TRENTON, NJ - A Salem County, N.J., man has been indicted on multiple counts of extortion and first-degree manufacturing child pornography for allegedly stalking underage girls on the Internet and blackmailing the victims to make them send him sexually explicit photos of themselves or expose themselves on a webcam.
The indictment stems from an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice and ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Michael Van Culin, 31, of Monroeville, N.J., allegedly obtained sexually explicit photos or videos of four girls: three who were 14 to 16 years old at the time of the alleged conduct and one who was 17.
He allegedly attempted to blackmail a fifth girl into sending him sexually explicit photos, but she did not comply. Van Culin would contact and befriend teenage girls on the Internet using popular social media sites or chat rooms, usually presenting himself as a teenage boy. He allegedly obtained nude photos of the victims or sensitive personal information about them through those chats or, in several cases, by hacking into their email or social media accounts. He then allegedly threatened to release the photos or personal information about the victims on the Internet or expose them to their parents, a boyfriend or their schoolmates if they did not meet his demands. He allegedly ordered the girls to send him explicit photos of themselves or strip on a webcam and engage in sexual conduct, which he recorded.
Van Culin was indicted Friday, Sept. 18. He is charged under the state's strict new child pornography law with first-degree manufacturing child pornography, which carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison, 85 percent of which must be served without parole. The girls Van Culin allegedly blackmailed or, in one case, attempted to blackmail, lived in Canada, Arizona, Philadelphia, Maryland and Seattle.
"Van Culin allegedly was a parent's worst nightmare: a predator who stalked young girls on the Internet, exploiting his victims' vulnerabilities and fears to force them to comply with his deviant demands," said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. "In some cases, Van Culin allegedly targeted victims who were hundreds of miles away, but the distance did not in any way diminish the terrible emotional harm he inflicted. He rightfully faces a very lengthy prison sentence if convicted."
"The Internet is often referred to as a virtual world, but the dangers children face from online predators are all too real, as this case illustrates," said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. "We'll continue to work with our state and federal partners, marshaling our expertise to patrol the Internet and catch offenders like Van Culin, who we allege sexually exploited innocent teenage girls."
"The use of social media, apps and other platforms as grooming tools by child sexual predators represents a growing threat," said Kevin Kelly, Acting Special Agent in Charge of HSI Newark. "This threat is one that, with the cooperation of our law enforcement partners in New Jersey, Homeland Security Investigations is meeting head on. HSI is fully committed to protecting the most vulnerable among our society."
Van Culin was charged in a 15-count state grand jury indictment obtained by the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau. He is charged with two counts of manufacturing child pornography (1st degree), one count of manufacturing child pornography (2nd degree), five counts of extortion (2nd degree), one count of computer theft by altering computer data (2nd degree), four counts of computer theft by unauthorized access (3rd degree), one count of distribution of child pornography (2nd degree) for allegedly distributing pornographic images to another person, and one count of possession of child pornography (3rd degree). He also is charged with hacking into email and online accounts of two additional victims, a teenage girl and the boyfriend of one of the alleged extortion victims.
Van Culin was arrested on Feb. 10, 2014 as part of "Operation Predator Alert," a joint operation by the Division of Criminal Justice and ICE Homeland Security Investigations. A total of 28 individuals were arrested in Operation Predator Alert, in two separate sweeps, for allegedly using a file-sharing network to download and distribute child pornography, including child rape videos, on the Internet.
At the time of Van Culin's arrest, he was charged in connection with the Canadian victim, who was 16 years old at the time of the alleged criminal conduct. Van Culin allegedly coerced the girl into stripping naked on her webcam while he recorded her remotely with his computer. He previously engaged in online chats with her in which he elicited information about her life that he allegedly used to hack into her email account and get other personal information, including email addresses for her family and friends. He had password decoding software on his computer that generates likely passwords for a person from basic information such as the person's name, date of birth, favorite sports, and names of pets and siblings. It is alleged that Van Culin ultimately blackmailed the girl by threatening to expose personal information about her to her family using the contact information from her email account. Van Culin's computer allegedly contained a video of the visibly shaken girl completely disrobing in front of a mirror under his orders.
Further investigation by ICE Homeland Security Investigations, the Division of Criminal Justice and partnering agencies in the various jurisdictions involved led to the discovery of additional victims and the new charges against Van Culin.
Deputy Attorney General Lilianne M. Daniel presented the case to the state grand jury for the Division of Criminal Justice Financial & Computer Crimes Bureau. The investigation was conducted by Detective Richard DaSilva Jr., Detective Sgt. Thomas Turley and Deputy Attorney General Daniel, under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General Michael A. Monahan, who is Bureau Chief, Deputy Attorney General Veronica Allende, Deputy Bureau Chief, former Deputy Bureau Chief Kenneth Sharpe, Lt. Lisa A. Shea and Deputy Chief of Detectives William Fredrick.
Acting Attorney General Hoffman commended the special agents of the ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Cherry Hill and Newark Offices who conducted the investigation, particularly Special Agents Gady Bishop, Kimberlee Gautier and Joseph Hiles. Acting Attorney General Hoffman also acknowledged the valuable assistance of members of the New Jersey State Police; detective constables in Ontario, Canada; special agents of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in Tucson, Ariz.; the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Maryland; and the Seattle Police Department.
The first-degree counts of manufacturing child pornography carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison, including a mandatory minimum term of parole ineligibility equal to 85 percent of the sentence imposed, and a fine of up to $500,000. Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000, while third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
The indictment is merely an accusation and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The indictment is posted with this press release at www.njpublicsafety.com.
The indictment was handed up to Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson in Mercer County, who assigned the case to Salem County, where Van Culin will be ordered to appear in court at a later date for arraignment on the charges. Van Culin currently is free on $100,000 bail, but the state will request that his bail be increased in light of the new charges.