The case of James Sonntag, a man from Morgan Park charged three years ago with possessing and disseminating child pornography, went to a bench trial on Aug. 6, and a verdict is expected next month.
Sonntag was 43 when he was arrested and charged in June 2016 with possession of child pornography videos and photos, with some including children under 13 years old.
During a three-day trial at the Fifth Municipal District Courthouse in Bridgeview, prosecutors, relying a handful of witnesses who work in law enforcement, adamantly claimed that Sonntag was guilty on all 12 counts.
However, Sonntag’s lawyer said Sonntag never “knowingly” possessed or distributed child pornography.
Judge Colleen Hyland said she would issue a verdict on Sept. 9.
The trial featured many technical terms pertinent to downloading and sharing files on the internet, and videos of alleged child pornography were played for Hyland, away from the gallery’s view.
Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Kate Foresman said in her closing argument that the case was “filled with complex terms” but ultimately, what happened was “simple.”
“[Sonntag] downloaded child pornography, and then he disseminated that child pornography out into the world,” Foresman said. “That is why we are here today.”
Sonntag and his wife, Kristen, formerly owned an art studio in Beverly that is now closed. He also worked at other local businesses.
Prosecutors alleged Sonntag shared child pornography with police officers using eMule, an online peer-to-peer file-sharing program. After an investigation from February to June 2016 concluded that the IP address sharing the files was coming from Sonntag’s home on the 2300 block of West 110th Place, a search warrant was issued, and Sonntag was arrested at his home on June 15, 2016.
Prosecutors said Sonntag was cooperative in leading police to his basement, where eMule was running on his personal laptop computer.
Sonntag told police that the computer contained about 10 to 20 files of child pornography but that he had deleted files.
One of Sonntag’s attorneys, Jon Neuleib, of Erickson and Oppenheimer, said his client considers child pornography “repulsive” and that he got rid of the images. Neuleib cited a safe-harbor provision that clears people of wrongdoing if they have child pornography but delete files in a reasonable amount of time.
He said Sonntag “batch downloaded” files without knowing any contained child pornography, and because eMule’s default settings are set for users to automatically share them with other users, he didn’t know he was disseminating them.
He questioned what officers had found in their investigation.
“They cannot tell you,” Neuleib said, “that a file was opened, viewed or moved.”
Sonntag did not testify, and he waived his right to a jury trial in receiving the bench trial.
Prosecutors’ witnesses included Evergreen Park Police Lt. Adam Zimmer, Evergreen Park Police Sgt. Richard Soso, Berwyn Police Commander Mike Fellows, FBI Examiner David Green and Chicago Police Detective James Brown.
They explained how the Cook County Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force tracked Sonntag and how multiple officers received the same files using a law-enforcement edition of eMule; prosecutors said the officers received 24 videos of child pornography from Sonntag.
Prosecutors listed the files’ names, many of them containing crude descriptions of underage sexual activity. Through their witness interviews, they contended that some files were on Sonntag’s computer, while ones that had been deleted could still be traced to their initial location—similar to a library’s card catalog revealing a book has been checked out but showing the usual location of the book.
“This is not some mistake or some misunderstanding what he has been disseminating,” Foresman said. “It is quite clear.”
She also dismissed the idea that Sonntag didn’t know his files were being disseminated to others, saying he would have been aware when downloading a file-sharing program such as eMule.
“The purpose of it is to share files. It’s not a secret,” Foresman said. “If you Google ‘file sharing,’ it tells you exactly what it’s purpose is.”
The defense witness was
Andrew Garrett, of Garrett Discovery, a computer forensics company, and he cast doubt on whether Sonntag opened any illegal files.
Prosecutors called out Garrett for saying during the defense’s questioning that he had been an expert witness in the courthouse before, and he admitted he made a mistake in initially saying that. They also criticized him and for being paid by Sonntag and for only investigating Sonntag’s computer for information related to the charges, but Garrett said doing otherwise would have taken precious time and cost his client more money.
In closing arguments, prosecutors said Garrett isn’t a credible witness.
Neuleib criticized the prosecutors’ witnesses, saying the officers who worked the case hadn’t gone far enough in determining what Sonntag did with the files in question.
He said they didn’t prove Sonntag had intentionally searched for child pornography.
“They never tell you, from the eMule program,” Neuleib said, “what searches were in there.”
Both sides argued over whether Sonntag had a specific media player on his computer that would be able to play some of the files.
A video was played of Sonntag being interviewed at the Evergreen Park Police Department that was difficult to hear from the gallery; it was played on a computer in front of Sonntag’s defense team, with the judge standing behind them and watching.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys referenced the video in their closing statements.
Prosecutors noted that Sonntag said he had a “morbid curiosity” in child pornography.
Neuleib said Sonntag cooperated with officers and said his client deemed child pornography to be “repugnant,” noting the defendant said he “gets rid of it as soon as he knows what it is.”
Neuleib contended that prosecutors “have not proven knowledge on any of the counts.”
Sonntag’s family was in attendance at the trial, as were 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea and other local leaders.
Several other local residents were in attendance for closing arguments.