Federal agents investigating a Prichard man who was charged with nudity in a Mississippi park encountered systems on his home computer comparable to devices meant to protect the government's top secrets, an expert testified Monday.
The testimony by computer forensics consultant Gus Dimitrelos came on the first day of Michael Ryan South's child enticement trial in Mobile's federal court. South, who lives in Prichard's Whistler community, faces charges of traveling across state lines to have sex with a child.
Dimitrelos testified that he has been trying for months to break encryption codes hiding images and videos on a computer taken from South's home. Dimitrelos said he has devoted a computer in his office since Jan. 2 to doing the job. A program working around the clock has tried 5 billion to 6 billion password combinations, he said.
"I've never seen the level (of encryption) that's being used in this case," he said. Jackson County, Miss., sheriff's deputies arrested South in December after a 9-year-old boy reported seeing him naked in Lum Cumbest Park near his home in Hurley. It was the second time he had seen the same man, according to authorities. FBI agents seized a laptop computer and several compact discs from South's home.
Dimitrelos testified that South's computer contained "every known child pornography search term I've ever looked for." He said he was able to recover Web sites, including Denmark-based sites that carry child pornography. He estimated that about 80 percent of the Internet surfing has been to child pornography sites. But with multiple, sophisticated "anti-forensics" programs, Dimitrelos said, he has not been able to access the images. "The user of this computer went to great lengths to hide this activity," he said.
South, an Auburn University graduate and a former architect, is a registered sex offender following a 1990 conviction in Lee County on a first-degree sodomy charge. Assistant Federal Defender Peter Madden urged jurors to put that conviction out of their minds, arguing that it has "nothing to do with this Case.
The boy who saw the man in the park, who is now 10 years old, testified that he was trying to corral a dog in his backyard Nov. 4 when he saw a naked man in a wooded area on the edge of the park that abuts the house. His head barely visible in the witness stand, the boy told jurors that the man was scratching his genitals and asked him if he wanted to go streaking. "I was really scared," he said.
The boy pointed to South when Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Murphy asked him if he saw the man in the courtroom. The 14-year-old child who also pointed to South testified that the man was masturbating.
Under cross-examination, both boys testified that the man did not try to touch them or move toward them or engage them in any way. During his opening statement Monday, Madden asked jurors to keep his client's actions in mind as witnesses testified. He argued that there is no evidence that South was trying to have sex with the boy. "He was nude. It was a crime. And there's no excuse for it. But it wasn't a sexual act against a child," he said. "The best indication of what he intended to do is what he did. He walked away from that little boy." The trial resumes this morning with closing arguments. If convicted, South could face life in prison.