WASHINGTON — Fourteen men were charged with operating an online child exploitation network that investigators said preyed upon hundreds of boys across the United States and overseas, authorities announced Tuesday.
Law enforcement officials said the arrests were part of a worrisome trend in which children are being enticed by adults to post sexually explicit images of themselves that are then shared online. In this case, authorities said, users of an underground network posed online as girls to coerce boys into sharing with them child pornography images.
“These alleged perpetrators preyed upon the most innocent, most vulnerable members of our society with no regard to the immediate or lasting harm they caused to their victims and their families,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said at a news conference.
The investigation, called “Operation Round Table,” was led by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and federal authorities in Louisiana, where the alleged leader of the operation lives.
The roughly 250 victims were spread across 39 states and five other countries — Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. Most were boys between 13 and 15. Two victims were 3 or younger, authorities said.
The pornographic images were shared on an underground website on the Tor network, an online anonymity network that masks the location of servers and conceals an Internet user’s location. The subscription-based website operated from about June 2012 until June 2013, had more than 27,000 members and shared more than 2,000 webcam-captured videos, mostly of young boys, authorities said.
Eleven of the 14 men, including the man authorities say was the administrator of the network, are being prosecuted in Louisiana. The other three are being charged in New York, Colorado and Wisconsin.
Authorities accuse Jonathan Johnson, of Abita Springs, La., of being the leader of the operation. They say he admitted creating multiple fake female personas from his home and encouraged others to do the same in an effort to entice boys to produce sexually explicit images of themselves. The 27-year-old also instructed members and uploaders on how to avoid getting caught by law enforcement, prosecutors say.
Online court records show Johnson was charged last month through a criminal information, a document that typically signals a guilty plea is near. A change of plea hearing is scheduled for March 27, according to the records. Johnson has been in custody since his arrest last June and faces from 20 years to life in prison.
A lawyer for Johnson did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.