Perth man Stephen Paul Asher, a self-confessed paedophile, was jailed this week after an investigation that had its origins in the murders of two FBI agents.
The 64-year-old father is also a tech genius and cyber-security expert who formerly worked for Goldman Sachs before co-launching a cyber software company now worth $20 million.
Stephen Asher, 64, was jailed for 18 months on Thursday for his part in an international paedophile ring.Credit: Internet
Asher had the technical ability to fly under the radar as he scanned the dark web for images of naked pubescent and prepubescent girls, some under 13 years old.
But after automatic gunfire killed FBI special agents Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger as they stood on the doorstep of a Florida apartment in February 2021, further investigations revealed their killer was part of a child abuse network that stretched as far as Australia.
They knocked on the door of reclusive IT worker, 55-year-old David Lee Huber, to execute a search warrant for child abuse material.
It’s believed Huber saw the agents through his doorbell camera and fired his assault rifle through the door.
Alfin and Schwartzenberger died and three more agents were wounded. Huber then turned the gun on himself.
But the officers’ work continued after their deaths, and a year later the FBI discovered Huber was part of a child abuse network that stretched as far as Australia.
After the tip-off, a joint police investigation was launched by the AFP and state police, leading to the arrest of 19 men and the removal of 13 children from harm.
Police said those involved developed a “sophisticated online child abuse network” and that some of the offenders produced their own material to share with other members.
They added that they were all likely employed in occupations that required a high degree of tech knowledge.
FBI agents Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger.
Asher was one of those men, the only one from WA, and when police raided his Perth home last year they found three laptops and another device containing hundreds of photos and videos of girls.
They were in states of undress, Perth District Court heard on Thursday, and the images were focused on genitals and breasts.
The court heard Asher confessed to searching for and downloading the images. He also told police he was a paedophile and gave them passwords to the laptops.
“He told police he had a sexual attraction to teenagers,” federal prosecutor Isobel Saville told the court.
While being sentenced for three counts of having child abuse material he had accessed using a carriage system and one count of using a carriage service to access child pornography material, the court heard Asher was “a gifted child” who excelled in English and maths at school before going on to university.
His career as an IT whiz soared but after losing both of his adopted parents as a child, his mental health declined and he was prone to bouts of depression. It was in those times that he sought solace in child pornography, the court heard.
“You told police that you identified as a paedophile,” judge Belinda Lonsdale said.
“You told police you had been accessing child exploitation material for some time.”
The court heard Asher had few friends, struggled with impulsiveness due to ADHD and displayed symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.
Since he had been arrested and charged, the court heard Asher had been forced to walk away from the 30 per cent share he had in his successful cyber-security company because he would have breached its ability to continue its national security work.
He’d also been evicted from his rental home and abandoned by his 31-year-old son.
But the judge said with a maximum penalty of 15 years for each of the charges he was facing, she needed to deter others from engaging in similar activities.
“The children are real children, they are not electronic depictions or avatars,” she said.
“The making of child exploitation material is so widespread, the courts must do their part in this.”
Asher was given a total sentence of 18 months after the judge reasoned his offending could have involved younger children in far more compromising images. She added that Asher was a first-time offender who had no prior criminal history. He could be released after nine months spent in jail on a conditions-based reconnaissance order.
AFP commander Helen Schneider said no matter how sophisticated the setup, police would track down child exploitation offenders.
“Viewing, distributing or producing child abuse material is a horrific crime and the lengths that these alleged offenders went to in order to avoid detection makes them especially dangerous – the longer they avoid detection, the longer they can perpetuate the cycle of abuse,” she said.
“The success of Operation Bakis demonstrates the importance of partnerships for law enforcement at a national level here in Australia, but also at an international level.”
Start the day with a summary of the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up for our Morning Edition newsletter.