N.D. man sentenced to life for sexually exploiting minors
BISMARCK – A Washburn man who posed online as a female modeling agent to lure young girls into his web of child pornography and sexual assault was sentenced to life in prison Monday, in what the prosecutor called probably the worst case of child exploitation he had ever seen.
“He is the boogeyman, your honor,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Delorme said during the sentencing of 39-year-old Travis Lee Guenthner.
U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland handed down a harsher sentence than the 50 years in prison recommended by Delorme as part of a plea agreement in which Guenthner agreed to identify all of his victims – 23 in all.
Hovland said he doesn’t take handing out a life sentence lightly.
“But I’ve reviewed a lot of materials in this case, and I think you’ve earned it,” he told Guenthner.
The case began when U.S. Homeland Security Investigations and Bismarck police received separate calls about a man trying to obtain images of underage girls online, said Randy Helderop, a special agent with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.
A Bismarck detective posed as a young girl online and set up a meeting for sex with Guenthner, leading to his arrest. Guenthner pleaded guilty in November to five counts of sexual exploitation of minors and two counts of coercion and enticement.
His victims included relatives, acquaintances and strangers he met online, Helderop said. Guenthner obtained or tried to obtain sexually explicit photos or videos from 18 of the 23 victims and sexually assaulted 11 of them, he said.
Delorme said it took almost a year for Guenthner to identify his victims as agreed to in the plea deal, including nine months to identify one child who had been victimized.
“I don’t believe he’s provided all the information that we’ve requested of him,” Helderop testified.
U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said he hopes the case sends a broader message about the importance of Internet safety. He said parents often worry about predators targeting their kids when they leave the house to walk to school or go to a movie.
“But what we see so often these days is the predators are coming right into our homes over the Internet,” he said. “People need to talk to their kids about who they’re spending time with online.”
Guenthner told the judge Monday that he usually spent 1½ to two hours per day communicating with young girls on the social networking website www.tagged.com, which allows users to target other users by age. He said he would start out low “and just work through a few different age ranges.”
Delorme said Guenthner posed online as a teenage boy or, if that didn’t work, as a female modeling agent who would offer girls money to send naked pictures of themselves or allow a male photographer who lived in the area to take the pictures.
When the girls became suspicious of Guenthner, he would threaten to show the naked images to their parents or school officials and extort them into providing additional photos.
Defense attorney Chad McCabe asked that Guenthner receive the same 30-year sentence as co-defendant Michelle Laducer of Rolla, who pleaded guilty last June to two counts of sexual exploitation of minors, but said he knew it was “a lot to ask.”
“There’s no question that Mr. Guenthner has a terrible sickness,” he said, pleading with the judge to put him in a prison where he can get treatment. Hovland said he will recommend Guenthner serve his sentence at the U.S. penitentiary in Tucson, Ariz., which has a sex offender management program. Guenthner formerly lived in Arizona, Delorme said.
Hovland, who reviewed a portion of the images found on Guenthner’s seized laptop computer, said that while 23 victims were identified, any reasonable person would conclude that there were far more.
“I don’t know how many there are. I don’t think you even know,” he told Guenthner.
Hovland said it was the first time he’d sentenced a defendant to life in prison for a case of that nature. He said he has seen a lot of despicable cases as a federal judge, but Guenthner’s conduct “ranks very high up on the list of horribles I’ve seen in my life.”
“I just kept thinking, all the trauma you’ve caused to all these young girls … It’s not easily comprehensible,” Hovland said.
Guenthner said he hopes his victims find the help they need.
“I also hope I can also find the help I need,” he said.