Friday, September 21, 2018
Public safety

Largo puppeteer arrested in federal kidnapping conspiracy, child porn case

LARGO — Child predators are described as the stuff of parents' nightmares. But no parent would dream of the acts federal authorities say stoked the imagination of Ronald William Brown.

Brown, 57, lived alone in the Whispering Pines mobile home park in Largo, a professional puppeteer with a soft, Southern-accented voice and thick eyeglasses. He often served pizza to kids in the neighborhood, then drove them to services at Gulf Coast Church, where he was an active congregant.

But there was another side to Brown, according to a 29-page criminal complaint filed July 20 in federal court in Tampa: The man who, as he was feeding pizza to teenagers, nursed fantasies of murdering and eating them. The one who acted out Bible stories with puppets at his church, while musing online about carving and cooking the body parts of a young parishioner for Easter.

"I imagine him wiggling and then going still," Brown told an associate in an Internet chat session, describing his plot to kill and cannibalize a boy at Gulf Coast Church, according to the criminal complaint.

On Friday, Brown was arrested on charges of conspiring to kidnap a child and possession of child pornography and booked into the Pinellas County Jail. U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents who searched his home found lewd images of children bound and gagged, a flier for a missing child and "images of children that appear to be deceased."

According to the affidavit supporting the criminal complaint, Brown told agents that he and Kansas resident Michael Arnett, another alleged child cannibalism enthusiast, "did discuss killing, dismembering and eating" a specific boy at Gulf Coast Church. However, Brown said "it was just a fantasy and he could never and would never hurt anyone."

Brown told agents that Arnett traveled to Florida and tried to meet with him, but he didn't respond because he didn't want to follow through on the acts they had discussed online.

Arnett was arrested in May and charged with two counts related to the production, distribution and possession of child pornography. Ross Feinstein, spokesman at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said agents continue to investigate claims Arnett made to Brown that he had cannibalized a child.

Brown made a first appearance Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tampa, wearing blue prisoners' garb, his graying hair disheveled. U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Wilson postponed the hearing so Brown could find a private attorney. He was ordered held without bail.

Tampa lawyer Eric Kuske, speaking on Brown's behalf to reporters Tuesday, said he believes Brown is innocent and the conspiracy charge won't hold up because Brown never actually met with Arnett. Brown has spoken to Kuske about representing him but hasn't hired him yet.

"At this point, he doesn't believe he's done anything," Kuske said.

Brown had ties to a wide array of children's programs in the Tampa Bay area. In addition to the Gulf Coast Church, officials for the Tampa Bay Rays, the Pinellas County School District, the Christian Television Network, the city of Largo and Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services, among others, all said he had been hired or volunteered as a performer, instructor or mentor.

He has no criminal record in Florida, which helps explain his frictionless association with these groups, many of which routinely perform background checks.

"We're incredibly shocked and saddened by the news," Gulf Coast Church pastor Randy Morris said in an interview Tuesday from Orlando, where he was attending a conference. "It's a very sobering thought that he's been around our congregation for years. The charges against him are mind-boggling."

The affidavit describing Brown's extensive Internet chats about eating children is grotesque, even by the jaded standards of child abuse investigators. Brown and Arnett were discovered during an international child pornography crackdown that has led to 40 arrests in six countries. The pair's exchanges stood out to investigators.

"In my time here at this agency," Feinstein said, "I've never seen anything this gruesome."

Using online monikers that investigators traced to their computers, Brown and Arnett discussed killing — what they called "snuffing" — children as young as 2. Arnett described what different human body parts tasted like, roasted or cooked in a skillet, according to the complaint.

In one chat cited in the complaint, Arnett described drowning a little girl, and in another, he and Brown excitedly talked about a photo, shared by Arnett, of a 3-year-old girl being strangled.

"That's how I would enjoy doing" the unidentified boy from Gulf Coast Church, Brown said.

Morris, the church pastor, said the parents of the boy are "shocked and perplexed" by what federal authorities say Brown wanted to do to their son. "They're just reeling. It's very difficult for them to hear," Morris said.

He would not identify the boy or disclose his age, and said he is not sure if the boy himself has yet been made aware of the charges against Brown.

Federal authorities have presented no evidence that Brown actually harmed children. But the criminal complaint against him refers to two previous run-ins with local police that did not lead to charges.

In 1998, a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy stopped Brown for a traffic violation and observed boy's underwear between his front seats. Brown said he used the underwear to dress his puppets.

In 2010, Largo police were called to Brown's house by a neighbor who had suspicions about his habit of driving boys around. No arrest resulted.

Brown worked for years for the Christian Television Network in Largo, the state's oldest Christian broadcasting station. He performed with puppets on a Captain Kangaroo-style show called Joy Junction. In one episode, a video excerpt of which is available online, he operates a puppet that talks disdainfully about how some bad kids tried to show him pornography.

A receptionist at CTN's headquarters in Largo said Tuesday that the station had no comment on Brown's arrest and would not make other officials available or allow a reporter into the building. It is not clear whether Brown still works there, though his Facebook page states he is employed as a control operator at the network.

Largo recreation program manager Warren Ankerberg knew Brown in his capacity as the leader of Smuppets, a city-sponsored senior citizen puppet troupe. (The name is a combination of "seniors" and "muppets.") Ankerberg said Brown was a skilled teacher and had a large collection of elaborate marionettes.

"He was always a gentleman," Ankerberg said. "He always seemed to be very gentle, very considerate of others."

Brown's neighbors at Whispering Pines mobile home park described him as reluctant to interact with adults, but quick to socialize with the park's many children.

Park resident Michael Gonzales said his live-in girlfriend's 13-year-old son sometimes attended Brown's pizza-and-church evenings. Brown had come to their house to seek their permission for the boy's participation, with a demeanor Gonzales described as "overly, excessively nice."

Brown lived with his parents in the mobile home until they died at least 10 years ago and now lives alone with a cat, said next-door neighbor Laurajane Schade. Sometimes he could be seen passing a solitary afternoon at the park's pool or riding his bicycle down its narrow streets.

Stacy Gaughan, who lives across the street from Brown, said she would often see him driving teenage boys to Gulf Coast Church in a van that the church lent to him. On Halloween, she said, he would crank up a cotton candy machine in front of his house and spend all night serving trick-or-treaters.

"We all thought he was weird," Gaughan said. "But we had no idea the things he was thinking."

Times staff writers John Woodrow Cox, Will Hobson, Marissa Lang, William R. Levesque and Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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