FBI Targets Pedophilia Advocates
Little-Known Group Promotes 'Benevolent' Sex
By Onell R. Soto
February 18, 2005
On its Web site and newsletters, the North American Man/Boy Love Association advocates sex between men and boys and cites ancient Greece to justify the practice.
It goes by the acronym NAMBLA, and the FBI has been following it for years, linking it to pedophilia and recently infiltrating it with an agent successful enough to be asked to join the group's steering committee.
Law enforcement officials and mental health professionals say that while NAMBLA's membership numbers are small, the group has a dangerous ripple effect through the Internet by sanctioning the behavior of those who would abuse children.
"A lot of people who commit sexual crimes against children won't believe it is wrong," said Gregg Michel, a San Diego psychologist who interviews sex offenders for Superior Court sentencings. "An organization like this basically says it is not."
San Diego police Sgt. Dave Jones, who oversees a group of investigators working on Internet crimes against children, says NAMBLA's Web site often pops up in computers on which they find child pornography.
Saturday, the FBI arrested three NAMBLA members at Harbor Island as they waited for a boat that undercover agents told them would sail to Ensenada for a sex retreat over Valentine's Day with boys as young as 9.
A San Diego federal judge denied bail for them yesterday.
The FBI said four NAMBLA members were arrested in a Los Angeles marina where they also planned to set sail to the bogus rendezvous.
The seven men represent a cross-section of America: a Dallas dentist, a Pittsburgh special-education teacher, a South Carolina substitute teacher, a New Mexico handyman, a Chicago flight attendant who is also a psychologist and two Florida men, a worker at a paper company and a personal trainer.
A Fullerton chiropractor who was also an assistant pastor at his church was arrested on child-pornography charges as part of the sting, and bail was set at $100,000.
He admitted taking an Encinitas boy to Balboa Park and molesting him, the FBI said in court documents. Prosecutors have not charged him in connection with those allegations.
Friends, relatives and co-workers of the men expressed shock at the arrests, but the FBI said in court papers that most of the men told the undercover agent they had been sexually involved with children in the past, including boys they met through the Internet and others abroad.
The FBI says at least one of the men is a member of the group's national leadership, a second organized the group's national convention last year and a third said he had been a member since the 1980s.
The NAMBLA investigation is part of a crackdown on people authorities have termed sex tourists, those who cross state and national borders for illicit sex.
The practice also has led to to new federal laws targeting sex tourism crimes.
A national network
NAMBLA is based in New York City and San Francisco.
The organization's sexual advocacy is protected by the First Amendment.
"Everyone has the right to assemble and espouse whatever belief they want," said Dan Dzwilewski, head of the FBI's San Diego office.
Dzwilewski said undercover agents got involved not by targeting NAMBLA, but through a molestation investigation. Later, he said, "we knew we were interfering in planned criminal activity."
On its Web site, NAMBLA says it opposes abuse and coercion of young people and does not advocate illegal activity.
It also says children should have the right to have sex with older men and that such relationships are "benevolent." The 26-year-old organization wants to overturn statutory rape laws and free molesters from prison, and encourages members to send Christmas cards to jailed molesters.
In California, it is illegal for an adult to have sex with someone younger than 18, but many other states set the age of sexual consent at 16.
Critics say NAMBLA's public face hides a network of child molesters who trade seduction techniques and child pornography and organize overseas trips for illicit sex.
"It is, in fact, a trade school for pedophiles," said Patrick Gillen, lawyer with the Thomas More Law Center, a Christian legal advocacy group that has sued the organization's leadership and made that argument in court.
Cathy McLennan, an Escondido counselor who interviews children as part of molestation investigations, said NAMBLA's argument that sexual relationships are not harmful to children parrots what many child abusers tell themselves.
"That's how they're rationalizing a despicable form of behavior in their own mind," she said.
Child molesters join organizations such as NAMBLA to meet others like themselves and gain confirmation they are not alone, said Jones, the San Diego police sergeant.
"They don't see that they're doing anything wrong," he said. "These are intelligent, well-educated, high-functioning people, but they've got this desire to involve themselves with children."
San Diego's was among eight police departments across the nation that helped the FBI in last week's sting, he said.
Jones said local law enforcement gives a high priority to identifying and prosecuting child molesters and works with federal and international authorities to find collectors of child pornography, who often are molesters as well.
Repeated efforts to contact NAMBLA's leaders were unsuccessful.
"There is never anyone here who can take your calls," a man's voice says on the group's New York answering machine.
Membership costs $35 a year, according to the NAMBLA Web site. Prison inmates can join for free and get a subscription to the monthly newsletter that includes articles such as "Is Harry Potter Gay?" and "Letter from a Twelve-Year-Old."
The organization links itself to the gay-rights movement, but mainstream gay organizations disavow such a parallel.
Delores A. Jacobs, who heads The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of San Diego, said her organization does not "support or in any way condone the sexual abuse or exploitation of minors by adults."
NAMBLA holds annual national conferences and monthly meetings around the country. It made headlines in San Francisco 12 years ago when a television station discovered a local chapter meeting monthly in a public library.
"There are bylaws," a Virginia police detective who infiltrated the group said. "It's just a well-run little organization."
Among topics discussed, attorney Gillen said in court papers, is how to start a relationship with a boy without drawing suspicion by parents and law enforcement and how to avoid getting caught.
A murder link?
In his suit in Boston federal court, Gillen says NAMBLA's activities led to the murder of a 10-year-old boy. The killer, Gillen claims, was emboldened by NAMBLA members who told him he could entice the boy by stealing his bicycle and offering him a better one.
The boy resisted, and the killer smothered him with a gas-soaked cloth, violated his corpse and dumped it in a river.
The killer and an accomplice have been sentenced to prison. Gillen is suing NAMBLA's leadership on behalf of the boy's parents.
The American Civil Liberties Union has come to the defense of the group's leaders and publications.
"There is nothing in them which is unlawful, which is outside the bounds of what is normally protected by the First Amendment," ACLU lawyer John Reinstein said in an interview.
As distasteful as most people find the group's views, those opinions are protected by the Constitution, he said.
"If the standard by which First Amendment protection is judged is whether enough people agree with it, we would be deprived of speech which is either controversial or opposed to the majority view," he said.
Gillen said the ACLU has blocked efforts to get information about the group. "We haven't been able to get a firm fix on how many members, who they are, where they are," he said.
The lawsuit is pending, and the ACLU has asked a judge to toss it out of court.
About 10 years ago, NAMBLA counted about 1,100 members, said Fairfax County, Va., detective Tom Polhemus, who went undercover and joined the organization's governing board.
Polhemus said the group had a San Diego chapter at the time. Jones, the San Diego police sergeant, said he doesn't know if one still exists.
A former member of the organization's leadership said in court papers filed in Boston that in the mid-1990s, the group discouraged establishing local chapters to avoid police infiltration.
'Like a trade conference'
The annual meetings, Polhemus said, were hush-hush affairs. Attendees were told to go to the host city, and the venue was not disclosed until the last minute.
"They don't want press and they don't want the cops showing up," he said.
After the main sessions, Polhemus said, "You break up and you go into different rooms, . . . like a trade conference."
The networking for illicit activities occur later, in private conversations over drinks or dinner, he said.
That's what happened in November at a conference in Miami, FBI agents said in court documents.
An undercover agent dined with several NAMBLA members at a burger joint where they discussed trips abroad to abuse children. After the convention, he contacted them by telephone and e-mail and set up the sting by promising the boat trip to Mexico.
'Numbers to call'
Experts disagree on the magnitude of child sexual abuse by foreign molesters going to Baja California.
Marisa B. Ugarte, director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, a National City group, said the problem is growing.
"There's numbers to call where they'll pick you up and take you to where the boys are," she said.
Victor Clark Alfaro, an anthropologist at San Diego State University, said he's sure such incidents occur in Tijuana, but it is hard to quantify the problem. He doubts that sex tourism is a big draw there.
Like many cities in Mexico, Tijuana attracts unaccompanied children who end up begging or selling knickknacks on the streets and are vulnerable to sexual predators.
Jones, the San Diego police sergeant, said San Diego has increasingly become a jumping-off point to places like Thailand, the Philippines and Costa Rica.
"If they drive across to Mexico and hook up with an international airline in Mexico, we have no way to know where they're going," he said. "The flights are not as scrutinized."
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