Former Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith had a “very large amount” of images depicting child sexual abuse in his possession and was downloading more when investigators searched his home Thursday afternoon, according to court documents filed Friday.
Smith, 73, served as executive editor of The Spokesman-Review from 2002 to 2008 and taught journalism ethics at the University of Idaho for about a decade until 2020.
He was arrested by Washington State Patrol detectives Thursday on 10 counts of first-degree possession of depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Investigators indicated more charges are likely.
He made his first court appearance Friday afternoon in a yellow Spokane County Jail jumpsuit. He was represented by a public defender and was ordered held on $25,000 bond by Spokane County Superior Court Commissioner John Stine.
Homeland Security investigators were looking into children using social media to send sexually explicit photos of themselves in exchange for money sent via CashApp, according to court documents. Smith became tied to the investigation through a CashApp account registered in his name.
In March, a federal search warrant pertaining to child pornography in the Western District of Kentucky helped investigators obtain information on two Instagram accounts used by the children, according to court documents.
A spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations said in an email Friday he could not comment on the status of the Kentucky investigation or whether it resulted in criminal charges elsewhere.
“As a matter of policy, HSI does not confirm the existence of or otherwise comment about ongoing investigations,” David Yost, a public information officer with Homeland Security Investigations, wrote in an email.
The girls, ages 10, 11 and 14, sent images to an account with the handle @hermiesays. The victims shared approximately 30 sexually explicit videos with the account from April 12, 2022, through Jan. 6, 2023, according to court documents.
The same month the CashApp payments for sexually explicit content began, Smith petitioned Spokane courts to reduce his alimony as part of a divorce with an ex-wife finalized in 2010. In that April 1, 2022, filing, Smith said he could no longer afford the payments.
“Now he is retired, and his health care costs are increasing, and he cannot afford to continue to pay spousal support,” the filing reads. The payments for sexually explicit content began three weeks later, according to investigators.
In March, investigators received the children’s CashApp records and were able to link the @hermiesays account to a CashApp account belonging to Smith. The CashApp account included Smith’s name and address, along with an email address of firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Instagram account, which remained online Friday afternoon, has no posts but follows thousands of accounts, most of which are pornographic in nature.
Investigators then linked the accounts’ use to two IP addresses linked to Smith’s Spokane home. IP addresses are sets of numbers that identify locations of information on the internet.
After reviewing the chat conversations between @hermiesays and the children, investigators say in court documents it was clear Smith knew the girls’ ages while communicating with and purchasing sexually explicit videos and photos from them.
Investigators searched Smith’s home on Thursday.
When a detective asked Smith whether he knew why they were there with a search warrant, Smith replied, “Yes, it’s probably from what I have been downloading,” according to court documents.
The detective then stopped Smith from saying anything further, turned on his body camera and read Smith his rights. Smith invoked his rights following the official reading.
He declined a jail interview with The Spokesman-Review Thursday evening.
While searching Smith’s home, investigators found a laptop in the process of downloading a file containing child sexual abuse material, according to court documents.
They also located an unlocked tablet with multiple active chat threads with people named “Kitty,” “femme fatale” and “Bella Bellissima.”
It appeared Smith had been chatting with these people when officers knocked on his door to serve the search warrant, according to WSP.
Investigators seized various electronic devices from Smith’s home and had not completed a full forensic review at the time of the court filing.
A preliminary review indicated a “very large amount” of sexually explicit images of children, according to court records.
Some of the images found on Smith’s devices were of girls, estimated to be as young as 5, being assaulted by adult men, according to court documents.
Smith’s wife, Carla Savalli, told investigators she had no knowledge of the illegal activity and didn’t have access to his devices. Savalli previously held various editor roles at The Spokesman-Review. She declined to comment on her husband’s arrest Thursday evening.
In 2007, with Smith at the helm, The Spokesman-Review published a monthslong series about child neglect and abuse called “Our Kids: Our Business.” The newspaper partnered with other media and social service agencies as part of the project. The next year, Smith and Savalli accepted an award in Washington, D.C., from Child Welfare League of America for the series, and the newspaper continued work on the project for several more years.
In 2005, the newspaper published an investigative report that led to the recall of then-Spokane Mayor Jim West over allegations that he used the trapping of public office to entice young men into sexual relationships while simultaneously working against gay rights.
The newspaper used a forensics expert to pose online as a gay Ferris High School student who flirted with West online. The newspaper’s methods were controversial and the subject of national news coverage.
In a subsequent examination of the West reporting by the PBS program “Frontline,” Smith defended the paper’s work and was critical of West’s decision to meet with a 20-year-old man for sex.
“It just didn’t track for me that the mayor would be doing something so, frankly, stupid,” Smith said in that interview, which aired in November 2006.
Smith was also asked how he felt about the effect of the paper’s reporting on West’s career.
“I have more sympathy for the young men that I believe he sexually abused,” Smith said. “I have enormous sympathy for young gay men in our community who I believe were stalked and victimized by a sexual predator, whether or not they were of age.”
Smith left the newspaper in 2008, resigning as part of a round of employee layoffs.
“It’s painful to have to break a story like this, especially when it involves a former colleague with a long and distinguished record,” Spokesman-Review Publisher W. Stacey Cowles said in a statement. “But whatever the facts and whatever our sympathies for those involved, our job as a news organization is to cover what we know when we know it. Addiction, pornography and unrestricted access to the internet for children are issues many families face; our sympathy goes out to all of those affected.”
After leaving The Spokesman-Review, Smith served as a journalism clinical associate professor at the University of Idaho, specializing in teaching journalism ethics. He retired in 2020.
The nonprofit news organization FāVS News, which has employed Smith as a columnist since 2020 and recently named him managing editor, announced Friday that it was severing its relationship with him indefinitely.
“In light of recent events, FāVS News has suspended its relationship with Steve Smith as managing editor and columnist, pending further developments,” the organization wrote on Twitter.
In a January column for the publication called “The Evil Men Do,” Smith shared that he had been sexually abused when he was 5 or 6 years old by an older boy.
“People are resilient, especially children. I buried the memories so deep they were lost for decades. But much later there were triggers, including stories of priest sexual abuse cases,” Smith wrote. “I never quite understood the rage I felt when directing coverage of such cases in Spokane as editor of the Spokesman-Review.”
Smith wrote that as an atheist, he blamed his abuser alone rather than a spiritual influence.
“Even the most devout, those who claim godliness and ‘deny’ Satan, can perpetrate the worst evils. Remember those priests,” he wrote.
At Smith’s first appearance Friday, prosecutors indicated that the victims in this case were confirmed to be real. Stine noted the underlying circumstances in this case were unique, and often when people are charged with possessing child sexual abuse material, the images are older and shared between adults, not directly from the children depicted.
“It appears Mr. Smith was purchasing pictures and videos in almost real time,” Stine said.
Smith’s public defender argued Smith has no criminal history and has a stable life in Spokane with a home and wife, making him unlikely to flee.
Ultimately, Stine settled on a $25,000 bond, less than the $100,000 requested by prosecutors. Smith’s arraignment is scheduled for Aug 1.
Reporter Kip Hill contributed to this story.