Predators avoiding prison

Posing to get nude pictures

COLUMBUS, OH (WCMH)–Five years ago, a mother discovered that her teenage son was exchanging nude photos with an 18-year-old girl he met on Facebook.

But, after the mother complained to Franklin County’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC), a multi-jurisdictional task force, which investigates pedophiles online, it was discovered that teenage girl was really Zachary Conn, a then-21-year-old man, living in Columbus.

Shortly after being discovered, Conn was arrested and charged with ten counts of pandering. In court, he plead guilty to two felony counts that carried up to 16 years in prison.

Catching a break

But Conn caught a break from Judge Michael Holbrook, who placed him on probation.

“I could have gone either way with this guy,”  Judge Holbrook said, in an on-camera interview with NBC4’s Lead Investigative Reporter Duane Pohlman.

When asked if he made the right choice in the Conn case, Judge Holbrook answered, “At the time, I would say, yes.”

At the time, Judge Holbrook says he was given a pre-sentence report from Ohio’s Department of Corrections, which evaluated Conn as a very, low risk of reoffending.

“It’s probably one of the lowest scores I’ve seen,” Judge Holbrook noted.

Judge Holbrook decided to place Conn on the highest, most intensive level of probation, with the condition that he no longer have a smartphone, tablet or any other type of computer. The judge also ordered Conn to what the judge calls “Holbrook Holidays,” which required Conn to spend time in jail during the Christmas season,

“I thought in that situation, it was better to take control under my ropes,” Judge Holbrook explained.

State Senator Jim Hughes (R-16th District), disagrees with Judge Holbrook’s decision.

“You know, if I were the judge, he wouldn’t be on probation,” adding, “He’d be in prison.”

But Conn is far from alone when it comes to sex offenders who victimize children and avoid being sent to prison.

A stunning list

NBC4 requested and received a comprehensive list from the ICAC task force of all convictions from 2009-2015, including convictions of all child sex offenders.

Click here to download the ICAC list.

Of the 333 child sex offenders tracked by ICAC, only 103 were actually sentenced to prison; 229 of them, or 69 percent, were given Community Correction or Probation.

Almost 7 of 10 on the list of child sex offenders avoided prison time.

Senator Hughes was stunned by what we uncovered.

“I’m surprised and I’m distraught,” he said.

“That’s unbelievable,” Representative Tim Schaffer said, adding, “I think that’s a travesty on the families of this state.”

Unlike Conn, who pleaded guilty to second-degree felonies, most on the list who got probation instead of prison time, were found guilty of fourth and fifth degree felonies, which in Ohio, carry the presumption of probation.

And that concerns many, from law enforcement to lawmakers.

Still, Judge Holbrook says he would not change his decision, when he gave a chance for Zachary Conn to try and turn his life around.

“I don’t regret what I do,” Judge Holbrook said.

Arrested Again

 He may not regret the sentence he handed down to Conn in his courtroom, but Judge Holbrook says he was curious when NBC4 began asking questions about the case.

“As a result, one of you calling me, I had him searched,” Judge Holbrook told Pohlman, adding, “It was a very fruitful search for bad things.”

According to probation agents, Conn had an iPad and a smartphone that they believe he threw out of his car when they showed up at his home, both prohibited under the terms of his probation.

Judge Holbrook was clearly upset, spelling out what is now at stake for Conn.

“He faces 16 years and I am not particularly happy with the young man right now.  I never sentence when I’m angry.”

NBC4’s Duane Pohlman will have more on this story at 11 p.m.

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