PITTSBURGH - A western Pennsylvania man who extorted sexual photos from teens by using a young female relative's cellphone and Facebook identity - and eventually using that information to extort pictures from the relative, too - was sentenced Monday to 20 years in federal prison.
The defense attorney for Russell Freed, 44, of Brentwood, had argued for leniency, claiming his client suffered from self-image problems and was wrongly being made an example of under child pornography laws. But U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry agreed with prosecutors that Freed's means of collecting the images was especially cruel and warranted the harsh prison sentence, to be followed by probation for life and a requirement that Freed register with police as a sex offender.
"The element of sadism can't be overlooked in this case," Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Haller argued.
Freed contacted teenage girls who were listed as contacts on his 21-year-old relative's discarded cellphone and got them to send nude or sexually suggestive pictures by pretending to be the relative in text messages and Facebook posts - and then extorting more photos by threatening to publicize the original picture. Eventually, Freed extorted sexual pictures of the relative, even after she threatened suicide and confided about the extortion to him, not realizing he was behind it.
During a 3½ hour sentencing hearing, Freed attempted to explain and apologize for his actions.
"When I was committing my offense, I couldn't understand why I was doing what I was doing. Am I crazy? Am I evil? What is it?" Freed said.
"I understand what I put them through, I'm ashamed and I'm sorry."
Defense attorney Ronald Hayward argued that the harsh child pornography penalties Freed faced were unwarranted because, other than the photos Freed extorted, he didn't possess any child pornography. He had previously pleaded guilty to producing, attempting to produce, distributing, receiving and possessing child pornography.
Hayward angered Haller in a presentence filing when he argued that Freed didn't deserve the long sentences Hayward argued were meant for mass producers of child porn and by arguing that Freed's real motivation was a "cat and mouse" game with his victims.
Haller called that comment "an insult to (Freed's) victims as well as to cats."
Freed's mother, Nancy, on Monday also argued unsuccessfully that her son's punishment was too severe.
"I can't believe that I'm in a courtroom apologizing for Russ. He is a good person and we have always been proud of him," she said. "To sacrifice the life of a good man and his family just to make an example out of him is unbelievable."