Man pleads guilty to running server that offered child porn

GREENBELT, Md. (AP) — A man who operated a web server that hosted a site with more than a million images of child pornography pleaded guilty Thursday to a conspiracy charge.

A criminal complaint accused Eric Eoin Marques, 34, of operating a web hosting service on the darknet that allowed thousands of users to view and share images of child pornography, including violent sexual abuse of prepubescent children.

Marques faces a minimum of 15 years in prison and a maximum of 30 years after his guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to advertise child pornography. A plea agreement will ask U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang to sentence Marques to 15 to 21 years in prison but the judge is not bound by the recommendation.

Marques can withdraw his guilty plea if the judge departs from that recommended range.

Marques has remained held in U.S. custody since his extradition from Ireland to Maryland last year.

U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang is scheduled to sentence Marques on May 11.

Marques, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Ireland, has remained in custody since his August 2013 arrest in Dublin after an extradition request from the U.S. He was living in Ireland at the time of the alleged offenses. The server that he allegedly used was in France.

The darknet is part of the internet but hosted within an encrypted network. It is accessible only through anonymity-providing tools, such as the Tor browser.

The complaint said Marques was suspected of operating a free, anonymous web hosting service on a network allowing users to access websites without revealing their IP addresses. In July 2013, according to the complaint, FBI agents in Maryland connected to the network and accessed a child pornography bulletin board with more than 7,700 members and more than 22,000 posts.

Agents downloaded more than 1 million files from another website on the network, nearly all of which depicted sexually explicit images of children, the complaint said.

In a Dec. 19 court filing, Marques’ defense attorneys said “perhaps the greatest overarching question” about the case is how federal investigators were able to pierce the Tor network’s “veil of anonymity” and trace the IP address of the server to a web hosting company in Roubaix, France. “This anonymity is notoriously difficult for government investigators to penetrate,” they wrote.

Defense attorneys said they received an initial answer to that question earlier in December, when the government revealed “vague details” of how they discovered the IP address and location of the server.

“It appears that this disclosure was delayed, in part, because the investigative techniques employed were, until recently, classified,” defense lawyers wrote.

Marques was indicted in April 2019 in Greenbelt, Maryland, on charges of conspiring to advertise child pornography, conspiring to distribute child pornography, advertising child pornography and distribution of child pornography.

During a 2013 bail hearing for Marques in Dublin, FBI Special Agent Brooke Donahue described him as "the largest facilitator of child porn on the planet," according to Irish broadcaster RTE. Donahue also testified that Marques had been searching online for information about obtaining a Russian visa and citizenship, RTE reported.

"He was trying to look for a place to reside to make it most difficult to be extradited to the United States," the FBI agent said.

Marques fought his extradition for years. Irish authorities didn't charge him with any related crimes.

"That decision was made notwithstanding that (Marques) had offered to plead guilty to at least some of the potential charges that might have been brought against him in Ireland," a justice on the Supreme Court of Ireland wrote in a March 2019 judgment rejecting his final appeal.