Trial to begin for Texas cargo airline founder

May 14, 2012 7:28:14 PM PDT
A Texas businessman cruised the Internet looking for sexually explicit chats with teenage girls and collecting images depicting child pornography, federal prosecutors told a jury Monday as they outlined their case against Robert L. Hedrick.

But defense attorneys said Hedrick wasn't the person in those chats or sending and receiving the images, suggesting that the founder of Pan American Airways was framed and likely targeted by powerful enemies with the motivation and money to do so.

"Our evidence will develop why various people had reasons to set Mr. Hedrick up," defense attorney Ed Stapleton told jurors, adding that the conspiracy played out as part of a "high stakes game of money and power."

Hedrick is charged with five counts related to child pornography and sexual exploitation of children. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison on just one count of distributing child pornography.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Wirsing called Hedrick's attempts to get teenage girls to send nude photos of themselves "pervasive" and "unrelenting." She noted that many of the roughly 2,400 images found on three hard drives seized at Hendrick's home last summer depicted child pornography.

Prosecutors said police in Wisconsin and Louisiana posing as 13- and 14-year-old girls had sexually explicit online conversations and received graphic photos from someone registered at an Internet address traced to Hedrick's computer. Prosecutors also have video of a man masturbating that was sent to a police detective posing online as an underage girl and recorded phone conversations between the same female detective in Louisiana and a man they said is Hendrick.

Stapleton told jurors Monday that it was his client in the video, but said it was a video Hedrick made for his wife as part of his marriage counseling and not something he would ever send to anyone. He also acknowledged that jurors would hear Hedrick's voice on recorded calls, but noted that once a voice is digitally captured, it can be manipulated to say anything.

Also hanging over the trial: pornographic images that both sides concede will shock jurors and transcripts from online conversations that start barely innocent but within minutes turn explicitly sexual.

One of those transcripts shows that police detective Christopher Cybell in Menomenee Falls, Wis., was signed into a chat room in March 2010 with the screename "tinare2721" when, shortly after 9 p.m., he received an instant message. The message was from an account he said was traced to the 61-year-old Hedrick. The person sending the message identified himself as a 47-year-old man and asked if "tinare2721" wanted to chat.

Cybell quickly responded, identifying himself as a 13-year-old girl.

Within seconds the response came: "I have a daughter 18 I like chatting with teen girls. Do you have a pic of u?" Within 30 minutes, the conversation became explicitly sexual.

Other chats occurred throughout 2010, which is when Hedrick launched Pan American Airways based at the Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport.

Stapleton told jurors that Hedrick had a 60 percent ownership stake in the airline. He argued that enemies who could be conspiring against him include other shareholders interested in wresting away control of the business or competitors angry at Hedrick for trying to keep them out of the market. He admitted he wouldn't be able to prove who framed his client.

Hedrick has been held without bond since his arrest in July.

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