Federal prosecutors say they are working with police in several countries to investigate suspects in a child pornography "social networking site" that at one point had more than 1,000 members trading explicit images.
Prosecutors said Wednesday that more than 50 people had been arrested and 35 have been convicted of various child pornography-related charges as part of the two-year investigation, including several people from abroad.
They said they were seeking the extradition of the group's alleged ringleader, Delwyn Savigar, who is serving a 14-year prison term in England for sexually assaulting or trying to abuse three underage girls.
Savigar created and ran a password-protected website from which members could access collections of sexual images _ some including as many as a million files _ share their fantasies about having sex with children and give advice to each other about how to build their collections and avoid getting caught, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D. DeBrota said.
"This was a social networking site, really," he said.
To join the group, a person had to be sponsored by a member and voted on by other members, DeBrota said. Some members knew each other only by their screen names, but some knew each other outside of the ring, he said.
"This is the largest crimes against children case brought anywhere by anyone," DeBrota said.
According to DeBrota, the group did not focus on producing photographs, although several members were found to have been personally sexually abusing children, sometimes producing images of the abuse.
"Making the material was not part of this group's conspiracy," DeBrota said.
Immigration and postal agencies also took part in the investigation, along with state and local police.
The group had about 1,000 members at its peak but had culled its membership to about 500 when U.S. officials took down the website in 2008. DeBrota said prosecutors went after high-ranking members or those who had records of abusing children.
One suspect, 47-year-old Edward Oedewaldt, who was arrested April 23 in Louisiana was brought to Indianapolis on Wednesday to face charges of conspiracy to advertise and distribute child pornography and was ordered to remain in federal custody pending trial. He has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Howard Bergstein, declined to comment.
Prosecutors said 35 ring members have been convicted of various child pornography distribution charges. Some of them have received sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
Suspects were from Indiana, Louisiana, California, Alaska, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, Virginia and Florida, DeBrota said.
The investigation was kept secret for so long to avoid tipping off suspects, Morrison said.
The government is working with police in several countries, including France, Germany and England, to investigate other suspects, DeBrota said. Investigators also believe the group had members in Asia, Africa and South America.
The website had a hierarchy and members were given ranks that gave them varying degrees of access to the pornography. Savigar was a "root administrator," and others had ranks of "administrator," "moderator," "grand master," and "trusted member," DeBrota said.
Investigators were able to infiltrate the ring after taking over the online profile of a member who was arrested in Alabama as part of a separate case, DeBrota said.
Many suspected ring members were charged in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis. Conspiracy charges can be brought anywhere an alleged conspiracy occurs, and investigators discovered early on that four members of the group were from Indiana, DeBrota said.