27 News Special Report: Operation Fail? - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

27 News Special Report: Operation Fail?

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MADISON (WKOW) -- It was a headline worthy story splashed across evening newscasts around Wisconsin in March of 2013 - an internet child sex sting that led to the arrest of 17 men statewide.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice's (DOJ) Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force conducted "Operation Black Veil" with the help of local law enforcement agencies.

Five of those arrests came in Dane County, but only one has resulted in a felony conviction for a child sex crime.

"Those cases fell out the way they did because of evidentiary issues," said Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.

Two cases were dismissed entirely.  Timothy Marking of DeForest faced felony counts of trafficking of a child and child enticement.  The criminal complaint against Marking states that he responded to a Craigslist ad for "young girls looking for a good time" and eventually set up to meet who he thought was a 14 year-old girl for a sexual encounter in a Menards parking lot in east Madison.

Instead, Marking met state agents from the DOJ's Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI).  The agents confronted Marking and arrested him.

But on October 14, 2013, Dane County Judge William Hanrahan dismissed the case, after DCI agents repeatedly failed to turn over a video of Marking's arrest to his defense attorney.  As it turned out, the agents lost the video and couldn't find it.

"In those instances where you have an evidence issue, the penalty comes to the state.  So, if we can't meet our burden, of course, we can't prosecute," said Ozanne. 

It was Ozanne's own prosecutor who asked for Marc Marion's case to be dismissed.  The DA's office had concerns because the photo used by DCI agents to lure Marion online was that of an adult, not a person under the age of 18.  They felt a jury would never convict under those circumstances.

"Learning experiences do come along, especially when you're working in new areas of the law.  There are going to be growing pains and there have been some growing pains," explained Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen. 

But the growing pains didn't end there for Van Hollen's top investigators.  Two other men charged with felony child sex crimes ultimately accepted plea deals to misdemeanors.

Timothy Belz, originally charged with a felony count of using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime, accepted a plea to a misdemeanor of sending a computer message to threaten an obscenity.

Court records show that when DCI agents attempted to record a phone conversation between Belz and and someone pretending to be a 15 year-old girl, they either failed to operate the device properly or had it malfunction.  The evidence was never captured.

A fourth defendant, Charles Zimmerman, accepted a plea deal to a charge of soliciting a prostitute after originally facing a charge of trafficking of a child.

Once again, agents with DCI botched evidence, failing to properly operate a video camera when they arrested Zimmerman at a Madison grocery store.  Investigators say Zimmerman went there to meet an underage girl.

At Zimmerman's December 12th sentencing, Assistant Dane County District Attorney Corey Stephan explained to Judge William Hanrahan how that gaffe played into the state offering a reduced charge.

"Its my experience that when jury's look at a case, particularly a difficult case, and there is evidence that's missing either because of technical problems or other reasons, I think that they tend to hold it against the government," said Stephan.

It was a very different story outside of Dane County, where 10 Operation Black Veil defendants either pleaded guilty to child sex crimes or are currently awaiting trial.

"Until now, I didn't know a difference existed," Van Hollen told 27 News when made aware of the discrepancy.  "It can be a difference in prosecutorial discretion." 

But Ozanne says it was merely due to a lack of evidence.

"And I think the public expects and deserves law enforcement to be trained to use technology wherever possible, because that is gonna give us the ability to keep people safer and actually help protect children," said Ozanne.

Last Friday, Ozanne's office re-filed the same felony charges against Timothy Marking.  Those charges came just one day after 27 News began promoting this special report, but Ozanne would not comment on the specific timing of the charges being re-filed.

27 News has asked the Department of Justice exactly how much money was spent on Operation Black Veil sting, but we have yet to receive a response.

Attorney general J. B. Van Hollen says regardless of the failures in the Dane County cases, he still believes Wisconsin's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force is a model for the nation.
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