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Through a Glass Darkly: Technology is unintentionally aiding creeps.

Voyeur Victims

New technology changes one Sonoma family's life forever

By R. V. Scheide

Last October, Michael Heintz picked up a recently purchased digital camera and crept out into the Santa Rosa night. He stood outside his 15-year-old stepdaughter's bedroom window and waited for her to undress. For motives he claims he doesn't understand, he began snapping pictures of the naked teenager.

During the course of the next month, Heintz made 122 clandestine digital photographs of his stepdaughter in various states of undress, including extreme close-ups of her body. He downloaded the pictures into a file that he titled "Covert2" on his laptop computer. In late November of last year, his stepdaughter accidentally discovered the nude photos of herself, and the lives of this family were changed forever.

Heintz, 41, the former operations manager at the Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa, currently resides in the Sonoma County Jail, convicted on misdemeanor charges of child pornography and invasion of privacy. In addition to the photographs of his stepdaughter, police also found child pornography downloaded from the Internet on his computer.

His stepdaughter, whose name is protected due to her age, now reportedly suffers from disorders ranging from delayed stress syndrome to anorexia. Her mother, who wishes to simply be known as Kathy, suffers from similar stress-related disorders and wonders how the man she knew for 13 years and with whom she had a son could turn their world so upside down.

"I remember spinning around," says Kathy, 38, recalling the incident recently at an outdoor cafe in Sonoma, where she currently rents a home. "No! This can't be real, this can't be true!"

But the virtual images turned out to be all too real, and she's been spinning ever since, trying to reconcile progressive sensibilities about crime and punishment with her own desire for justice for her family.

"I didn't want jail time at first," she says of Heintz's sentencing. She'd heard about a special halfway house near San Diego. "I wanted a live-in program. This was somebody I loved very dearly. I didn't wish for anyone to go to jail."

In April, Heintz, who has no previous criminal record, pleaded guilty to four of the 22 misdemeanor counts of possessing child pornography and invasion of privacy lodged against him. In exchange, the Sonoma County district attorney reduced his jail sentence from one year to six months. With time off for good behavior, Heintz, who declined to be interviewed for this article, could serve as little as four months.

Now that justice has run its course, Kathy has changed her tune.

She feels let down by the legal system and thinks Heintz should have gotten a much stiffer sentence. "The way they chose to prosecute him was mild, the plea bargain was a joke." she says. "I thought the whole thing was a farce, in a way."

In addition to jail time, Heintz was sentenced to three years probation and required to register as a sex offender with the appropriate local authorities for the rest of his life as long as he remains a California resident. How much punishment would be enough?

"It depends on how you look at," says Santa Rosa attorney Stephen Gallenson, who defended Heintz in court. "I know Michael and I don't think he would ever do this again. But from the perspective of breaking Kathy's trust, you could give him 10 years and it still wouldn't be enough for her."

For Kathy, the sense of betrayal was deepened by the fact that for the past four years, she's been studying the growing worldwide phenomenon of child trafficking and sexual exploitation at the California Institute for Integrative Studies, where she's completing a doctorate in psychology. For her final project for her BA, she traveled to the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, India and Nepal in 2002 to research child prostitution firsthand.

That same year, she wrote a research paper titled "A Historical and Cross-Cultural Look at the Long-Standing Existence of Adult-Child Sexual Practices and the Current Polemics Surrounding Pedophelia." As she notes in the report: "[T]he sexual exploitation of children has alarmingly escalated with the advent of the Internet. Today, in a world that knows no boundaries, millions of children are victims of child pornography and child trafficking."

Waiting outside his stepdaughter's bedroom window last October, Michael Heintz was fully aware of child pornography's alarming escalation. He'd edited many of Kathy's papers, including the report cited above. He grasped the new digital camera, cool and compact in his hand, and allowed his boundaries to expand.

We are getting a lot of computer stuff," says Detective John Schnetzinger of the Santa Rosa Police Department's sex crime unit, who investigated the Heintz case but could not comment specifically on it. "We know that people who molest children also like child pornography. The digital age is upon us."

The legal system is having a hard time keeping pace with the digital age. Nowhere is this more clear than in the realm of erotica--witness the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to ban enforcement of 1998's Child Online Protection Act, which would have forced web-porn purveyors to limit access to minors, because such limitations probably violate the First Amendment rights of adults.

Today, sex and tech are meshing on levels that are both enlightening and frightening, as the culture grows more free but also provides ready access to depictions of deviancies ranging from bestiality to pedophilia and beyond. Terms such as "up-skirting," which refers to using a hidden digital camera or camcorder to secretly photograph underneath the clothing of unwitting female subjects, then uploading the images to the web, have entered the popular lexicon. Voyeurism has come out of the closet--and into courtrooms ill-prepared to deal with it.

"Today's video voyeur may be little more than the next generation of yesterday's peeping Tom," notes legal scholar Lance E. Rothenberg in a 2001 American University Law Review article on rethinking privacy rights in the digital age. "Video voyeurism, however, is a far more intrusive and disturbing wrong than mere window peeping. Modern electronics have transformed the deviant, usually solitary, act of peeping into a booming and perverse online industry."

Many states, California included, have responded to such phenomenon as up-skirting with legislation that recognizes the potentially pervasive aspects of new technology. In 2002 California modified its existing violation of privacy statute with new language stating that anyone using a camera or camcorder to secretly "shoot under or through the clothing of an individual . . . with the intent to arouse, appeal to or gratify the lust, passions or sexual desires" is guilty of violating that person's privacy, a misdemeanor. A previous change to the statute recognized the growing popularity of digital cameras and camcorders, prohibiting their use on unsuspecting victims in public places where a "reasonable expectation of privacy" exists.

Heintz pled guilty to two counts of this latter modified statute, which makes no mention of the perpetrator's intent. In fact, according to two psychiatrists who examined Heintz before his sentencing hearing this April, Heintz claims not to have understood his intentions when he took the photos of his stepdaughter. As defense attorney Gallenson notes in the defendant's sentencing brief: "[The prosecution's examining psychiatrist, Dr. Donald Apostle,] notes a strong tone of denial running through the interview regarding the sexuality of the photographs but also notes that Mr. Heintz has been in therapy trying to ascertain his motivations."

Dr. Apostle, Gallenson said, had found that Heintz was not a pedophile, but a "voyeur," stating that "voyeurs are very passive people who do not physically attack and are no physical danger to the victim." For that reason, Gallenson argued that his client should not be subject to a long incarceration.

"It is suggested that a lengthy jail sentence will do nothing to let this defendant know and completely understand the impact he has had on his [family]," Gallenson argued. "This is because jail is impersonal and the pain that has been caused in this case is anything but impersonal."

There was another option, Gallenson suggested. "What would be more appropriate in this case is for the defendant to be required to sit before his family on a regular basis, in a neutral setting with a therapist involved, to hear from the them, the ones that he loves, how they have been effected by his actions."

This suggestion didn't go over well with Kathy or her daughter, who hasn't spoken to Heintz since discovering the photos.

"I was floored!" Kathy recalls. "We were presented with this just before the sentencing. It was an insult."

If Heintz had attempted to distribute the pictures of his stepdaughter on the Internet, he could have been charged with felony child pornography. He pleaded guilty to two counts of possessing child pornography, which is punishable as a misdemeanor on the first offense. Kathy thinks state law should be changed so that possession of child pornography is a felony on the first offense. She supports a wide-ranging ballot initiative, the Sexual Predator Punishment and Megan's Law Expansion Act, currently circulating throughout the state. If the initiative qualifies for the ballot and is approved by voters, it would, among other things, make possession of child pornography a felony in California.

In addition to six months in jail, three years of probation and having to register as a sex offender in the state of California for the rest of his life, Heintz is prohibited from working as a teacher and is not allowed to be alone around children. He is subject to regular polygraph examinations during his probation and must undergo therapy at his own expense. Communication with his stepdaughter is forbidden and he currently has only supervised visitation rights with his son.

There's no doubt that Michael Heintz has lost a lot. "He was charged with the best we could charge him with," says Sonoma County deputy district attorney Phil Abrahams. "He got a reasonable sentence."

Kathy disagrees. She intellectualized her pain at first, holding it at bay. But her ex-partner's continued denial of the crime's sexuality, the reduced jail sentence, the knowledge that convicted sex offenders in California have to register with law enforcement authorities but are not required to, say, notify new neighbors of their criminal past all continue to eat away at her. Heintz didn't physically touch anyone, but Kathy feels like she and her whole family have been molested.

"He's not a violent person, but I know from experience that he doesn't know his own boundaries," she says. "I want his neighborhood to know, so they can close their shutters."

For more information on the Sexual Predator Punishment and Megan's Law Expansion Act, visit www.projectkidsafe.org.

[ | Metroactive Central | ]

From the July 14-20, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.


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