecutors failed to prove his client’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Defense lawyers claimed that Hedrick had many enemies thanks to his business dealings and personal life who had the motivation and the means to set him up. Stapleton said the government failed to investigate other possible suspects.

Stapleton urged jurors to begin their deliberations with a presumption of innocence, acknowledging that the graphic nature of the evidence made it difficult to think “without prejudice or sympathy.”

“Once you have seen the pictures, your mind can shut down,” he warned.

“The question is not whether a crime was committed. There’s ample evidence that a crime was committed,” Stapleton added, but noted that no one ever saw Hedrick engaging in the online chats and argued it could have been someone else.

Warsaw returned to testimony from Hedrick’s Internet provider and technical specialists that matched the times of the chats with logins from Hedrick’s account and its Internet address. His cellphone recorded the number of the undercover detective in Louisiana who called him at his request.

“All of the evidence in this case points to one person,” Warsaw said. “That one person is Mr. Hedrick.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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