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Published April 11 2012

Wahpeton man to be sentenced in child porn case

FARGO – Federal prosecutors are seeking the harshest possible penalty for a Wahpeton man who will be sentenced today for possessing and receiving hundreds of images of child pornography.

Prosecutors say Benjamin Joseph Hager, 38, exhibits a “dangerous sexual interest in children,” proved by a record of disturbing acts that go far beyond the crimes he’ll be sentenced for.

When Hager was charged in Fargo’s U.S. District Court in February 2011, investigators were originally aware of two instances in 2009 when Hager had engaged in conversations of a sexual nature with underage girls he met online. Those girls, ages 13 and 14, were from Watertown, S.D., and a west Chicago suburb.

In the 14 months since the federal case was introduced, young girls in the Red River Valley have also come forward with reports that Hager communicated with them and sought to meet them in person, likely for sexual reasons.

According to a sentencing memorandum filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Puhl:

In 2004, Hager contacted four teenage girls in Breckenridge, Minn., after he saw their photographs in the local newspaper. The girls were recognized as honor society members, and Hager called each girl and told them they were beautiful.

Wahpeton police advised Hager against making such calls again.

More recently, a young girl from Fergus Falls, Minn., contacted local police after she recognized Hager’s photograph in a news report about the pending federal case.

She told police she and her friends had chatted with Hager on Facebook and by cellphone.

Fergus Falls police conducted a series of interviews in which several other middle school-aged girls reported talking with Hager by phone and over the Internet.

Hager allegedly asked to meet at least two of the Fergus Falls girls in person, and he asked another to “send him photographs of her feet and of her naked chest.”

Court documents detail Hager’s intense sexual fetish for girls’ feet.

“He is a predator of young children both far and near to him,” Puhl wrote in her sentencing recommendation to the court. “Although he is very careful in his conversations with these girls, it is clear he is contacting them for one purpose: to satisfy his own sexual fantasy.”

Richard Henderson, Hager’s attorney, also filed a sentencing recommendation, but the document is sealed and not available to the public.

The possession charge against Hager carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Receiving the materials carries an additional prison term of between five and 20 years.

District Court Judge Ralph R. Erickson notified attorneys in December that he’s prepared to consider a more severe penalty because of the “evidence of (Hager’s) sexual interest in children demonstrated through letters, emails and online conversations.”

Hager pleaded guilty in October to the federal charges, which stem from his exchanges with a Detroit-area man who used his four underage daughters to create and distribute sexually explicit and suggestive images.

Hager and Robert John Mueller talked frequently over the phone about their mutual sexual attraction to young girls, and the men exchanged packages by postal mail.

Using the nickname “Ace,” Hager told Mueller about his sexual fantasies, the young girls he’d see on the street and in the local library, and requests he had of Mueller’s daughters, such as a pair of their socks and underwear he could keep.

Hager also talked directly to Mueller’s daughters over the phone and by email, court documents say.

Mueller was sentenced last year in eastern Michigan’s U.S. District Court to serve 45 years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release.

Michigan authorities’ investigation into Mueller eventually led them to Hager and prompted the case against Hager for possessing and receiving child pornography.

In fall 2010, a search of Hager’s home yielded 747 VHS tapes, with as many as 4,400 hours of tape that contained images of child pornography, investigators said.

During initial interviews with investigators, Hager demonstrated a “blasé attitude” about his sexual interest in children.

Hager admitted his affinity to investigators but claimed he researched child pornography statutes and only sought legal images of young girls.

He repeatedly denied any of the images he possessed constituted child pornography.

However, several of the pornographic images depicted “very graphic sexual abuse of girls as young as four and five years of age,” which Puhl described as “troubling.”

“He has no shame or misgivings about his sexual interest in prepubescent children,” Puhl wrote.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541