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Child porn raid wrong, but no apology by feds; W. Side businessman traumatized at home because of 'Wi-Fi theft'

At about 7 a.m. March 7, federal agents battered open the back door of a Buffalo businessman's home, where they seized his computer after allegedly pulling him down a flight of stairs.

They told him he was in a lot of trouble, accusing him of downloading child pornography, although they didn't arrest him.

The federal agents pointed automatic weapons, scaring the businessman and his wife.

Three days later, agents returned the computer to the man. Law enforcement officials now realize he never sent or downloaded any images of child porn.

Someone else, it turned out, repeatedly used the businessman's wireless Internet service -- commonly known as Wi-Fi -- downloading child porn onto a different computer from an apartment close to the businessman's West Side residence.

A Buffalo man -- John E. Luchetti, a 25-year-old neighbor of the businessman -- was arrested in the case Wednesday.

But so far, there has been no apology. Nor any offer of payment for the battered door. And the businessman, who did nothing wrong, had to hire attorneys to represent him.

"It's a cautionary tale for the Internet age; that's for sure," said attorney Barry N. Covert, who represents the Buffalo businessman, who does not want to be identified for fear that it will adversely affect his livelihood.

This is not the first time in the United States that "Wi-Fi theft," or "Wi-Fi mooching," caused someone to be wrongly suspected of involvement in child porn, according to computer experts and Covert's co-counsel, Christopher S. Mattingly.

A similar incident occurred last June in Sarasota, Fla., when a dozen FBI agents approached a lawyer at his waterside condominium and told him he was suspected of sending images of child porn. In that case, the real culprit turned out to be a man who used the lawyer's wireless connection while sitting in a boat in a marina nearby, police said. That man was arrested.

"These two cases are kind of a worst-case scenario, but it can happen," said David J. Murray, a cybersecurity expert who is an associate professor in the University at Buffalo's School of Management. "Most people don't realize the dangers they could face if they don't take the right security steps when they install Wi-Fi on their computers."

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the March 7 raid in Buffalo, and officials from U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement declined to comment directly on it, although they did address some general questions about child porn raids and investigations.

"All search warrants are conducted in a manner that ensure to the greatest extent possible the safety and security of both the special agents executing the search warrant and anyone who may be inside the premises," said Michael W. Gilhooly, a spokesman for ICE.

But what about busting into an innocent family's home?

The West Side businessman said he is angry with ICE. "To come in the way they did seems overzealous," the businessman told The Buffalo News. "I guess they felt I was scum and I deserved whatever I got."

The man, who is in his 40s, spoke on the condition that his name not be published. Even though he is innocent, he said, any publicity attaching his name to the phrase "child pornography" would hurt his restaurant business. He said he considers child porn "disgusting [and] abhorrent."

"I'm angry because they didn't do their homework," the businessman said of the ICE agents. "I'm not a computer geek, but even I know that someone standing outside your home can use your Wi-Fi."

He said he and his wife were sleeping when they were awakened by a series of loud bangs on their rear door. The man said he threw on a bathrobe and rushed down the stairs. He said he was halfway down the stairs when a team of "at least seven" federal agents screamed and pointed firearms at him.

"Their jackets said 'ICE' on them, and I didn't know what that meant," the man said. "They yelled at me to get down, but I was about seven steps from the bottom, and I didn't know what to do. Some of them grabbed me and dragged me down the stairs. I fell against a table and landed on the floor. I was lying there with all these guns pointed at me."

The businessman said he asked the agents what they were looking for.

"You know why we're here," the man quoted one agent as telling him. "You're a child pornographer. Your screen name is 'Doldrum.' We know you had a big download from a child porn site just last night."

The businessman said he repeatedly told agents that there must be some mistake. "For 90 minutes, they treated me like there was absolutely no question or doubt that I was guilty," he said. "Agents went upstairs with me and watched me while I got dressed and used the bathroom."

Agents looked at his computer for about two hours, and during that time, the businessman said, "their demeanor toward me started to change."

"I am sure that they could tell from examining my computer that I had not downloaded any child porn, the previous night or at any other time. I think they started to realize they had the wrong guy," he said.

Still, when federal agents left the house, they took his computer, two cell phones and an iPad networking device, the man said.

"The agent in charge gave me her name, Karen Wisniewski, and her phone number. They just left with our stuff," the businessman said. "It took me about a day and a half to go from being really scared to being really mad."

In court papers filed Wednesday, Wisniewski said "the subscriber" at the house initially searched by ICE "was not the individual who utilized the user name 'Doldrum.' "

"[The] subscriber maintained a wireless router at his residence that was not password-protected, and could therefore be accessed by others in the vicinity," Wisniewski said in a court statement. Court papers indicate that the agents had a search warrant when they went into the businessman's home.

Why was there no apology?

Gilhooly and Lev J. Kubiak, a supervisor of ICE investigations in Western New York, said they could not comment. Speaking in general terms, Kubiak said agents use extreme caution conducting any raid, regardless of the alleged crime, because they never know what awaits them in any home.

Mattingly and Covert, who represent the businessman, said this case points to the need for investigators to do more research about an individual before raiding his home and accusing him of a crime such as child porn.

"I have represented a lot of these defendants over the past 10 years. The people I have represented are computer geeks, not dangerous people," Covert said. "I can't see the point of going into this house with all kinds of automatic weapons."

In reaction, law enforcement officials pointed out that, in August 2004, a sheriff's deputy was shot to death by a child porn suspect during a raid in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Luchetti, the man agents arrested in Buffalo on Wednesday, made his first court appearance Wednesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott. Luchetti, 25, whose Orton Place apartment is a few hundred feet from the businessman's home, is charged with felony distribution of child porn.

Luchetti, who works at a not-for-profit housing agency, pleaded not guilty and was assigned an attorney from the Federal Public Defender's Office.

"He pleads not guilty," said Luchetti's attorney, Brian P. Comerford.

In court papers, federal agents identified Luchetti's alleged user name: "Doldrum."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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