Six years ago, on a warm April morning at the Greystone Apartments in Davis, Caitlin Fitzgerald was awakened by someone knocking on her door.
“When it became pounding, I stumbled out to open the front door – to the complete and utter shock of having FBI agents on my front porch shoving a warrant in my face and suddenly appearing armed in my home,” Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to the FBI two weeks ago. “Even thinking about it now, years later, my stomach starts to tighten.
“This memory never fades. My roommate upstairs is screaming because she wasn’t expecting to awaken to any person in her room, let alone an FBI agent. I’m perched on the edge of our hideous purple couch, being quizzed about my internet usage.”
The FBI was looking for child pornography that an agent had been tracking on the internet since December 2010, and although agents had correctly traced the case to an AT&T wireless router in the apartment, they were talking to the wrong people, court records say.
Instead, the roommates, three honor students at UC Davis, had been victimized by the 22-year-old man in the apartment next door, who “used his great computer savvy” to hack into their password-protected wireless account for months to download child pornography, federal court records say.
That neighbor, Alexander Nathan Norris, faces sentencing Wednesday in federal court in Sacramento, where prosecutors are asking for a 17 1/2-year sentence following his conviction in May on counts of possession and distribution of material involving the sexual exploitation of minors..
Norris’ defense attorney, Michael Long, is asking for the mandatory minimum sentence of five years, noting that Norris cooperated with the FBI and spoke openly about how he had downloaded such pornography for eight to 10 years before being caught.
“Alex gave a very detailed 5-page statement to the agents, admitting to his guilt and explaining his personal history with gay male child pornography, his interest in males aged 12 to 18 years, how and why he obtained it, including his ‘cyclical’ downloading and later deleting the child pornography when he would ‘realize it was not worth it,’ ” Long wrote in court papers in advance of the sentencing by U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller.
“Mr. Norris has never touched any child in a sexual manner,” Long added. “He has never generated any pornographic images or videos. Mr. Norris is not a sexual predator.”
Instead, Long argued, Norris is “a quiet, diminutive” 28-year-old who lives with his mother and has no prior criminal history, “not even any traffic violations.”
During the six years that his case has wound through the court, Norris was monitored electronically and only violated his curfew twice, once when he went to work at a Davis restaurant too early and once when he stayed at work too late, Long wrote.
The court has received letters from Norris’ parents, his grandmother and Norris himself, seeking leniency when he is sentenced.
“I do not believe that the government was wrong to arrest me,” Norris wrote in a letter to the judge. “I have proven for the past 6 years (and my entire life before that) that I am not a rapist, molester or any other such thing. I would encourage the court to use its discretion in dealing with this case and consider an option which does not include a term of imprisonment.”
Prosecutors see the case in a different light.
“This case is not a run-of-the mill child pornography case because the defendant hacked into and used his neighbors’ password-protected wireless internet to download and distribute child pornography, thereby roping innocent bystanders into his criminal activity,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Matthew Morris and Shelley Weger wrote in their sentencing memorandum to the judge.
“His actions caused the FBI to search his neighbors’ personal computers, cell phones, bedrooms and living space.”
Fitzgerald, Norris’ neighbor, wrote in her letter, which was filed in court papers by prosecutors, that she is still troubled by what happened.
“All that time, while I was studying and training, that person was transmitting such abominable things through the ether all around us,” she wrote. “But the internet was hacked under my name, you see, and so I plague myself with questions like, ‘If I had changed my password, would I have stopped it for even a day? a week? forever?
“I don’t want to feel that shadow of guilt, or to have the memories come bubbling back up when I least expect, staring out the train window on my commute home or when I’m trying to fall asleep.”