Jay Sears Pleads Guilty To Possession Of Child Porn; Faces Up To 10 Years In Prison

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East End architect and philanthropist Jay Sears pleaded guilty to one count of possessing child pornography in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on Monday, eight months after investigators discovered hundreds of sexual images of identifiable minors in his old apartment in East Moriches and in Dumpsters across Suffolk County.

As part of a plea deal reached with prosecutors, Mr. Sears, now 74, admitted before Judge Denis R. Hurley that he photographed a female minor, cut out her face and pasted it on a pornographic image of an adult woman, so as to make it appear that she was engaging in sexual activity.

Mr. Sears, who was released after the proceedings and remains free on $250,000 bond, faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on January 17, 2014. As part of the judge’s orders, Mr. Sears will remain under house arrest at an East Quogue condominium until his sentencing.

“I am sincerely remorseful, and accept complete responsibility for having committed this crime,” Mr. Sears said while reading from a prepared statement during the court proceedings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Bode, who is leading the prosecution, said during Monday’s hearing that he has suggested a sentence of 24 to 30 months, in line with federal sentencing guidelines, as part of the plea agreement. He also said it is common for the probation department to ask for a psychosexual evaluation before sentencing, though Mr. Sears has the right to decline participation.

As part of the deal, officials with the U.S. District Attorney’s office have agreed to dismiss the five additional counts of child pornography possession that had been filed against Mr. Sears, and which he pleaded not guilty to in March. Still, officials explained that while Mr. Sears was not required to plead guilty to those additional counts, the court will consider his conduct, as well as all his victims, when he is sentenced early next year.

Prosecutors and Mr. Sears’s defense attorney, Richard Signorelli, have declined to share why they agreed to the plea deal.

In addition to his attorney, Mr. Sears, who was dressed in a navy blue suit with pinstripes and a yellow tie, was also accompanied by two family members for Monday’s court proceedings.

“At the time I committed the offense, I knew that what I was doing was wrong,” Mr. Sears said. “However, because the visual depiction did not include a photograph of an actual minor’s naked body, I was not then aware that the private possession of such an image constituted a criminal offense.”

Mr. Bode said that is no excuse for breaking the law, adding that Mr. Sears will need to register as a sex offender once he is released from prison. “It is a federal offense, and ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Mr. Bode said in court.

He also explained that, to date, none of the victims has filed claims of restitution against Mr. Sears, but noted that they are entitled to do so.

Mr. Bode also declined to explain the reason for the plea deal when reached outside the federal court following Monday’s proceedings.

Before accepting the guilty plea, Judge Hurley questioned Mr. Sears to ensure that he understood the consequences of his actions. The judge told him that he would be forfeiting his right to a trial, during which the burden of proof would have been placed on prosecutors, as well as his right to appeal the conviction and forthcoming sentence if it is less than 33 months.

Mr. Sears was indicted by a grand jury on February 20 on six felony counts of possession of child pornography—one count for each of the identifiable minors depicted in the images recovered by authorities. Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s office said numerous bags containing hundreds of child pornography images were found in the trash at numerous sites throughout Suffolk County in January, allegedly removed from Mr. Sears’s East Moriches apartment while he prepared to move.

Investigators have said that Mr. Sears, the founder of the Quogue-based nonprofit Mission of Kindness, photographed the girls in public settings, such as at the Quogue Beach Club and fundraisers on the East End. He then pasted photographs of his own head onto the images of the male bodies in the pornographic images, making it appear as if he was engaging in sexual acts with children, federal prosecutors have said.

The process of modifying photos in this manner, typically through electronic means, is known as “morphing” and prohibited by federal law. Mr. Sears’s actions, in which he cut and pasted photos of children onto pornographic materials, prompted some in the community to question at the time of his arrest whether what he did qualified as morphing.

Mr. Sears was arrested in late January and released from federal custody in February after posting $250,000 bond.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Sears said after pleading guilty to the single count. “My life has been dedicated to helping others, not hurting them.”

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