A Summerville man who was arrested last year on unspecified charges of sexually exploiting children was part of an international ring of predators who targeted young girls through social media, according to federal investigators.
Brandon Gressette, 32, has been in the Charleston County jail since he was arrested Oct. 22, 2015. Court documents filed since then say he posed as a young girl to get other children to perform sex acts in front of a webcam to satisfy the prurient interests of members of a pedophile website.
A new indictment was filed last month. The indictment lists seven co-conspirators. Arrest warrants identify them as from Salt Lake City; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Richmond, Va.; Baltimore; and St. Louis. One co-conspirator's identity was redacted and the arrest warrant was not released.
Gressette made international news earlier this year after a Romanian mother was arrested on charges she took money from him to expose her infant daughter to a webcam for his website. Tabloids all over Britain, including the London Daily Mail, reported that 24-year-old Roxana Elena Onu was arrested after the FBI found sexually explicit images of her and her child while investigating Gressette.
Romanian police posted the news of Onu's arrest in January but didn't mention Gressette, although a Romanian journalist confirmed in an email that Gressette was allegedly involved. The Charleston-area FBI and U.S. Attorney's offices did not respond to a request for confirmation.
Shortly before he was arrested, Gressette was working as a cook at Five Loaves Cafe in Summerville and studying network management at Trident Technical College, according to his Facebook page. He had recently moved out of his parents’ house, which he told others in the group gave him more freedom, according to the FBI’s criminal complaint.
His troubles with the law started after the FBI arrested a man who was getting child porn off the internet. The man told agents about another website where people would entice minors to engage in sexually explicit conduct via web camera.
The FBI tracked down the site administrator and executed a search warrant at his house. Agents were able to identify members of the website and how they operated. The following roles were identified:
Chatter: A member who would chat with children in social media, usually in text-chat format, but sometimes using voice calling or text messaging.
Looping: Also known as lewping, a term used to describe the process of pretending to be a minor child by showing a previously recorded webcam video and pretending it was live. Members used this method to “prove” to minor children that they were also children. This method was used sparingly due to the chance the real minor child may request a specific action, such as waving.
Linking: A member whose role was to find potential minor children engaging in, or willing to engage in, sexually explicit conduct, and linking the minor child’s direct social media account information to the group. It also involved linking to multiple accounts in case the child got kicked off one of them for inappropriate conduct.
When a member got a child to engage in sexual activity on camera, it was called “a win.”
Creating a false profile as a child to target other children was called “catfish.”
The website was originally hosted in Montreal. When that site was shut down, it went back up at an address operating out of the United Kingdom. On April 23, 2015, the FBI also shut down that site.
A review of the chat logs on the site identified a user calling himself samisbae.
“Chat messages associated with these records were indicative of enticing children,” according to the complaint. “The user Samisbae engaged in chat messages that including linking to outside social media accounts of girls, discussion of what he was able to do to get the girls to do on those accounts, and using the above mentioned tools offered on the site.”
Investigators found that samisbae was an active chatter, linker and looper, and uploaded child porn between Nov. 22, 2014, and Feb. 16, 2015. He told another member he convinced a 13-year-old girl he was a 16-year-old girl by talking in a soft voice and got her to post nude photos of herself.
Agents traced samisbae’s IP address to the house where Gressette used to live with his parents and to the house where he had moved, according to the complaint. They also tracked down his driver’s records. Surveillance of his house on Oct. 8, 2015, confirmed the white Nissan Altima that was registered to him outside his house and a white man matching his description getting into the car. Agents showed up with a search warrant a week later.
Gressette pulled the hard drive out of his computer and threw it in the bath tub and turned on the water when he saw the agents outside his house, according to the complaint.
“Gressette advised he was told to do this by other child pornography users on the websites he had visited,” the agent said. “He did this hoping it would erase all the data on his hard drive that contained child pornography.”
It didn’t work. The forensic team recovered the data. Several videos showed “minor females performing sexual acts,” according to the complaint.
Agents said Gressette admitted that he was samisbae.
Gressette is charged with conspiracy to advertise child pornography, conspiracy to produce child pornography, conspiracy to receive and distribute child pornography, two counts of production of child pornography, use of interstate commerce facility to entice minor to engage in sexual activity and possession of child pornography involving a prebubescent minor.
He entered a plea of not guilty last month.