A Model Prisoner

At 6:40 p.m. on April 5, 2002, a police task force made up of local and state law-enforcement agencies swarmed around a single-story cinderblock industrial building on South Federal Boulevard. While their actions -- and cries of "Let's go!" -- were captured on film by news crews from two Denver television stations, the cops used a battering ram to smash open the front door. They rushed in. "Get on the floor!" they shouted to the man and two young women working inside the photography studio.

Outside, other cops handcuffed a man who'd just pulled up in a van and pushed him into the back of a patrol car. It was the owner of the studio, James Grady.

The bust, which received huge play on the news over the following days, was a giant success. Arapahoe County Sheriff Pat Sullivan proclaimed it had apprehended "perhaps the largest child pornography ring in Colorado history."

The case was sexually lurid -- and impossible to resist. The coverage was graphic in the suggestive and titillating manner of media outlets that hint about far more than they can say. 9News's Ward Lucas reported that the man named Jim Grady ran several Web sites featuring live sex acts. "And police say there is reason to believe some of those performers were under the age of eighteen," Lucas intoned on the night of the raid. "His Web site shows a number of pictures of girls, obviously underage, in provocative poses."

The young girls who had been lured into the pornography ring were the victims of a sick mind, Arapahoe County Undersheriff Grayson Robinson suggested. Grady, a 42-year-old Coloradan, had recruited pretty teens between the ages of thirteen and seventeen and "encouraged them to pose in several stages of nudity and expose themselves in a sexually explicit manner," Robinson revealed. The photographs were then posted on a Web site called trueteenbabes.com, available to anyone willing to pay the $20-per-month subscription fee. Thousands of pedophiles had already signed up.

Even worse, Grady -- a convicted criminal, the cops noted -- had deceived the children, preying on their innocence, insecurities and ambitions. "These girls were lured in with thoughts that they'd become real teenage models," said Bob Sexton, an agent for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. "We may have fifty girls who were sexually exploited in some manner."

The case could have "national and international implications," Robinson warned ominously. "We've only hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of the evidence we've evaluated. I believe this will get much bigger."

It certainly looked that way. By the time they finished combing through Grady's studio, the police had confiscated enough computer and office equipment to fill two rental trucks and two vans. Investigators estimated that the haul included "hundreds of thousands of images," and the amount of filth inside the impounded hard drives was unimaginable.

Within days, prosecutors announced that Grady hadn't merely taken pornographic photos of underage girls; some of the young girls had performed on live "Webcasts," doing God knows what for God knows whom.

Soon police revealed that one of Grady's "models" had accused him of assaulting her by plying her with alcohol during a photo session and then trying to force her to perform sexual acts. Prosecutors demanded that Grady be held on $1.5 million bail.

If there was any doubt of the bust's importance, it was erased on April 11 when the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office filed a mind-boggling 766 accusations of criminal conduct against Grady. That was "easily close to the most" charges ever filed in the 18th Judicial District, Mike Knight, a spokesman for the DA, told reporters.

Six weeks later, on May 28, prosecutors announced that they'd found more compromising photographs of young girls. Citing these forty obscene pictures, they piled an additional 120 charges on top of Grady, bringing the total to 886. All told, Grady was looking at nearly 8,000 years in prison.

And as the weeks passed, the investigation of the Denver-based child-porn ring appeared to be widening. Through his Web site -- which by now had been shut down -- Grady's reach seemed to have extended far beyond the state's borders. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation contacted cops in Florida, Texas and Nevada. The FBI was said to be getting involved.

While Grady remained in jail, the investigation continued for the better part of a year, with dozens of cops and prosecutors helping out. Finally, the case went to trial on March 3.

And, with astounding speed, it fell completely and totally apart.

Prosecutors had already quietly dropped the number of charges against Grady from the dramatic 886 to a fairly pedestrian 39. But even those didn't stick. One by one, witnesses for the Arapahoe County DA's office turned ambivalent. Grady, they shrugged, really wasn't that bad a guy.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer