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A central player in the prosecution of an East Bay doctor arrested in a televised sex-predator sting in Petaluma has been ordered to appear before a Sonoma County judge to explain how crucial data on his computer apparently was lost.
Computer chat logs reflecting sexually tinged online conversations gathered by a decoy affiliated a vigilante group are key to the prosecution of Dr. Maurice Wolin, 51, of Piedmont.
Wolin, along with 28 others, was arrested in August 2006 during a three-day sting law enforcement conducted in partnership with a group called Perverted Justice and the NBC TV show “To Catch a Predator.”
He is challenging the authenticity of the online chats police say he engaged in with the decoy, Xavier Von Erck, a founder of the online group. Von Erck and other online decoys posed as young teens who arranged to meet adult men ostensibly for sex.
Von Erck, who calls members of his group “evil vigilantes,” testified that the chats were saved on his home computer hard drive. But after a judge late last year ordered that mirror images of the hard drive be turned over to defense attorneys, Von Erck told prosecutors his hard drive had crashed in February 2007 and the data was irretrievably lost.
But, he said, he had copied the chat logs to a portable hard drive before the crash.
Von Erck told prosecutors he had a friend, a technician at Radio Shack, examine the hard drive, prosecutor Brian Staebell said, and that the friend determined it was beyond repair.
Wolin’s defense attorney, Blair Berk of Los Angeles, characterizes Von Erck’s explanation as “highly suspicious.”
“To date, no legally sufficient evidence of Mr. Von Erck’s claim has been presented to this court,” Judge Arthur Andy Wick wrote in an order made public this week.
Von Erck didn’t mention the crash during his testimony at Wolin’s lengthy preliminary hearing in September 2007.
Staebell said Von Erck only recently notified his investigators of the crash. He said the chats were also preserved on Perverted Justice’s main proxy server at a remote location.
Wick tentatively ruled last month that prosecutors needed to provide a fuller explanation of Von Erck’s claim and the current status of the hard drive. On Tuesday he issued a more specific, written ruling.
Wick ordered that Von Erck appear before the court on June 15 and bring with him his computer hard drive “in whatever condition it is in.”
He also said he wants answers to the following questions, among others:
Can a copy of the hard drive be made? Can any information be retrieved from it? When did Von Erck copy the chats onto a thumb drive? How was the thumb drive created and from what hard drive?
Wick said he also wants explanations of how the proxy server recorded the chats and whether the recordings were independent from Von Erck’s computer. He has expressed concern about the logs’ reliability and their chain of custody.
Staebell has said Wolin’s attorneys are overstating the importance of the chats and Von Erck’s hard drive. He said all the relevant files were preserved before the crash.
Wolin’s attorneys have questioned the timing of the crash and Von Erck’s motives and truthfulness. Perverted Justice was paid $140,000 for the Petaluma sting and Von Erck takes a $125,000 salary from Perverted Justice.
Petaluma police, who organized the sting with the online group, accepted Perverted Justice’s civilian decoys, who aren’t trained or monitored by police, and allowed NBC to rent the house and provide all the audio and video equipment for the operation.
Several of the men arrested have pleaded guilty or no contest to a variety of charges, ranging from annoying a minor to attempted lewd conduct with a child. Other cases are pending.
Some have been sentenced to probation and others to jail. All have been required to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
Wolin, who has pleaded not guilty, faces a potential four-year prison term if convicted of a felony charge of attempted lewd conduct. His medical license has been suspended pending the prosecution.
Wolin has been free on bail since shortly after his arrest.
Tags: sex, sexual, offender, issues, tcap, to catch a predator, perverted justice, california, online sting,
Location: Petaluma, California, United States (load item map)
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