Graven Images

April Day is 25 years old and, on the phone at least, as perky as her name.

She enthusiastically describes how she's been a member of Zion Lutheran Church since she was born; her family has long been going to the 86-year-old church, which is tucked away in a northeast corner of Woodland Heights that has stubbornly eluded gentrification.

As a ten-year-old, she says, her spiritual life got a great gift with the arrival of a new pastor, Don Carlson.

"He's just a wonderful, wonderful person," she says. "He's taught me a lot."

Day has gone on youth trips with Carlson, as both a kid and a chaperoning adult. "He's awesome and good with kids -- he'll let them discover things on their own. He's very intellectual, very funny."

So it came as a shock when Day's mother called her while she was on spring break two years ago with this news: Carlson had been served with a search warrant, and federal officials had seized his computer. The warrant said that Carlson was using the Internet to traffic in child pornography.

"I just about fell on the floor," Day says.

The reports quickly spread throughout the 550-member congregation. Channel 11 was on the air with stories about the "Porno Pastor." It was a nightmare story -- a man they had entrusted with their kids and with their faith was being accused of the vilest of crimes.

"I just thought it was a really sick joke," says Peggy Fortner, who has served as president of the congregation.

It wasn't that Carlson had never made waves at the church -- the doctoral thesis he was working on, one that reflected an abiding passion, was devoted to teaching churches how to accept and encourage gay and lesbian teens.

That was a subject that some, especially older members of Zion, would just as soon not hear about. But Carlson almost relished battling that silence. He respected the hesitancy of some congregants but felt that benign willfulness not to deal with the issue caused Lutheran churches to unwittingly abandon troubled youths.

The congregational meeting after the warrant was served was tense. Lutherans are -- as listeners to Garrison Keillor's radio tales of Lake Wobegone know -- not the most demonstrative people. But some church members made clear that they were deeply troubled.

"I assume there are people in any situation like that who would jump to conclusions," says Jamie Keys, the church's president. "There's always going to be people who disagree."

"For some people, it was a question of what would people on the outside looking in say about all this," Fortner says.

But as the shock wore off, people at the meeting began to think less of just how awful the charges were and more of the man who was being charged.

"What was heard over and over again was "This is a good man; we're dealing with a situation that we don't know a lot about, but he's the man to lead us,' " Fortner says. "There was just a tremendous amount of trust, and it managed to cross the generational lines. There were older members of the congregation, people who'd been there 40 to 50 years, and they dearly love this man."

Carlson was put on administrative leave temporarily, and was soon restored full-time to his duties. "He's just a great man," Day says.

Great or not, Carlson is also a man who had 80 or so examples of child pornography on the computer seized by the government. And church members had to keep their faith even as federal agents eagerly showed them the sordid evidence in interviews.

Like a politician caught at a strip joint, Carlson -- through his lawyers -- says he was simply "doing research." Unlike the gentlemen's club patron, he may have a point.

His thesis proposal, filed with the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Minnesota a year before the search warrant was issued, clearly states that the Internet would be a key part of his work.

"The Internet can provide chat rooms where [gay teens] can meet other gay youth, make friends, and know that they are not alone; but it can also be a place where they meet people who aren't so very friendly," he wrote. "The Internet can be a sort of gay Playboy magazine for young inquiring eyes; but it can also deliver things that are even more obscene and degrading.I now believe that a major factor heightening the urgency for congregations to end their silence is the Internet."

Carlson's thesis proposal doesn't come out and say just what he would be doing on the Internet: posing as a gay youth in chat rooms. "But that's the only way he could find out what was happening to young gay people on the Internet," says Joel Androphy, one of Carlson's lawyers.

Androphy and his associate, Geoffrey Berg, say Carlson visited on-line chat rooms for gay youths and found precisely what he feared: adult men posing as kids, passing on photos of teens and preteens in sexual poses. "He was bombarded" with pictures even though he never asked for them, says Androphy.

Since the feds have a computer that has dozens and dozens of child porno pictures on it, they'd seem to have a pretty simple case of possession against Carlson. Many such cases quickly end in pleas, either from the defendant's shock at being exposed or his realization that jury sympathy isn't a good bet once the evidence gets passed around.

But even after seizing his computer, the feds took more than a year to indict Carlson. (They did it to great publicity during Holy Week, just days before Easter.) And almost two years after the indictment, there is no trial in sight.

Much of the delay can be blamed on someone else who was in the chat rooms with Carlson, a onetime New York cop named Harry Conners. He initiated the investigation against Carlson, and his decidedly offbeat character might result in the case against Carlson getting dropped.

Conners admits he became an Internet chat "addict" and posed as a gay teen. It's impossible to determine just what he's done on-line; when Carlson's lawyers subpoenaed Conners's computers, he discarded one he said was irrelevant to the case. He claims he ruined data on the other one when he accidentally dropped it on a sidewalk.

The only certainty, it appears, is that Conners and Carlson encountered each other in cyberspace's seamiest underside: chat rooms humming with explicit exchanges about sex, presumably among gay teens. Conners calls his time there "a fantasy, a game." Their secret sessions on the computer exploded into the criminal case with allegations by Conners that the reverend relayed unsolicited kiddie porn pictures to him.

Carlson the preacher insists his cloaked forays into the chat rooms were necessary evils, conducted in the legitimate quest of academic research. Whatever the motives by either man, Carlson no doubt desperately wishes he never came across Harry Conners in his exploration of the computer world. However, the government's bungling attempts to deal with Conners might be the best thing to ever happen to Carlson as he fights to clear his name.

Don Carlson is Lutheran through and through, born in Starbuck, Minnesota, 50 years ago, raised in that small town and pretty much destined for the church from the start. He got an undergraduate degree in biology and theology from Minnesota's Concordia University, and a master's in divinity from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in 1976.

He wanted from the beginning to focus on youths. He took an opportunity to work part-time as a pastor for a church in La Grange, Texas, and part-time in a Lutheran camping program. In 1985 he left La Grange for Zion Lutheran in Houston.

Zion is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the more liberal of the two Lutheran synods. It's more common in the South for Lutheran churches to be part of the Missouri Synod, which can be as conservative as any Southern Baptist church.

Evangelical Lutheran churches ordain women; Missouri Synod churches do not. Evangelical Lutherans have also -- perhaps gingerly -- tried to deal with controversies such as gay pastors and gay youths.

In many ways, Carlson has been at the cutting edge of the latter.

"This is an issue that we are sorting through as a national church," he says. "We always talk about it like it's an issue that's "out there' or that gays and lesbians are all adults. What we need to realize is that if we have a 50-member youth group in our congregation, statistics show that at least five of those will be gay or lesbian. The damage that the silence does on this subject is incredible."

Carlson has told congregants who ask that yes, he's gay, but he is guarded about it in an interview, still aware that some of his congregants would rather not hear about it. "As a church we are sorting though this issue, and in an effort to help them sort through it at their own speed and on their own terms, I consider my sexual orientation a private matter," Carlson says.

Still, he has kept his congregation informed about his work with HATCH, the Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals, where he was a co-director for a time with Peter Poit.

"He was extremely well liked by the kids," Poit says. "He gave them a role model, and he knew where to put limits on them. You've got to give kids limits and goals, and he did that."

Carlson also kept church members informed about his doctoral thesis, in which he was establishing a curriculum "that would both sensitize congregations to the needs of these [gay and lesbian] youths and enable congregations to minister to them in an affirming and helpful manner."

Carlson is a circumspect man. Anyone being interviewed in his lawyer's office -- with the attorney sitting nearby, ready to pounce if talk drifts to the facts of the case -- would probably be just as wary. But even while lecturing to congregants on something potentially as controversial as helping gay youths, Carlson's delivery is pretty much a monotone.

"You're not going to get a fire-and-brimstone sermon from him," says Fortner, the past church president. "His classes are almost a conversation with you; it's not a lecture, it's "Let's take this journey together.' If you're looking for emoting and elaborate hand gestures and raising your voice, that's not him."

It's certainly not him, even as he talks about what his life has been like since the search warrant and the TV cameras came down on him in March 1998.

"After the initial shock wore off, I was really devastated," he says calmly. "There was deep depression for a while. But I had a lot of good friends who kind of stuck with me; in some ways the initial time was the worst of times and the best of times. But people rallied around me -- I got tons of cards and a lot of support.

"It was a humiliating experience to go through, but one of the great things was when I was indicted and appeared in court and the courtroom was filled with congregational members and fellow clergy. There wasn't enough room in Judge [Calvin] Botley's court. That was edifying, to see people believed in me and what I was doing."

Edifying? Carlson is obviously a guy who carefully screens his words. There must be pain and frustration, but he keeps a lid on it. "This is something that will be with me the rest of my life," he says. "But it isn't the easy times that help you grow, it's the difficult times."

Carlson's attorneys told him not to talk about the specifics of the case because of some intriguing nuances. Androphy believes he has a very good chance of getting the initial search warrant thrown out because it has fatal defects relating to Conners's veracity. If the judge throws the warrant out, the government can't use as evidence any pictures that were stored on the computer that was seized during the search.

If that happens, the only way the government could make a case -- in the unlikely event it decided to proceed -- would be to use statements Carlson might make to reporters, or his congregation, explaining that the pictures showed up on his computer only as part of his research.

"Defendant Carlson has confessed to several witnesses that he did, in fact, knowingly possess illegal child pornography," a prosecution court document says. "The government also has credible and sworn evidence that defendant Carlson further offered to confess his guilt again to the entire congregation of Zion Lutheran Church, but was talked out of it by members of his church council at a private church council meeting."

The government hasn't turned over such evidence to the defense, Androphy says, and procedural rules would have required it to do so by now.

"Carlson may have told people that he received some pictures after going on-line to do research, but did he "confess to an Internet crime'? Never," Androphy says.

Prosecutors say they will show that Carlson not only received pornographic pictures of children but passed at least two such photos on to Conners. Androphy and Berg deny that happened, saying Carlson was only one of several recipients of a large e-mailing of pictures that, at least by him, were not requested. No doubt road-testing potential jury arguments, they say that if Carlson responded to the message -- even to say, "Don't send any more of this" -- he could have inadvertently sent the photo that was attached to the initial message.

At most, though, the evidence in the case shows only four -- and probably just two -- such pictures were ever sent from Carlson's computer, according to what Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Schultz told U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes in a hearing earlier this year. But the prosecutor's grasp of the on-line world seemed shaky at the hearing -- he said that e-mail address headers that had been printed out by Conners showed he received two pictures from Carlson; as far as the other two pictures, Schultz said they were "intercepted" by Conners when he saw Carlson sending them to other chat room members.

Such an "interception" is impossible, the judge and defense lawyers said; Schultz then said Conners had simply seen e-mail headers of photo attachments sent by Carlson that described kiddie porn. The actual number of photos Carlson is alleged to have sent has not been made clear.

Whether two or four, the number of pictures allegedly sent -- even the 80 or so pictures found on the hard drive -- is not especially large, in terms of child-pornography arrests. Newspapers regularly report the prosecution of kiddie-porn aficionados whose computers are packed with hundreds and hundreds, even thousands, of images that were sent or received from around the world.

When it comes to pornography involving eight-year-old boys and girls performing sex acts, of course, a zero-tolerance policy would seem a no-brainer. But Carlson's lawyers argue that they could send anyone an e-mail with an illegal photo attached -- even dozens of such e-mails -- and if the photos are opened, the recipient would be guilty of possession and the evidence would remain on his hard drive.

The warrant for Carlson's hard drive also listed other items that the government said are typically found in the home or office of a user of child pornography, such as an abundance of catalogs, magazines or legitimate books that show kids posing. None of that was found, meaning there's no "secondary evidence" to build a case against Carlson.

So the case depends almost completely on getting Carlson's hard drive, and the photos on it, into evidence. If that happens, Androphy and Berg could argue that the photos were sent unsolicited to Carlson because he was in the chat rooms doing research. Even with a courtroom filled with character witnesses, though, it might be difficult to convince a jury to issue a verdict of not guilty after they see pictures of "minor male children engaged in explicit sex acts with adults," as government documents describe the evidence.

So the pretrial wrangling is focused on the search warrant. And that means the wrangling is focused on Harry Conners.

In a video taken during a two-day deposition earlier this year, the 57-year-old Conners acts and talks just like you'd expect a second-generation NYPD cop to act and talk: A short bulldog of a guy, he's gruff and confident. It's what he's saying that's unusual.

During his high school days, Conners realized he was gay. His parents "freaked," he says, and sent him to a psychiatrist.

That didn't last long, because Conners wasn't too tormented. "You know," he says, the psychiatrist "just talked to me about it and wanted to make sure that I was comfortable with it, and I was."

He spent some time in the Army Reserve, then decided to follow his father onto the force.

He quit after five months. "I was very, very uncomfortable in that job.I was really afraid that, you know, I was going to be caught in a gay bar, which would have cost me my job, would have embarrassed my father, although he knew.They were raiding bars. There was a lot of entrapment going on."

Since then, he's had a series of bookkeeping-type jobs, making a middle-class salary. He lives, though, in a multimillion-dollar flat on Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, as a platonic roommate with a male anesthesiologist.

Conners says he has mentored gay kids he met hanging around Washington Square Park, in some cases taking them home to live with him for months at a time. While there is no sexual contact, he insists -- the only time there was, the guy was not a minor -- the youths can hang in a room in his house that features a wet bar and several computers. (He lets them drink beer, Conners says; he takes the Fifth Amendment when asked if he lets them smoke dope.)

Computers came to play a huge part in Conners's life. By his own admission, he became addicted to on-line chatting. "There was a period of time where every waking moment that I wasn't working, I was in the chat room or online," he testified in the deposition.

A lot of that on-line chat was about sports, but some of it was spent in chat rooms with names like "M4MBarelyLegal," where many of the chatters claimed to be teens.

"Some of them would pretend to be 14, 15. I never believed that for a second," Conners says. It was "a bunch of older guys pretending to be younger guys." Conners did likewise. Among the pseudonyms he used was "Rarkins," whose profile showed he was 17, whose hobbies were "drinking and smoking pot while my balls get sucked," and whose "personal quote" was "Do me."

"It was a game," he testified.

In September 1997 he had a chat with "JakeFL980," who claimed to be 16. The two talked of guys they might have sex with:

"Who else are you going to suck?" Jake asked.

"Maybe a kid from school that I j/o [masturbate] with," Conners replied under a pseudonym.

The action gets hot and heavy, as a porn site no doubt would say, with the two correspondents describing how they're currently masturbating.

"Wish I could see you while you jerk it," Jake writes.

"I want 2 rub your ass and suck u off," Conners replies to the erstwhile teen, "and hold your ass in my hands and have you face-fuck me."

The conversation ends with Conners going, "AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH" and Jake replying, "uuuuuuuuuuuuggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhh," which demonstrates at least the ability to multitask, if they were doing what they claimed they were doing. (Conners says he wasn't doing anything but typing; he also says he later tape-recorded a phone conversation with Jake "and he's clearly an adult.")

Conners continued to haunt the chat rooms, and says he eventually hooked up with someone named "Gymkidd16." Conners didn't save a transcript of their chat or e-mails, but he says sometime in October 1997 Gymkidd sent him a photo that included a boy who "was shockingly young," maybe ten years old. Gymkidd was a pseudonym Carlson used, the government says.

Conners says he contacted the San Antonio Police Department, because Gymkidd's profile indicated he was from that area. He also called the FBI.

"I called these people because I didn't want to be in a position where I could become a defendant because I was -- had in my hard drive these pictures," he says.

The case went to the Customs Service, which has jurisdiction over child-pornography investigations.

Customs Agent Nadia Smith worked with Conners in New York; Conners said she told him to troll for more pictures -- he couldn't ask for them, but simply say something like "I liked those pictures you sent." For five weeks, he says, Smith came over to his apartment once a week and downloaded pictures and information she believed could result in a prosecution.

"I wasn't looking to be junior G-man," Conners told Carlson's lawyers in the deposition. "I was fearful that I was going to be in the same boat with your client, and I had these kiddie porn pictures in my computer."

Just what Conners might have had on his computer -- an electronic record of who else he was chatting with, what he was asking for, what kind of pictures he downloaded -- is apparently never going to be known.

Androphy and Berg subpoenaed Conners's hard drive. Conners called the American Civil Liberties Union, he called his lawyer, he even called Judge Hughes -- but he was ordered to turn it over to the court.

He had a 15-year-old friend take out the hard drive, he testified. But then -- darn the luck -- the hard drive got damaged.

"Between the two of you," he testified, "the defense, with whatever funds you have available, and the government, with unlimited funds, neither one of you could send a computer expert to my house and retrieve the hard drive in a professional manner.So there I go, jackassing my way down Tenth Street with a [computer] tower in one hand and a hard drive in the other. And the tower became heavy. And I went to switch hands, and I dropped the hard drive. I don't know what is so unbelievable about that."

All but 15 percent of the data on the hard drive was lost. Conners had kept another computer in the back room, one he said was used mostly by the kids who visited. But he said he threw it out -- even after receiving the subpoena -- because its modem broke and nothing on its hard drive was relevant to the case.

"And this is the guy who's supposed to be "credible and reliable,' " says Androphy.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Schultz says of Conners: "There's nothing wrong with the guy. He moves in a different world, that's for sure, but I don't find anything he said in the deposition to be particularly troubling."

There's another twist to the mystery of Conners's computer, though. Androphy says he has been told by prosecutors that Smith, the Customs agent, is now saying she downloaded no information from Conners's computer. Conners, of course, said Smith spent an hour or two each week doing just that.

"Either the government's lying or Conners is lying," Androphy says.

If Conners was working for the government as a "confidential informant," then the government would have to tell a judge Conners was credible and reliable before the judge could issue a search warrant.

The warrant used to seize Carlson's computer did not include such language. The government says Conners was not acting as an informant, but as a "walk-in witness" whose credibility need not be established. The government eventually paid Conners $200 for his trouble, but that was after the search warrant against Carlson was issued.

Prosecutors may have trouble winning their argument, however, if an August 2 hearing before Judge Hughes is any indication.

Hughes is perhaps the toughest federal judge in Houston when it comes to holding the feds' feet to the fire in prosecutions, and he indicated he was having trouble accepting Conners as an innocent bystander.

"Well, as Your Honor knows," Schultz argued, "the reliability of a witness to a crime is not required in the affidavit [supporting the search warrant].The witness to a crime is always deemed reliable and that is what Mr. Conners was in this case."

"No, he wasn't," Hughes said. "He was a hired assistant to the government.[H]e is not somebody who happened to be walking home from work one day and saw somebody steal a car."

"He didn't come to the government as a witness," Androphy says. "He came in to try to stop himself from getting into trouble."

Hughes has yet to rule on the defense motion to throw out the search warrant. If he decides that the computer photos cannot be entered into evidence, the case likely will be dropped. If he allows them in, Androphy and Berg will argue that Carlson was doing legitimate research in the chat rooms.

"At no time did Pastor Carlson deal in child pornography out of any prurient interest or for personal satisfaction," the lawyers argue in court documents. "To the extent that Pastor Carlson endeavored to explore the Internet, he did so as part of his duty as a minister and in connection with his dissertation. The church has a deep, abiding interest in knowing what kind of information is available to children, including (and perhaps particularly) the unsavory material sometimes found on the Internet."

It's a First Amendment argument: The government, they claim, is trying to punish Carlson for "engaging in activity undertaken -- literally -- as part of his assignment, both as a minister and as a doctoral candidate at a religious institution."

Case law also allows scholars to possess such material if they are performing legitimate research, Androphy says, and he feels confident that he could convince a jury of that.

But what he, Carlson and the congregation want most fervently is for all this to be over.

The members of the congregation have decided they believe Carlson, they trust him, and they do not find him capable of being a child pornographer. (There's been no evidence or claims of child molestation; in fact, Hughes has approved requests for Carlson to continue taking kids on camping trips.)

The ordeal has tested the congregants, however. Several have complained about their treatment by investigators. Fortner and Keys, the former and current congregation presidents, filed affidavits saying they felt intimidated and pressured by federal agents interrogating them.

"My personal feeling was that this was beyond the realm of "Tell us what you know,' and instead it was "We'll keep badgering you until you tell us what we want to hear,' " Fortner says.

Agents say they showed congregants a collection of seized photos to see if church members could identify any of the children. Hughes questioned why they needed to show the entire photos and not just the faces.

"They were trying to turn the church against him, put pressure on him to plead," Androphy says.

"They were trying to separate me from the herd, so to speak," Carlson says. "They were spreading false rumors, trying to create the illusion there was something going on that wasn't. They'd interview congregants and say, "How do you think he can afford that big house he has on a pastor's salary?' It was really hard-core intimidation by federal officers."

In court documents, Schultz says all meetings with witnesses were cordial, but professional. "There was no yelling or shouting. No witness was at any time threatened" or "intimidated," he wrote.

He wrote that "all witnesses were specifically told, on several occasions, that the only information the government was interested in was the truth, regardless of whether the truth was helpful to the government's case or hurtful to the government's case."

Some witnesses have made inconsistent and conflicting statements about whether Carlson confessed to the church council, Schultz said. The government "was and is concerned that the statements of certain of those witnesses may rise to the level of false statements to federal agents."

Androphy scoffs at that claim. He insists the government was frantically scrambling to find another way to make its case after seeing the vigorous challenge to the search warrant.

"Customs expects these cases to go their way," he says. "They play by their own rules, and they don't get many people investigating these cases" for the defense, "because of a lack of resources or because the defendant doesn't want the publicity. Customs just wants to gather enough information any way they can to make you cringe and enter a plea, and they never have to deal with the truth."

Carlson, of course, says he has no intention of pleading guilty or slinking away. He has all but finished his doctoral project, and he has no plans to back away from his efforts to help gay and lesbian youths.

If the congregation, and Carlson's lawyers, are correct -- that this is a good man caught up in a humiliating ordeal that will scar him for life -- then the "Porno Pastor" is indeed a victim.

But he'll survive. And he's not the most aggrieved victim in the case.

There are 80 or so pictures in a file that show the real victims. Those dead-eyed children, posing or engaging in atrocious acts, have lost more than Carlson has. And they will never recover.


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