After being spotted by a sharp-eyed tourist in Nicaragua, fugitive Eric Justin Toth was back in the District on Tuesday facing child pornography charges, including an accusation that he shot explicit video of a young boy inside Washington National Cathedral’s Beauvoir elementary school.
Toth, 31, met the tourist at a “social engagement” on April 18 in Nicaragua, said Valerie Parlave, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office.
“She was on vacation or other travel, and she met him and realized who he was,” Parlave said, adding that the woman recognized him from media reports.
Toth, a former third-grade teacher at Beauvoir, was taken into custody by Nicaraguan authorities Saturday.
His arrest brings to an end the five-year search for a man who last year replaced Osama bin Laden on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. The former teacher, whom authorities called an “expert in social engineering,” has used two aliases and even faked his own suicide to elude police, authorities said.
On Saturday in Nicaragua, Toth spoke briefly to a reporter as he was taken from his home by police, seeming confused when the reporter asked in Spanish why he was being arrested, according to a video on a Nicaraguan news Web site.
“Crime?” Toth said in Spanish. “I haven’t committed a crime.”
Nicaraguan police said he had been living in Esteli, Nicaragua, under the name of Robert Shaw Walker and had a forged American passport with “Texas” on it as well as a falsified driver’s license and credit cards. He had been in Nicaragua on and off since October 2012, allegedly at times working with youths, police said.
Tall and lanky, Toth is recognizable by a mole under his left eye. Nicaraguan police said in a news release that he hid the mole by wearing an eye patch in public.
In federal court in the District, Toth was ordered held without bond. He is facing two charges: production of child pornography and possession of child pornography. If convicted of both counts, he could face 15 to 50 years in prison. At the hearing, Toth said little. Assistant Federal Public Defender Michelle Peterson indicated that Toth was interested in working out a plea deal.
Toth, whose image was plastered on billboards and at bus stops, became the 469th fugitive captured on the FBI’s top 10 list since its inception in 1950.
After getting the tip last week, the FBI identified Toth’s travel documents and conducted a financial analysis to pinpoint where he was, Parlave said. Authorities did not say why Toth chose to go to the Central American country.
Toth first came to police attention in 2008, when Beauvoir employees discovered a camera assigned to Toth with 68 pictures and videos, including pornographic images of one of his former students, authorities said.
“They found a media card in his classroom,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District. “There were pictures of kids smiling and playing in the classroom. There were also pictures that would be any parent’s nightmare.”
According to charging papers filed in U.S. District Court, Toth made a video in August 2007 of a man sexually touching a boy who was younger than 12. It was made at a home in Maryland, according to the documents. Police also found a video of Toth allegedly filming a naked boy in a classroom at Beauvoir, according to the documents.
In addition to the charges he faces in the District, Toth is charged in federal court in Maryland with one count of enticing a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct in order to create child pornography. And in Montgomery County Circuit Court, he faces one count of sex abuse of a minor and two counts of a third-degree sex offense.
Machen said there may be other children who were exploited and asked that anyone with information about Toth call the FBI. “He is a known child predator,” Machen said. “We assume there are potential other victims.”
During a news conference in Nicaragua on Monday, Aminta Granera, commissioner of the National Police, said there was no evidence that any Nicaraguan children had been victimized.
Authorities said they were able to find Toth after an extensive investigation that involved hundreds of tips. “You can’t run far enough to get away from federal law enforcement,” Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said.
Michele Booth Cole, a parent of one of Toth’s former students, said she has talked to her daughter about Toth’s arrest, saying it is important to air such issues.
“I feel relief whenever someone who has harmed kids is brought to justice. It doesn’t happen enough,” said Cole, who works at a center for abused children. “We continue to see kids brought in here every day that are being hurt.”
Toth has been on the run since June 2008, when Beauvoir officials found the explicit photos, confronted him and then had him escorted to the end of the cathedral’s driveway, authorities have said. School officials called the FBI, but Toth had already fled.
He went to his family’s home in Indiana, where he stayed for a day or two. Several days later, he left his car at a parking lot at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Inside, he left a suicide note indicating that police could find his body in a nearby lake.
A year later, Toth turned up in Phoenix at a homeless shelter and rehabilitation facility. He used the name David Bussone, a man he met in Phoenix, and told people that he had taken a vow of poverty.
In 2009, someone in Phoenix recognized him from the TV show “America’s Most Wanted,” but Toth vanished before officers arrived.