By BRENDAN J. LYONS
Albany Times Union | December 29, 2010
William Scott Ritter Jr., a former United Nations weapons inspector who gained renown for his criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, contends his online sexual encounters with teenage girls were only fantasy.
Nearly two years ago, Ritter, of Delmar, watched his computer screen reveal that an anonymous person who had been exchanging sexually charged messages with him for 80 minutes was not a 15-year-old girl.
It was a cop from a small town in northeast Pennsylvania, alone in his station house and trolling the Internet for suspected child predators.
Ryan Venneman, a detective for the Barrett Township Police Department in Monroe County, had enough after Ritter allegedly transmitted streaming video of himself masturbating.
"(Y)ou know ur in a lot of trouble don't u," Venneman typed in a Yahoo chat-room message. "Im a under cover police officer u need to call me asap."
"Nah," Ritter answered. "Your not 15. Yahoo is for 18 and over. Its all fantasy. No crime. ... As far as I know, you're a 56 year old housewife."
The problem for Ritter, 49, a volunteer fireman and married father of two daughters, is that the encounter with Venneman is at least the third time he's been snared in an Internet sting case involving police posing as minors. Now, the past is coming back to haunt Ritter.
A Pennsylvania judge ruled last week that two Colonie case files involving Ritter be unsealed so they can be used as evidence against him at his upcoming trial.
In the spring of 2001, Colonie police say Ritter twice showed up for meetings with what he believed would be teenage girls. The first time, Ritter was questioned but let go by police who had been posing as a curious 14-year-old girl.
Two months later, Ritter turned up at a fast-food restaurant, where police said they had set up a sexual meeting while posing as a 15-year-old girl. Ritter was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of soliciting a minor. Despite his national prominence, Ritter's arrest was not publicly announced.
Several months later an Albany County prosecutor agreed to classify Ritter's case as an "Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal" (ACOD), an outcome in New York state's criminal law in which a prosecutor agrees to excuse a defendant's behavior in exchange for six months to one year of good behavior. After that time, the case is legally dismissed and the records are sealed from the public as though the incident never occurred. With an ACOD, a defendant becomes legally allowed to deny the arrest occurred, except in special circumstances, such as applying for a job as a police officer or a teacher.
In Ritter's case, his prosecutor was later fired for her decision.
Ritter's charges in Pennsylvania are more serious. He is free on $25,000 bail and charged with five felonies, including unlawful contact with a minor, which carries a potential prison sentence of up to seven years.
Prosecutors in Pennsylvania argued in pretrial motions to unseal Ritter's Colonie arrest records because the past encounters are evidence that Ritter knew what he was doing was a crime, and not fantasy.
"All three involve minors, all three involve females, all three involve communications over the Internet, all three involved undercover police and all three involved the defendant's desire to masturbate in the presence of a minor while she watched him," said Michael Rakaczewski, a Monroe County assistant district attorney, in a motion to the court.
"The prior bad acts demonstrate the defendant's motive," Rakaczewski added. "The defendant may claim he did not believe the victim was a minor and never intended to expose himself to a minor. However, the fact that he did so twice before would negate this defense."
The judge agreed, ruling that Ritter's alleged "prior bad acts" may be used as evidence against him at his trial set to begin March 8.
The 2001 arrest of Ritter had remained secret until 2003, when details of the incident were leaked to a newspaper.
It took place at a time when the United States was defending its contention that Iraq was an international security threat and hoarding weapons of mass destruction. Ritter, with his background as a U.S. counterintelligence officer and a U.N. weapons inspector, had gone as far as testifying before Congress to warn that Iraq was no threat.
Ritter claimed his police encounters in Colonie were leaked by the federal government to damage his credibility.
Either way, Ritter's public speaking engagements began to dry up, and he faded from a national spotlight.
Eight months after Ritter's February 2009 encounter with the Pennsylvania detective, prosecutors filed a criminal complaint and Ritter was arrested. Police said Ritter believed he was communicating with a 15-year-old girl named "Emily."
During the online conversation, police said, Ritter engaged in sexually charged exchanges with the fictitious teenager before allegedly transmitting streaming video of himself masturbating.
Todd Edward Henry, a Philadelphia attorney representing Ritter, was unsuccessful in his request to have the case against Ritter dismissed for prosecutorial misconduct, or to obtain a change of venue due to pretrial publicity. Henry also was unable to convince a judge to block the use of Ritter's 2001 arrest records as evidence.
Henry noted Pennsylvania prosecutors, "in violation of (Ritter's) statutory and constitutional rights," had improperly obtained the sealed files from the Albany County district attorney's office without a judge's order. Henry challenged the Pennsylvania prosecutors for their improper receipt of the files and Rakaczewski returned the records to Albany.
Rakaczewski then petitioned Albany County Judge Stephen W. Herrick to unseal the Colonie case files. In Herrick signed the order and in June the files were shipped back to Pennsylvania.
It's the second time the files, which had never been made available to the public, were unsealed for law enforcement agencies.
Six years ago federal prosecutors in Albany also petitioned to obtain the sealed files as part of a re-examination of whether Ritter should be prosecuted in U.S. District Court for the 2001 arrest. Federal prosecutors took no action and have not said why.
Henry, Ritter's attorney, could not be reached for comment. He has criticized the investigation, saying it fails to incriminate his client. He said the 80-minute chat session is not proof Ritter knew he was communicating with a fictitious minor.
A law enforcement expert retained by Henry also said the police officer's decision to identify himself and threaten Ritter's arrest during the sting was unprofessional. He said it's unusual for police to identify themselves to a suspect in an online child-sex sting before an arrest is made or search warrants obtained.
The failed defense motion to dismiss the case also cites a forensic computer expert who analyzed two laptop computers used by Ritter and found no evidence Ritter had engaged in other online chats with minors or downloaded child pornography.
The chat, on Feb. 7, 2009, begins with the officer identifying himself to Ritter as a 15-year-old girl from the Pocono Mountains region of Pennsylvania. They type messages in a conversation that ranged from a discussion of Emily's boyfriend and dog-sitting to graphic sexual encounters.