LARGO — A professional puppeteer from Largo who captured international attention when he was arrested on suspicion of plotting to cannibalize a boy at his church will not face charges of conspiring to kidnap a child, a spokesman for federal prosecutors said Friday.
Ronald William Brown, 57, has instead been indicted by a federal grand jury on a count of possessing and a count of receiving child pornography, said William Daniels of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida.
The indictment, issued Thursday, is a significant turn in Brown's bizarre saga. It means the most sensational element of his case — a gruesome series of Internet chats in which he described to a man in Kansas his desire to kill, cook, and eat a child at Largo's Gulf Coast Church — did not constitute a crime, even by the traditionally loose standards of grand juries.
In an initial criminal complaint, federal agents sought to charge Brown with both pornography offenses and conspiring to kidnap a child. The latter charge, based on the chat sessions, could have led to life in prison. The pornography charges, by contrast, could lead to a sentence as short as five years.
"The indictment is obviously far less egregious than what he was initially accused of," said Eric Kuske, Brown's Tampa-based lawyer. He said it was "absurd" to prosecute his client over the instant messages professing a fondness for cannibalism, comparing Brown's writings to the grotesque but imaginary plots of movies such as The Silence of the Lambs and Dawn of the Dead.
"It's science fiction, for all intents and purposes," Kuske said.
He said he could not yet comment on whether Brown, who has been in federal custody since his arrest in July, would use the scaled-back scope of the indictment as grounds to argue for his release on bail. Prosecutors have said that Brown would pose a danger to the community if set free.
Daniels declined to comment on the dropping of the conspiracy charge.
Brown's arrest came as a shock to the many who knew him through his ties to youth programs in Pinellas County.
He was an active congregant at Gulf Coast Church in Largo — attending services with the boy he said he wanted to devour — and had worked for organizations including the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pinellas County School District. For years he performed on a children's show for the Christian Television Network.
Still, legal experts have said the available evidence did not seem to support a conspiracy charge.
"You have to be able to establish to a court and to a jury that there's something more to this than just mere words," said Largo criminal-defense lawyer John Trevena.
Federal agents who searched Brown's house at the Whispering Pines mobile home park in Largo found more direct evidence to support the child pornography charges in the indictment.
According to the criminal complaint against Brown, the agents discovered pornographic photos of minors bound and gagged on his computer, as well as "images of children that appear to be deceased."
Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.