September 27, 2008 in City

Cleared firefighter plans suit over child porn arrest

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Chism
(Full-size photo)

Todd Chism’s life changed on the January day the Washington State Patrol arrested him and accused him of possessing child pornography.

A credit card number linked the Spokane Fire Department lieutenant to a Yahoo account used to download hundreds of explicit digital images.

Chism spent the night in jail. His family suffered; the parents of some his children’s friends wouldn’t let their kids visit the Chisms’ home.

Four months later, the state police announced that Chism was innocent. But the Chisms say it was too late.

“This still affects us daily. It caused severe damage,” Todd Chism said Friday. “We’re doing our best to deal with it. But it has been very difficult.”

He plans to file suit for false arrest, and he’s considering other options.

The Washington State Patrol stands by its investigation. “In good faith, our detectives believe they did the right thing,” said spokesman Capt. Jeff DeVere. “Nobody wants us to not do anything, or let children be victims.”

But a forensic expert and former federal agent hired by Chism’s attorney reviewed the case and concluded the evidence used to arrest Chism and search his home was practically nonexistent.

The WSP’s investigation was “insufficient for a search warrant, let alone an arrest warrant,” said Marcus Lawson, now president of Global CompuSearch.

Lawson’s sworn affidavit was originally sealed when filed in Thurston County on March 4. Chism’s attorney, Carl Oreskovich, recently released 1,371 pages of the WSP’s investigation records to The Spokesman-Review. Citing privacy concerns, some details of the investigation were withheld.

The case first went to the WSP’s Missing and Exploited Children Unit on a “cybertip,” which gave a Yahoo e-mail account associated with downloading hundreds of digital images of child pornography. At that point, the WSP unit tried to match the account with a name.

It was determined that Todd and Nicole Chism’s credit card had been used in connection with one of the IP (Internet protocol) addresses associated with the Yahoo e-mail, “but they couldn’t definitively link the porn to the Chisms’ computer or home address or anywhere,” DeVere said.

Investigators focused on four credit card numbers associated with the same Bank of America account belonging to the Chisms. They checked each to see if any fraud activity had been reported. Detectives found that fraudulent activity had been reported on three of those account numbers, but not the fourth – the one used to buy the porn. The investigative file includes a letter from Bank of America confirming that a fraud complaint had been made for the fourth number in August 2007, but WSP detectives did not receive the letter until after Chism’s arrest, DeVere said.

With the credit card information and an account under the name “Mr. Nicole Chism,” a Thurston County judge signed arrest and search warrants. Still, nothing linked the child pornography to Todd Chism’s computer.

“When you have this type of crime, where time is of the essence for evidence destruction, we have to do everything we can for the safety of children and people,” DeVere said.

“We are going to investigate that crime very vigorously to make sure that children are not exploited.”

Asked if detectives would take the same steps again, DeVere said: “Every situation is different. One option is to consider doing a knock and talk, and ask if he’ll voluntarily let us see at his stuff (computers and electronics).”

The WSP has not conducted an internal affairs investigation of the handling of the Chism case, DeVere said.

A sergeant in the patrol’s Missing and Exploited Children’s Unit was removed shortly after the investigation began. DeVere said that was because the sergeant, John Sager, had failed to take safety precautions while serving search warrants and had not notified local agencies when the unit would be making an arrest.

DeVere maintains no mistakes were made. “Now it comes down to what is considered probable cause. Everybody’s sorry that they had to go through this. But WSP isn’t sorry for doing its job, which is to investigate these cases.”


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