TV show homage leads to conviction

Prosecutors say an accused online predator who accepted a plea deal Thursday was brought to justice thanks to a local teenager who conducted his own sting operation in 2006.

The man’s defense attorney, however, claims his client became the victim of entrapment after trying to find a date with an adult woman over the Internet.

The unusual case revolves around50-year-old construction project manager James John Koch, of Pacifica, who placed a personal ad on Craigslist</a> in June 2006.

An 18-year-old man from San Mateo County contacted Koch, claiming to be a 15-year-old girl. The teen, whose name has not been released, was inspired by the “Dateline NBC” segment “To Catch a Predator,” prosecutors said. The popular hidden camera show is devoted to catching potential sexual abusers who arrange liaisons with underage decoys over the Internet.

“He followed the model of the TV show. He put a fish on the hook,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said.

Koch took the bait, admits his defense attorney Henry Wykowski. But to paint him as a predator is far from the truth, he said.

“I think it’s an unfortunate situation that somebody took it upon themselves to lure him into this,” Wykowski said. “There was absolutely no evidence he had ever engaged in this type of conduct before or after and the investigating officers admitted so much.”

Furthermore, Wykowski said, Koch specified in his ad, “You must be 18. Craigslist requires it and so do I.”

When Koch allegedly began engaging in sexual talk, the young man called the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, Wagstaffe said.

Sheriff’s investigators took over the case, exchanging messages with Koch over the next month and accepting pornographic images from him, according to prosecutors.

When Koch allegedly set up a liaison, sheriff’s deputies arrested him.

On Thursday, Koch pleaded no contest to one felony count of attempting to send harmful matter to a minor by e-mail in exchange for prosecutors dropping an additional felony charge of attempted lewd act on a child. Koch would have faced up to four years in state prison if convicted on both counts.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, he will face no more than a year in the county jail. Whether he will have to register as a sex offender will be up to San Mateo Superior Court Judge Clifford Cretan at Koch’s June 19 sentencing.

He remains free on $75,000 bail.

tbarak@examiner.com

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