Patrick Naughton once boasted that putting his name into the AltaVista search engine on the Internet produced 4,000 hits, and why not?
He was a master of his universe: a young, handsome, rich, brash, smart ubergeek who helped create the super-cool software phenomenon known as Java, then went on to run the go-go Web company Starwave, became a visionary head of technology at Infoseek and, finally, hit pay dirt--he was due to become a leader of Disney's big play on the Internet, Go.com, set to go public later this year.
Then the elaborate system known as Naughton's real life crashed. He was charged Friday by federal agents with soliciting a minor for sex over the Internet.
Entering his name into a search engine now produces the news that Naughton was busted on the Santa Monica pier in an FBI sting that concluded he was trolling the dirty corners of Internet chat rooms (places with names like "dad&daughtersex"), hunting for young teens.
On Thursday night, beneath the pretty lights of the Ferris wheel on the pier, Naughton allegedly believed he was about to meet, and intended to have sex with, a 13-year-old girl who was actually an FBI agent posing as an innocent.
The news of his arrest, and all its salacious details, have shocked the Disney hierarchy, according to those with intimate knowledge of the company and the Go.com network, a Disney-Infoseek subsidiary being used to funnel netizens toward information and products produced by Disney and its ABC and ESPN affiliates. For here was the latest golden boy, who had the ear and support of the company's chairman, Michael Eisner.
"I just know Eisner freaked," said one of the Disney insiders. The family-friendly empire prides itself on running a clean ship on the Internet, inserting all sorts of barriers to keep browsing kids from clicking into the shadowy alleys where porn is offered up.
Over the weekend, Naughton, 34, became "no longer employed" as executive vice president for products at Infoseek, according to the company's roster. Spokesmen would not say whether he was fired or resigned. Naughton was slated for, at least, the transition team to run Go.com, and was assumed by most at the new Web-net to be one of its new top executives. He had a meeting scheduled with the Disney branch of the Go.com team in North Hollywood on Friday and had met with the Disney websters and executives repeatedly over the past few months.
But by Thursday night, Naughton was in jail. He is free after posting $100,000 bail.
Disney publicists have no official comment, other than to say they are investigating the matter. But privately, executives say this is widely perceived to be a major--and sadly ironic--embarrassment for the company, and among Mickey Mouse-watchers, for Eisner.
By Monday morning, references to Naughton--his name, for instance--had been purged from news releases in Infoseek's Web pages, as if he no longer existed.
Which, in a sense, is true.
"He is never, and I mean never, even in this forgiving world, going to crawl back from this," said one software developer who worked with Naughton. "This is the ultimate career stopper."
For Naughton's arrest is particularly painful in an industry already under fire for the free-wheeling proliferation of sex on the Net.
The seven-month probe led by the FBI in a multi-agency task force known as the SAFE team (for Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement) began March 8, when FBI special agent Bruce Applin in Los Angeles, using a female screen name, logged into a chat room that, court papers said, was "regularly used by adult males who were seeking minor girls for sexual purposes." Applin, posing as a 13-year-old girl living in Los Angeles, soon received a private message from an individual whose screen name was "hotseattle."
Hotseattle, the FBI says, turned out to be Naughton, who lived in Seattle.
Over the next months, according to law-enforcement officials, the FBI poseur and hotseattle continued to chat. In the first encounter, hotseattle told the ersatz 13-year-old he wanted oral sex. According to Applin's affidavit, hotseattle said "he liked the fact that I had no sexual experience. He again said that he meant everything that he was saying and that . . . 'I don't do this for fantasy.' "
According to the FBI agent's statement, he (masquerading as she) repeatedly told hotseattle that she was 13 years old and a virgin, and that if he did not want to meet, that was fine with her. But Naughton allegedly pressed on.
Prosecutors of such cases say they are attuned to charges that they are entrapping their quarry.
"The primary legal issue in investigations like this is to be extremely careful to avoid entrapment," said U.S. Assistant Attorney Thom Mrocek in Los Angeles, whose office is prosecuting the Naughton case. Mrocek said the cases are similar to drug busts, in which undercover agents offer to buy or sell cocaine. "The issue is predisposition," he said--meaning does the suspect really want to buy cocaine or have sex with minors?
Naughton could not be reached via telephone or the Internet. But according to the FBI affidavit, hotseattle repeatedly suggested "getting naked" or sex (though not intercourse).
Naughton, as hotseattle and using another screen name, "sfmate," allegedly wooed not only Agent Applin but another FBI agent posing as another young teen.
Hotseattle was very reckless.
At one point, he allegedly gave the posing agents his phone number (it was at the offices of Infoseek) and said he was chatting with them from his workplace. Naughton also allegedly directed the agents to pictures on the Internet of his own genitalia and to his own picture, which appeared in an article Naughton wrote for an online version of Forbes magazine.
The first-person Forbes article, under the headline "Mr. Famous Comes Home," describes how proud his mother was of his success, how he arose from Irish immigrant stock, and therefore "I'm glad I'm at the top of the food chain."
Naughton is described by co-workers as the "ultimate salesman" and "deeply into the tech, which makes him credible." He is also portrayed as confident to the point of arrogance, "a hog for credit," dismissive of his underlings' work. But as he talked the talk, he had walked the walk--as one of the principal developers of the software revolution called Java.
Under his computer aliases, however, Naughton was also allegedly concerned about being stung by law enforcers surfing for child pornographers and sexual predators. According to the FBI affidavit, "Sfmate said that he was worried about getting 'busted' at the Santa Monica pier meet."
Naughton, according to court papers, told the FBI agent posing as his 13-year-old correspondent that he was staying at the "cool" hotel of the moment, the Mondrian on Sunset Boulevard, and that he would show up at the pier Thursday evening. The two agreed that he would be looking for a girl with a green backpack near the roller coaster. Authorities say Naughton approached the very young-looking Los Angeles sheriff's deputy used as the decoy and suggested going down to the beach, where he was arrested.
According to the FBI, Naughton waived his Miranda rights, admitted to chatting with the FBI agent's undercover screen names, and gave permission to search his computer, a laptop that he said contained sexually explicit images of children.
If convicted, Naughton faces a possible 15-year federal sentence for traveling across state lines for the purpose of engaging in a sexual act with a minor.