A federal judge ordered a Brentwood pastor accused of making sexually explicit contact with more than 30 minors to remain in custody as he awaits trial, saying she’s “not confident” he could be prevented from gaining internet access if released on a $2.7 million bail package granted by a different judge a day earlier.
The order from U.S. District Court Judge Joan Azrack in Eastern District Court in Central Islip Thursday comes after prosecutors in the case appealed the earlier decision from Magistrate Judge James Wicks on the grounds that the release of Jose Saez Jr. would put the community at danger.
“In order for me to feel the community is safe, I need to know there is no [internet] access of any kind,” Azrack told defense attorney John LoTurco and an audience of more than a dozen supporters of the pastor. “As of today, I’m not comfortable with releasing him.”
Saez, 28, a pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Alumbrando El Camino church on Second Avenue in Brentwood, was arraigned Wednesday on an eight-count indictment charging him with sexual exploitation of a child, attempted sexual exploitation of a child, coercion and enticement, possession of child pornography and four counts of distribution of child pornography. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
A bond would have been secured by his parents, a grandmother, aunt, sister-in-law and family friend, who posted property and agreed to forfeit future income should Saez not meet the conditions of his release.
Saez, who has been in custody since his Sept. 28 arrest, turned to his wife and parents seated behind him and cried as the judge made it clear he would remain behind bars.
LoTurco had argued that conditions set by Wicks, to keep Saez under home incarceration at his grandmother’s Brentwood house and prevent her and a housemate from sharing the passwords to their internet-connected devices, were sufficient. The Huntington-based attorney also said the women were willing to fully disconnect from the internet to ensure his release.
“There’s never going to be a 100% guarantee on any conditions in any case,” LoTurco said. “And that is not what the Bail Reform Act calls for. It calls for reasonable assurance.”
Azrack’s decision followed arguments from prosecutors that Saez has many people close to him who might attempt to sneak him a cellphone, and testimony from U.S. Pretrial Services Officer Amanda Sanchez about the difficulties of keeping individuals under home incarceration from accessing the internet.
“We don’t have a way to monitor who goes into the home,” Sanchez told Azrack, saying 24-hour surveillance isn’t possible.
Azrack noted that it was clear to her Saez has a “compulsion,” a point Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Toporovsky made by sharing previously undisclosed details about the ongoing investigation into his case.
Toporovsky said prosecutors have issued subpoenas to 20 of the 30 people who identified themselves as minors and sent videos and photos to Saez. He said in some of those instances, Saez made contact through open channels and coerced the minors to move to encrypted networks to continue the exchanges.
In one instance, Saez asked the minor to show identification proving they were underage, Toporovsky said. Saez also occasionally pretended to be an underage female, to convince boys to interact with him, the prosecutor said.
Toporovsky also publicly disclosed for the first time that FBI agents found an iPad folded inside a Bible during a search of the Brentwood home. Investigators have yet to unlock that device, he said.
Prosecutors have said investigators discovered 12,000 videos, 400,000 images and 6,800 online chats taken from other devices during the search, and are reviewing them for interactions the pastor may have had with other minors. Toporovsky referred to the size of Saez’s collection of child pornography as being potentially unprecedented for investigators handling the case.
FBI investigators, working with Suffolk County police, arrested Saez in September following interactions he had with an undercover law enforcement officer. They discovered a cellphone with an app containing 15 sexually explicit videos allegedly sent at the pastor’s request by a young man claiming to be a 16-year-old boy, according to the criminal complaint.
The indictment covers interactions Saez allegedly had with a 15-year-old boy and a 19-year-old boy pretending to be 16, prosecutors have said.
LoTurco said Saez, who used a wheelchair during this week’s court appearances, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis since being placed in custody, another reason he sought bail for his client.
Saez is due back in court Jan. 16. Azrack said she is open to further discussion of the pastor’s release and encouraged LoTurco to research solutions to keep his client off the internet if granted bail at a later date.