Four years ago this month, a solemn figure rose from his courtroom seat in downtown Sacramento to tell the judge he did it.
Yes, agreed businessman Michael P. Lyon, he had secretly recorded his sexual interactions with prostitutes. Yes, he told Judge Gary E. Ransom, he was guilty as charged, then apologized for his criminal conduct, which he described as “selfish, impulsive and wrong.”
And then, according to the Sacramento County district attorney, he turned around and did it again.
Last week, prosecutors filed 16 more felony counts against Lyon, 59, a former Boy Scout leader and icon in Sacramento’s real estate world. The new charges accuse Lyon once again of electronic eavesdropping, the same charges he faced four years earlier in his dealings with prostitutes. Lyon has pleaded not guilty to the new charges.
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As his case appears headed for trial, the matter shines a spotlight on the uncomfortable topic of “video voyeurism” – a behavior that raises confounding questions for lawmakers, judges, mental health professionals and lay people alike.
Who does this kind of thing, and why? Are perpetrators dangerous? Can such behavior be treated? And what about victims? What do they endure?
“They’re compulsive, the people who do this thing,” said N.G. Berrill, director of The New York Center for Neuropsychology & Forensic Behavioral Science. “Even if they’ve been caught or put on probation or given warnings or fines.
“The behavior is so reinforcing and so rewarding for them that they have a very difficult time refraining from that type of activity.”
As technology has advanced, and spy cameras have gotten cheaper, smaller and more sophisticated, the law has scrambled to keep up with the conduct.
In 2004, Congress passed a law making it a crime to photograph a naked or partially clad person on federal property. State by state, though, laws very widely. There is even disagreement on what to call it. Some states have enacted specific “voyeurism” or “video voyeurism” statutes, while others lump the illicit activity under privacy laws or dub it “trespass by peeping Tom” or “surreptitious intrusion,” according to a survey by the National District Attorneys Association, updated in 2010.
Voyeurism is a misdemeanor in California, punishable by up to six months in jail. Other states, including Florida, have raised the stakes, making video voyeurism a felony.
In both of Lyon’s cases, though, prosecutors actually sidestepped California’s voyeurism law and opted to pursue more serious felony charges under the electronic eavesdropping law, which makes it a crime to record or eavesdrop on private communications.
While voyeurism has “been around for many years,” the nature of the act is changing, according to Dr. Richard Krueger, a New York forensic psychiatrist who has assessed and treated sex offenders for two decades. Unlike the vintage peeping Tom, who gets a personal peek at an unsuspecting target, modern technology allows these images to be recorded – and rapidly and widely disseminated, he said.
“With the advent of smartphones and the immediacy of digital recording, voyeurism has taken on a whole new dimension,” said Krueger, medical director of the Sexual Behavior Clinic at New York State Psychiatric Institute. “It’s much easier to engage in voyeuristic behavior, but with using smartphones to make records.
“Clearly, this adds a degree of damage and hurt which is significantly beyond what it used to be.”
While data is hard to come by on video voyeurism, some experts believe the behavior is pervasive – and very likely on the rise.
News accounts from Sacramento to Columbus, Ohio, to Baltimore describe an array of individuals, mostly male, who are caught recording family, friends and strangers in circumstances their subjects believed were private. Tiny cameras have been found squirreled away in surprising places – and, in some instances, planted by some surprising people.
In the nation’s capital, a prominent Orthodox rabbi, Barry Freundel, pleaded guilty in February to 52 counts of voyeurism for secretly videotaping women in the changing room of a ritual bath in a Washington synagogue.
In nearby Baltimore, a judge approved a $190 million settlement last year between Johns Hopkins Medicine and female patients of a gynecologist who were secretly recorded during pelvic exams and while using the restroom. Dr. Nikita Levy, who committed suicide during the investigation, reportedly used multiple cameras, including one concealed in a pen around his neck and another in a toilet paper roll.
And in Oklahoma, a supervisor at McAlester Army Ammunition Plant pleaded guilty to federal voyeurism charges last year after he concealed two video cameras in an office restroom so he could record female employees using the toilet. One camera was disguised as a smoke detector while another was hidden in an electric socket, according to news stories.
Over the past three years, video voyeurism suspects described in media accounts have included a youth pastor in Medford, Ore.; a 19-year-old student at UC Berkeley; an Ohio drama teacher; a Border Patrol supervisor in Chula Vista; a supermarket manager in Kentucky; the owner of a popular Maryland bar and restaurant; an Illinois high school math teacher and cross-country coach; a Seattle private school teacher and cross-country ski coach; a University of Florida veterinary professor; and a Missouri massage therapist, whose camera is said to have been hidden under a tissue box cover.
“The drive is really powerful for a lot of the guys who do this stuff,” said Berrill, the forensic psychologist. “The guys who video – it’s a passive-aggressive type behavior.”
Berrill said he finds there usually is “a power dynamic at work,” in which the voyeur gets gratification from exploiting and disrespecting the non-consenting victim.
Besides being a crime in many states, voyeurism also is classified as a mental disorder. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, includes voyeuristic disorder under a class of mental health conditions known as “paraphilic disorders.” (Other paraphilic disorders include pedophilia, exhibitionism, and sexual masochism and sadism.)
A person with voyeuristic disorder is characterized as someone who exhibits for at least six months intense sexual fantasies or gratification from observing unsuspecting persons naked, disrobing or engaging in sex. And the person feels stressed or impaired by these experiences, according to the DSM-5, developed by the American Psychiatric Association.
Lyon told The Sacramento Bee in a March 2011 interview that he is not a sex addict and does not believe he suffers from mental illness. He said he did suffer childhood trauma from his brother’s death in an auto accident and his father’s death later, events that propelled him into running the family’s mammoth Lyon Real Estate company while he was still in college.
When Lyon first was arrested in November 2010, investigators reportedly had discovered images of people being taped surreptitiously dating back at least two decades, including two former nannies, sources told The Bee.
At the time, the statute of limitations on voyeurism had expired on many of the illicit recordings, and federal authorities declined to file charges. But the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office was able to bring charges based on Lyon’s more recent sexual encounters with prostitutes that he also had secretly taped. Because of the case, state lawmakers passed a bill in 2011 altering the statute of limitations in such crimes.
So what lies ahead for accused perpetrators? Mental health experts say video voyeurs can be treated – but only if they want to change. Berrill likened the chances for successful treatment to that of alcohol and drug abusers.
“If somebody enters that treatment without having the ability to 100 percent commit or does so with ambivalence, or they do so cynically to appease the court, then the treatment is not generally going to be effective,” he said.
Berrill said voyeurism is not usually a “gateway behavior” to more violent acts, such as sexual assault.
Even so, it can be utterly devastating for victims. Across the country, victims describe the long-term trauma they experience once the acts are discovered, including their crippling loss of trust and sense of security, according to media accounts.
In Lyon’s case, the former real estate magnate agreed to settle a civil lawsuit in 2012 for $2.5 million and to apologize to his victims over the illicit recordings he made of friends and houseguests. The lawsuit was brought by eight plaintiffs – seven women and one young man – who contended that they had been seriously harmed by the betrayal.
The recordings were produced with cameras hidden in clocks and in holes in the walls and ceilings at his former Arden Arcade residence and a vacation home near Lake Tahoe, according to confidential law enforcement documents reviewed by The Bee.
“The key is, this isn’t victimless,” said psychologist Robert Geffner, president of the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego. “When somebody’s privacy and feelings of security and safety are violated, that has an impact.
“This is a crime – and it needs to be – because it does have an impact.”
Call The Bee’s Marjie Lundstrom, (916) 321-1055.