Michael Bauer, a 37-year-old from North Branford, Connecticut, was sentenced to 35 months in prison and an even longer stretch of time on supervised release.
John H. Durham, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, announced that Michael Bauer, 37, of North Branford, was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant in Hartford to 35 months of imprisonment, followed by five years of supervised release, for downloading child pornography from the dark web.
According to court documents and statements made in court, this matter stems from “Operation Pacifier,” an FBI investigation into Playpen, a global online forum through which registered users advertised, distributed and accessed child pornography. On February 20, 2015, the FBI seized a computer server hosting Playpen from a webhosting facility in North Carolina. Pursuant to a federal court order in the Eastern District of Virginia, the website operated under FBI supervision February 20 to March 4, 2015. During that time, the FBI collected information to identify members of Playpen.
Playpen had more than 150,000 members who created and viewed tens of thousands of postings related to child pornography. Images and videos shared through the site were highly categorized according to victim age and gender, as well as the type of sexual activity. The site also included discussion forums that included tips for grooming victims and avoiding detection.
The FBI determined that a user name connected to an IP address operating at BAUER’s North Branford residence had accessed Playpen for more than 53 hours between September 2014 and March 2015.
On December 10, 2015, the FBI conducted a court-authorized search of BAUER’s North Branford residence and seized approximately 19 electronic devices, including external hard drives. A forensic examination of the seized devices revealed more than 100,000 images and more than 1,300 videos of child pornography, including images and videos depicting children younger than 12 engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Some of the images and videos depict sadistic and masochistic conduct.
On May 7, 2018, Bauer pleaded guilty to one count of possession of child pornography.
BAUER, who is released on a $100,000 bond, was ordered to report to prison on January 11, 2019.
John H. Durham, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, announced that MICHAEL BAUER, 36, of North Branford, waived his right to be indicted and pleaded guilty today in Hartford federal court to one count of possession of child pornography.
According to court documents and statements made in court, on December 10, 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a court-authorized search of BAUER’s North Branford residence and seized approximately 19 electronic devices, including external hard drives. A forensic examination of the seized devices revealed more than 600 images and videos of child pornography, including images and videos depicting children younger than 12 engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Some of the images and videos depict sadistic and masochistic conduct.
BAUER is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant on August 1, 2018, at which time he faces a maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years.
BAUER is released on a $100,000 bond pending sentencing.
This matter is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Connecticut Child Exploitation Task Force, which includes federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacabed Rodriguez-Coss.
The FBI described their own operation best in their announcement after the sentencing of Stephen Chase, the creator of Playpen.
The case opened shortly after Steven Chase launched Playpen in the summer of 2014. The FBI, which has numerous investigations involving the dark web, quickly became aware of the site, but “given the nature of how Tor hidden services work, there was not much we could do about it,” Alfin recalled.
That is, until December 2014, when Chase slipped up and revealed Playpen’s unique IP address—a location in the U.S. The gaffe was noticed by a foreign law enforcement agency, which notified the FBI.
“From that point we took normal investigative steps—seized a copy of the website, served search warrants for e-mail accounts, followed the money—and everything led back to Steven Chase,” said Alfin. Chase was sentenced Monday in North Carolina in connection with engaging in a child exploitation enterprise and multiple child pornography charges. His sentencing follows those of two co-defendants who were also administrators on the website—Michael Fluckiger, 46, of Indiana, and David Browning, 47, of Kentucky—who were each given 20-year prison terms earlier this year.
Arresting Playpen’s administrators, however, was only the beginning. In January 2015, the FBI, in partnership with the Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, launched Operation Pacifier—an effort to go after Playpen’s thousands of members. Using a court-approved network investigative technique, agents uncovered IP addresses and other information that helped locate and identify users. Investigators sent more than 1,000 leads to FBI field offices around the country and thousands more to overseas partners, Alfin said.
Arrests and other enforcement actions have occurred in countries far and near. Europol, the European Union’s agency for law enforcement cooperation, reported arrests, along with Israel, Turkey, Peru, Malaysia, Chile, and the Ukraine. International agencies critical to the investigation included CNCPO Polizia Postale e Comunicazioni of Italian State Police, the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency, and New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs.
Even some countries where law enforcement cooperation has been historically limited were, in this case, especially helpful in pursuing the FBI’s leads on former users and contributors to Chase’s Playpen site.
“Members of his enterprise who were raping children, who were producing child pornography all around the world—those cases continue to be indicted and prosecuted,” Alfin said.
In addition to taking down the website, the ongoing investigation, as of May 4, 2017, has produced the following results:
- At least 350 U.S.-based individuals arrested
- 25 producers of child pornography prosecuted
- 51 hands-on abusers prosecuted
- 55 American children successfully identified or rescued
- 548 international arrests, with 296 sexually abused children identified or rescued
The Playpen site has been down for more than two years. But similar sites continue to operate and proliferate on the dark web.