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I was convicted of 2422(b) in 2002 by a jury in Los Angeles, CA (9th Circuit). My first jury was deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. The second jury was also deadlocked but after repeated instruction from the judge to further deliberate they eventually convicted.
At the time of my alleged illegal persuasion, I was in an AOL roleplay chatroom entitled, “I Love Older Men”. In the room were three types of “women”: 1) Older women looking for older men; 2) Younger women looking for older men (i.e., sugar daddy’s and daddy types in general; and, 3) predominantly, adults role-playing as minors. I said all of the wrong things while chatting. I said I wanted to avoid the cops. I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t care how old she was. I wanted her to perform oral sex on me. But was this really the wrong thing? I believe it was the right thing. Or more accurately, these were perversely ironic and in no way criminal things to say.
I ask you, how is it illegal, “to induce, entice or coerce ‘someone you believe’ to be a minor” when the forum in which you are speaking is fundamentally “make-believe” in nature? In other words, how am I to disprove to a jury my belief she was a minor when the whole point is to show belief.
More absurdly, at the time I was in the chat, I signed a legally binding agreement stating I was an adult. She did as well. Access to the chatroom was not allowed unless one accepted the TOSA (Terms of Service Agreement) stating you were an adult. Because I had adult status, I was given access to the children’s rooms as well, but again, I emphasize, talking to a child was not my intention so I stayed in the adult rooms. After logging on, I was also informed that you had the 1st Amendment right to assume whatever identity you might want while in the rooms. There must be some reciprocity to this right. If an adult wants to roleplay as a minor, shouldn’t they have the right to have someone respond to them and engage in the conversation?
I showed up to a predetermined location and upon approaching what was obviously an adult woman (an undercover sheriff), I was arrested. I was dumbfound. FBI agents from nowhere jumped to arrest me. What had I done wrong? Prior to my arrest, I had made arrangements to meet “minors” from this chatroom and met adult women. I demanded to know what I had done wrong. The Chris Hansen series, “To Catch A Predator” did not exist. All I could think was that the FBI had been monitoring the conversation and had gotten the wrong idea. I was interrogated for hours declaring my innocence and at trial, the FBI agents handwritten notes (how convenient that the FBI does not record “confessions”) corroborated this, but she proclaimed I had confessed. “Go talk to her! Go get her! She is an adult!” I demanded while being interrogated. The agent told me that she was a minor and that her father was outside and wanted to kill me. I was lucky I was in custody. The Twilight Zone that was to become my reality had begun. I did not have ANY IDEA nor could I conceive that the person that had been masquerading as a minor on the other end of the computer was actually the FBI agent interrogating me. She asked me, “How many other children are you trying to rape?”
“What are you talking about???? I am not talking to real minors”
I gave them the names of three other “minors” that I was talking to. They all were confirmed by the FBI to be actual adults. Two of the “girls” were actual adult women and the third female “minor” that was supposedly living in San Diego and loved to skateboard and play tennis was a 67 year old man recovering from cancer in New York City.
Three nights before my arrest, I was again roleplaying; however, the girl I was speaking with told me a horrible and sordid story about how her father was raping her and whoring her out to his friends. I came to believe that she was real. As I had done with almost all of my roleplay conversations, I printed this conversation out, but this warped and very detailed conversation was printed with the intention of being presented as evidence to the authorities. (Other conversations I printed and saved in hopes of using for a writing project, as I was an aspiring writer.) After printing out these conversations, I called Child Protective Services in the state the “minor” said she lived. CPS was not only ill-prepared, they were indifferent to my story. When the FBI raided my house, all of these conversations I had printed and stored in a hanging folder in my desk drawer, went missing except for the excerpts of this one conversation left out on my desk in full view of my roommate. In the end, it turned out that this person had been an actual minor, that I had been right, but the story and every detail was a lie. Ultimately, at trial, the judge excluded this evidence. He reasoned that raping a minor in another state was entirely different from trying to seduce a minor in the same state. Last time I checked, statutory rape did not discriminate between seduction/rape or interstate/intrastate. All I could think was that it was my burden to prove that I didn’t BELIEVE the FBI agent was real, and this judge was excluding evidence of the proactive measures I took when I did “believe”. His name was Judge Edward Rafeedie. For those that went before him, he was known simply as “Speedy Rafeedie – hurry up and plead guilty”. He has since passed and I can only hope he has taken the ignorance and bias of the Federal judiciary with him.
Moreover, Rafeedie refused to allow my defense to call a representative from AOL to testify about the “Parental Controls” employed by the site to keep actual minors out of the very room I was in or to speak to the relevance and efficacy of the TSOA.
For reasons that are still incomprehensible to me now, my defense attorneys not only declined to admit my psychological profile/analysis administered by a Forensic Psychologist (and one of the foremost victims rights for children in the country) that absolved me of any interest in minors, but they hid it and told my parents that it did not exist. Both of my appeals were denied by the appellate courts. One appeal based on the exclusion of the CPS phone call and corroborating printed “chats” was upheld by the 9th Circuit and another upheld for “Ineffective Assistance of Counsel” based on my attorneys hiding the psychological forensic report. How, on an intent crime, can a judge determine that either this excluded evidence supporting my ACTUAL “belief” or psychological evidence negating my criminal propensity is immaterial?
At sentencing I was given 60 months. Right in the middle of what, at that time, was the minimum/mandatory of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. (Eventually, my sentencing would be reviewed as part of the Supreme Courts “US v. Booker” decision). I spent this time as a “child molester” in Federal Prison desperately trying to stay alive and unharmed by inmates or compromised by the guards. I spent the latter half of my twenties and my 30th year behind concrete and barbed wire for a crime I did not commit. I spent a year in pretrial custody without the benefit of visitation by anyone other than my attorney (and one 30 min visit from a friend after 6 mo’s). I spent a little over two years in Texas and a year in Northern California – all hundreds if not thousands of miles from my family and friends. I then spent 3 years on Supervised Release which in many ways was a mere extension of prison as my life could not and did not go forward. I was compelled to go to both group and one-on-one therapy every week for the duration of this supervision. This was an obligation that almost entirely impeded any means of meaningful employment. My appeals have been published on the internet. If you Google my name, not only do the appeals come up, but sites dedicated to indiscriminately outing, stigmatizing and ostracizing all “sex offenders” bring up my picture. I have been registered under Megan’s Law as “Soliciting a Minor for Prostitution”. Not only is this not the Federal law for which I was convicted of violating, but when people ask me about my conviction and they reference my record, they believe that I have lied and I am actually guilty of two crimes against children. The state of California rationalizes this erroneous classification based on the fact that I did not actually break any state law – only Federal – and in order for them to be in compliance with my lifetime registration mandate, the state then must choose what they feel is a “comparable offense” in order to secure my registration. States usually have limits on registration and the registration can eventually expire. I must register for life. And even if my registration did expire, there is a permanent digital record all over the internet that can and never will be deleted.
I have lost jobs due to people in my offices and my industry Googling my name. I have been victimized and forced to again defend myself by a former employer that exploited my registration requirements in order to intimidate and prevent me from receiving unemployment benefits. I have lost apartments and I cannot find suitable employment due to our society’s insistence on background checks for everything. I am forced to register not only annually on or around my birthday, but also every time I change my address, occupation or vehicle. For a man that is trying to work freelance on movies many times in different states, registration has all but killed my career. I have lost friends. I have lost family. I have lost relationships. I have lost respect. I have lost the presumption of innocence (although, in this type of incendiary case I don’t believe any defendant is actually afforded the presumption of innocence). I have lost MY NAME. I don’t know what I have not lost other than the uncompromising and unconditional love of a handful of friends and family.
I can only say that I am lucky I was not arrested more recently as taking a plea bargain under the newly imposed Federal Sentencing Guidelines would have given me something as severe and unjust as ten years, not to mention what kind of a Draconian sentence I would receive if I chose to go to trial. My attorney tried to unduly coerce and intimidate me as well as influence and pressure my family me to make me take a plea. He told me that if I went to trial and lost I would do 20 years in maximum security prison. I thought to myself, I would rather loose 20 years of my life, and MAYBE live to get out of prison at 45, than be stigmatized for the rest of my life on this side of the wall as a child molester. After agonizing deliberation for almost a year, the answer was simple. All peripheral considerations were ultimately inconsequential. There was only one question to be asked. Am I guilty? And the innocent man’s answer provides only one option: stand up in front of the court, the jury, everyone and say what is true.
Brought out into the light, this law is intrinsically unconstitutional and it is only in the shadows of politics and policy does it survive. If guilty, a man must be punished, but then be given the chance to redeem himself. If innocent, a man must be allowed to defend himself against a law that is reasonable and fair. And lastly, without fear of going to trial and receiving a sentence that breaks his soul and in effect forces him to plead guilty in order to salvage what is left of his time not behind bars, an innocent man must be allowed his day in court.
Simply put, there are two rules for the ultimate fantasy roleplay: 1) Remain anonymous; and, 2) Make it as real as possible. The reason why I wanted to meet these people off-line and in the real world was simply because I wanted to break rule #1 and make #2 as real as real would allow. And possibly, get laid. In other words, without asking anyone to divulge any personal details that would violate their fantasy facade and make them feel unduly vulnerable or judged, I asked to see them in person so that I could tacitly draw my own conclusions. This is what excited me and really got me off. There is a great power in pulling back the chat room curtain and it is really not very easy to do. Accordingly, meeting people in person was exciting and a little bit dangerous. You never knew who was going to actually be the person on the other end of the computer (and by that I don’t mean a child!). Because of my additional level of objectivity I employed, because I knew the rules so I could break them sort of thing, because I felt like I was role playing the role player, it made me feel like I was standing above the scene pulling the strings. “This is not really me that is not really being me. Yes, I am saying these stupid things but I really, really don’t mean any of it. I just like to get you to say stupid things too.” I mean, really? It was this kind of thinking where I sought to draw conclusions about how ingenious I was? I think one lesson I have definitely learned: I was high on my own idiocy.
I met in person with a girl that role played as an underage babysitter. If the anticipation was intoxicating then the actual meeting was sure to be orgasmic – metaphorically to be sure, and possibly literally. She wanted to seduce and be seduced by an older, married man/father. Who knew that was me? I sure as hell didn’t until I started typing. Without exposing our real identities before hand, we made arrangements and eventually met at a mall in Glendale. It’s hard for me to remember all the details as this was ten years ago, but I remember she was beautiful, in her mid 20’s, and not warped. She was just a very sweet girl that had grown up with a crush on the father of a child she babysat and no knowledge of her real father. She never slept with the man for whom she babysat and he never did anything inappropriate. But from that experience came the seed of something ineffably erotic for her and that she wanted to relive and embellish. With my tongue in my cheek I ask, “Who am I to stand in the way of that?” I like to think, had we consummated this fantasy it might have been mutually rewarding, however, I just don’t think she thought I was pretty. And so, we both settled for a coke…. And a smile.
A second offline roleplay encounter was with a woman that also identified herself as underage. She asked to meet me at a bar in Simi Valley. I believe she had made some unsavory references to her relationship with her Uncle and cited this as the reason for her affinity for older men and I took what she said with a large dose of skepticism. This encounter was awful. I got to the bar, ordered a shot of tequila and was approached by a woman that might have been in her mid 30’s but looked ten to fifteen years older. We had a seat and began to talk for only a second before she did a shot, popped a hit of “E” and had “her Uncle” sit down with us. Her Uncle was a big, burly biker type and whether he thought I was pretty or not, I did not want to stick around and find out. When he went to the bar, I told her I thought she was a very nice person, but that I just wasn’t feeling it. As I stood up to go, she slurred, “Too bad. I would have blown you in the parking lot”. Again, it’s been ten years so I may be a little foggy on the details, but the threat of a blowjob in the parking lot was definitely the essence of the encounter. Seriously, however, it was when I recalled this experience in therapy years later, I realized I needed to put myself in check a little. Was this an adult woman? Yes. Was she responsible for her own actions? Si. But did this fantasy stem from a possibly dark, wounded place in her psyche? Perhaps. And maybe I should have been more sensitive and less exploitive of this possibility? I think that would have been a decent thing to do.
There remains one question I was asked for which the answer I gave profoundly bothers me to this day. As we were prepping for trial, my attorney asked me, almost off the cuff, “What would you have done if you had gotten there and she had been a real kid?” The question stunned me silent. I had never even thought of that. It’s so wrong to think that I could separate, in my mind, the varying degrees of belief I wished to evidence online in direct regard to her role playing as a minor, but did not even entertain or consider in any meaningful way that she might have actually been a real minor sitting outside the Fat Burger on the Santa Monica promenade due entirely to my lewd instructions? What in the hell was I thinking? And this is it. This is the worst part of this otherwise, trivial and inane story that is my criminal history. I know what I was thinking. I was thinking, ‘Kids shouldn’t be on there!’ As if to say, I’m allowed to do what I was doing and if a kid gets in the way, that’s their fault. This chat room role play stuff is for a adults and we can do whatever we want. Could I have reasoned anymore childishly than that? What? Really? That’s not me! I am the oldest brother to four brothers and sisters. I am their protector. I am a man that has lived my life believing I do the right things.
‘Jesus Christ,’ it echoed in my head, ‘that could have been my little sister.’
That’s when it all came down on me, the whole sordid, dumb fantasy world that I had been living in where I got to do whatever I wanted without any regard or any real world consideration of real consequences, came crashing down. That alogical leap of faith that I had made when going into that chatroom justified by the stupid “Terms of Service Agreement” and the Parental Controls and my righteous invocation of the 1st Amendment and all the blame I could lay at the feet of AOL and the FBI, couldn’t absolve me from the culpability of, “maybe, just maybe” she could have been real. Welcome to adulthood Mr. Messano.
RULE #1: You don’t do something stupid that puts a child at risk because children are children and they will unsuspectingly put themselves in harm’s way. You have to safeguard them from making such mistakes.
Seeing that I was at a complete loss for words and probably not gonna say anything anytime soon, my attorney asked me again, “Sean? What would you have done?” and before I could even think, I said, “I would have taken her home”.
“NO!! Are you kidding me?” my attorney yelled, “You can’t say that!! If I ask you that on the stand, you have to say you would have kept on walking!” Obviously, my attorney was not familiar with the second rule of adulthood.
RULE #2: When you screw up and put a child at risk, you do the right thing, to the best of your abilities, and you fix it. It’s called being accountable.
When you screw up, with anybody, especially with a child, you have to make sure they are safe and rectify your mistake. You take that somebody’s-little-sister home and you spend the rest of your life apologizing to whomever will listen for what you have done. It was at this moment, while he was yelling at me and telling me the right thing to say, that I took full responsibility for what I had done, what I hadn’t done, and what I could have caused to have happened.
Eventually, at trial, my attorney did ask me this question just as he had during prep. I said exactly what he told me to say. I hate myself for doing so.
Lets get real about not being real. You can go online and find someplace where people that are ostensibly “straight” are speaking about their homosexuality. You can find married people that will tell you they are single. You can find someone, even absent any sexual connotations, lying about their age. And for any scenario I might think to mention, I’m sure there is the inverse scenario somewhere to be found as well. Well, there might be one exception. At trial, the US Attorney accused me when he asked, “She told you she was underage and you believed her, didn’t you?!” And I responded, “Sir, when someone typed ‘woof-woof’, I didn’t believe they were a dog”. I wasn’t kidding. This actually did happen to me. Needless to say, I didn’t go back to that room. And do you know why I think I know the inverse of this one particular scenario does not exist? Because even though dogs can type, I’m almost positive they can’t spell. All these shenanigans tell me one thing, I am not guilty of what I have been accused. People do the same thing I was doing, all the time. I have the right to do what I did. But, as an adult, I have an obligation to ask and to be sure.
In retrospect, I was not the puppet master pulling the strings. I look at who I was as a person back then and I can tell you exactly what a child that man was. I was 25, living in Los Angeles, wildly unsuccessful and on-again, off-again employed. I was single and getting nowhere with the ladies fast. I was entirely certain, while being wholly mistaken, that the decisions I was making were the right ones. I was drunk on the hyper-stimulation of talking to upwards of six people at the same time about anything and everything while being anyone but my real self. I was eager, if not desperate, to be a writer and thought this would get me there somehow. I was definitely desperate to be something bigger and better than what I was. If nothing less, I just wanted to convince someone, anyone that would listen (or read) that I was more than the collection of all these most unappealing qualities. I was compelled to jump into the abyss of human sexuality and find myself. In this way, I was not immune to the intoxication of my own BS. But, after all of this vast introspection, the only thing I can say I was guilty of was hubris and ignorance. And sometimes that’s all it takes.
In dubious conclusion, I had many conversations online where I openly made reference to or spoke of the roleplay in which I was engaging. But if and when I did so, more often than not, it ended the conversation. People roleplay expressly because they do not want to be themselves. Cloaked in anonymity, people want to be free to express themselves in ways sometimes even they do not entirely understand but are determined to explore. I have learned that even though what I did was not illegal, I still could have really hurt someone. An adult or a child. It’s cliché, right? “Actions have consequences?” But when you are young and seeking to assert the power inherent to your new-found “adult” status, sometimes you can be blinded by your own righteousness. You asked. Here’s the answer to what I think I have learned: I suspect, it’s humility.
I was not guilty. I am not guilty. At trial and for the rest of my life, I will forever say, “I am innocent”.
My name is Sean Messano.