Seattle man gets $1,000 fine, isn’t banned from home across from Ballard school
A Seattle child pornography collector with ties to the FBI won’t go to prison and may be able to return to his home across from a Ballard-area elementary school.
Cybersecurity consultant Brian Haller was spared prison Friday after he was caught with 600 photos and videos picturing the sexual exploitation of children as young as 9. Haller, 40, asked that he be allowed to return to his home across the street from West Woodland Elementary School in the Ballard area of Seattle.
U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan ruled against a request from prosecutors that Haller be barred from living within sight of an elementary school. Instead, probation officials will be tasked with deciding when Haller can go back to the home he left in July.
“We see a lot of … good people who’ve done bad things,” Bryan said from the bench. “Mr. Haller certainly fits into that. …
“If and when it’s appropriate for him to return to his home he should be able to do so. … He’s not a danger to the students at the school.”
Haller was caught with child pornography showing children aged 9 to 14. A psychologist hired by Haller suggested children at the school — where students range in age from 5 to 12 – could be protected so long as Haller covered his front windows and stayed inside during school hours.
In addition to registering as a sex offender, Haller has been barred from being alone with children. Probation officers will be allowed to search him at any time and monitor most of his electronic activity.
Assistant U.S. Attorney S. Kate Vaughan told Bryan she saw it as “essential” that he order Haller to stay away from schools.
“There are consequences for this type of crime,” Vaughan said. “One of those consequences is that Mr. Haller is going to have to move.”
Connie Smith, chief U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services officer for Western Washington, said Haller has not been permitted to live in his home since charges were filed in July. Smith, whose office will decide where Haller may live, said any decision to allow him to return to that home “wouldn’t be a decision that we would make lightly.”
“Based on the information that we have now, he would not be approved to live there,” the federal probation officer said.
Aimee Sutton, Haller’s defense attorney, had asked that her client be allowed to return to the house. Bryan’s decision could delay Haller’s return up to 10 years, when his probationary term is scheduled to expire.
In an unusual move, the prosecution did not seek a prison term for Haller. It seems only one other Western Washington child pornography defendant — a woman caught trading child pornography online — has received such a request in recent years.
Prior to his arrest in July, Haller led the Seattle chapter of an FBI-private sector group tasked with fighting computer crime and cyberterrorism. As a volunteer, Haller had access to a secure FBI online platform and email system, though he is not alleged to have used either to collect child porn.
Seattle FBI Division Special Agent-in-Charge Frank Montoya Jr. issued a lengthy statement Friday evening in which he affirmed his agency’s commitment to fighting child pornography. Montoya also said unequivocally that the FBI did not ask for leniency for Haller.
“The FBI will not yield in its determination to aggressively pursue individuals, regardless of their status or position in our community, who victimize our most sacred resource, our children,” Montoya said. “We will do all in our power to hold offenders like Haller properly accountable.
“These are our children. We owe them nothing less.”
Haller was caught in an expansive FBI sting last year. Agents found the law enforcement insider used a “dark web” service – a Tor network site – to collect files capturing the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.
Usually, Haller’s crimes would carry a four or five-year prison term. Instead, federal prosecutors asked that Haller be spared even jail.
Bryan ordered that Haller spend the next decade under court supervision. He also said that Haller should receive one “direct penalty” – a $1,000 fine.
The sentence Bryan delivered is unusual for federal child pornography crimes in the region. Haller appears to have been the third Western Washington child porn convict to catch such a break in recent years.
Usually, a defendant like Haller would face four to five years in federal prison. Had he been prosecuted in Washington state court, the standard sentence for his crime was a year in prison.
Vaughan noted that agents searching the cybersecurity expert’s computers found no child pornography beyond what he admitted immediately upon his arrest. Haller, who has two children from a previous marriage, claimed he was distraught over the death of his wife.
“Of course, bereavement does not cause someone to access child pornography,” Vaughan told Bryan. “There clearly is something else going on.”
The FBI arrived at Haller’s house on July 13 after he was identified through a wide-ranging, controversial sting operation. The operation has prompted charges against more than 130 others, including a Vancouver special education worker and a Fort Lewis soldier.
In February 2015, FBI agents in North Carolina seized the servers hosting a child pornography website called “Playpen.” They then ran the site for three weeks, allowing child pornography to continue to flow while agents installed tracking software on the computers of thousands of users.
Accessible through the Tor network, the site had more than 200,000 users during the eight months it was live. Those users logged 7 million hours before the FBI closed Playpen on March 4, 2015.
The bureau has contended agents couldn’t close the site if they wanted to catch the men and women who traded there. The Tor network, which is accessed through specialized browsers, is meant to anonymize users.
Haller moved to Seattle in 2001, going to work for a multi-billion-dollar government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. A Booz Allen spokeswoman said Haller resigned from the company in 2011.
On Playpen, Haller was a “newbie” known as “jbeldar.” In his first nine days on the site, he spent seven hours surfing it.
Most of Haller’s interest seems to have been directed at the exploitation of older children – investigators would later claim the “jb” in his screen name stood for “jailbait.” During his arrest, he told investigators he was most interested in children aged 12 to 14, but that he sometimes looked at younger ones.
An FBI special agent noted in court papers that Haller’s collection included a 40-minute video showing the sexual exploitation of an 11-year-old girl.
As stomach-turning as his videos were, far worse were moving through Playpen. Investigators note Haller passed close to one such video showing a mother sexually assaulting her young daughter; other members of the site are accused of trading rape videos of drugged or bound children.
Haller was released the day after his July arrest and has remained free since, living with a friend. He pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in December.
Haller has admitted to downloading child pornography for six months – from January 2015 until FBI agents raided his home. Prosecutors appear convinced that Haller’s criminality didn’t extend beyond the crime he was caught committing.
Vaughan described Haller as an “extremely sophisticated” computer user paid to advise companies on how to block hackers. He was the unpaid president of the Seattle chapter of InfraGard, an FBI-sponsored private sector taskforce that partners with the bureau on cybercrime and cyberterrorism defense.
Through InfraGard, Haller had access to an FBI secure communications network with an encrypted website and email. He and other InfraGard members shared information related to cyber threats to American infrastructure.
Haller’s career in cybersecurity ended with his arrest. He lost several security clearances and will now carry a special stamp on his passport identifying him as a sexual offender. He will be required to register with local police for at least 10 years.
Speaking in court Friday, Haller said he is “extremely remorseful” for his crimes and that he recognizes the harm his conduct caused the children whose abuse he witnessed. Haller, who was joined in court by his parents and a handful of supporters, said he is thankful to be engaged in treatment.
“It has been a transformative experience,” Haller said.
U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics show that federal prosecutors prevailed in 1,903 child pornography prosecutions nationally between September 2014 and September 2015. According to the commission’s most recent report, 97 percent of those defendants received prison sentences.
Sentencing Commission statistics indicate that since 2010 federal judges in Seattle and Tacoma sentenced 119 child-pornography criminals to prison and five others to a mix of incarceration and house arrest. Area child pornography defendants who’ve received lenient sentences in federal court include Marvin Rockwell, Ricki Scot Morrow and Sarah Wales.
Prosecutors had asked that Rockwell receive a two-year prison term for encouraging a 13-year-old girl to expose herself to him online. Rockwell was sentenced to time served but placed under court supervision for life.
Morrow, a Vancouver resident, was caught with 330 videos and 17 photos depicting the abuse of children under age 12. He was sentenced to 60 days in federal detention after prosecutors requested a three-year term.
Wales was caught sharing pornography online while making disturbing comments in sexually explicit chat rooms. Prosecutors asked that she be sentenced to time served, which was the sentence imposed by the court.
Bryan’s decision could echo through other prosecutions, as he is overseeing what’s become one of the leading cases stemming from the Playpen investigation.
“I’m concerned a little bit about sentence disparities,” Bryan said from the bench.
But, the judge continued, “Mr. Haller is not likely to do this again.”
“I think the public is safe with him at large.”
Haller will have to register as a sex offender and submit to court supervision. Because of Bryan’s decision, it will be up to probation officers to decide when he returns to his Ballard home.
Smith, the regional probation head, said her office’s primary aim is community safety. Officers spend their time in the field monitoring offenders directly.
“We provide very active supervision out in the community,” Smith said. “It’s not supervision from a desk.”
Bryan expressed hope that Haller would not “relapse.”
“You’ve got a ways to go to get out from under this,” Bryan said. “All of us believe you can do that.”
The FBI’s continued operation of the Playpen site was the subject of a debate on The New York Times opinion page. A USA Today report on the investigation noted that the FBI used the same technique in at least two other investigations, including a 2012 Nebraska-based operation first publicized by seattlepi.com.
At least two other Western Washington men are alleged to have collected child pornography through the site. Both are currently awaiting trial before Bryan.
CORRECTION: An initial version of this story failed to note that three other similarly charged child pornography collectors in Western Washington received probation.
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