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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Largo puppeteer faces child pornography charges

TAMPA - A puppeteer who has entertained children for years around the Tampa area had a sickening secret, according to a federal complaint. Ron Brown collected pornographic images of children and fantasized about strangling, dismembering and cannibalizing children, court documents state. The 57-year-old Largo man is under arrest in the Pinellas County Jail, facing federal charges of conspiring to kidnap a child and possession of child pornography. He was arrested as part of an international investigation conducted by federal Homeland Security agents based in Boston. Brown was listed in the Pinellas County Schools speakers' directory as puppetry speaker for grades K-8. A school district spokesperson said his name was removed Monday because of his arrest.
"We're very concerned that he was included in the speaker directory, and the application process for the directory will be reviewed," said spokeswoman Melanie Marquez. "The safety of students and staff is our priority." Marquez said Brown is not a school employee; the directory is a compilation of members of the community willing to volunteer their time to talk to students about their careers. Marquez did not have information on any of Brown's school speaking engagements. Brown's Facebook page and a newspaper profile give his employment as the Christian Television Network. A call to the station was not returned on Monday. He features pictures on his Facebook page of his performances at a Tampa Bay Rays game and at Florida Botanical Gardens. He says he started performing puppet shows for kids when he was 8 years old and started his puppet business in 1992. Brown told investigators for the Department of Homeland Security that he performs at schools, church, birthday parties and community centers. He has been profiled in an area newspaper, and his puppet shows have been included in community listings in The Tampa Tribune for years. He told agents, according to the complaint, that every Wednesday several children from his neighborhood come to his house for pizza before he gives them a ride to church in a van provided by the church. But he told investigators he talked to someone online about killing, dismembering and eating a particular boy at his church, the complaint states. He said he told the person, "If I was going to eat someone, I would probably eat'' the boy. "Why, I don't know." Investigators who searched Brown's home found images of child pornography, children in bondage and children who appear deceased. The images were on his computer and on a CD in his sock drawer. He told agents he talks with people online about strangling children and is part of a "strangle group" in Yahoo. "Brown stated that these are his fantasies and told agents he would never really do this," the complaint states. Public defender Adam Allen, appointed to represent Brown, said he would reserve comment until he had a chance to investigate the case. Brown is scheduled to appear in federal court this afternoon for a bond hearing. Stacy Gaughan, a former president of the residents association for Brown's mobile home park, Whispering Pines, said people have complained for years about the fact that children are always playing in his driveway and in his home. Gaughan said she always thought something was wrong. "When you have boys at your house constantly, and you let them come in and they're playing in your driveway, I would consider that strange for an older guy," she said. She said there would be between seven and 15 kids at the house at any given time. She estimated their age range was also from 7 to 15. Twice a week, she said, Brown would take the kids somewhere in a church van. Randy Morris, pastor of Gulf Coast Church, said Brown was a volunteer in the church's puppet ministry. Morris said he never saw Brown act inappropriately and that Brown had been borrowing a church vehicle for several months to transport children. He said he was surprised and saddened by Brown's arrest. The criminal complaint affidavit contains pages of Brown's online chats about harming children. He talks about wishing he had a child tied and gagged in a closet and wanting to eat the child for Easter. During one chat, the complaint states, Brown solicited a Kansas City man, Michael Arnett, for help in the apparent abduction and murder of a child. Arnett was arrested May 23 and charged with producing child pornography. The complaint details two of Brown's encounters with law enforcement. In 1998, a Pinellas County deputy stopped him for a traffic violation and saw boys' underwear between his front seats. He told the deputy he used the underwear to dress puppets. In 2010, Largo police were dispatched to his home regarding a suspicious incident involving Brown having young boys in his vehicle. Police determined Brown had the parents' permission to take the boys to church. The complainant told police she thought she saw Brown throw a sex toy under his trailer, where he had skateboards and bicycles. Officials said Brown's arrest arises from an investigation that began with the arrest in Massachusetts of Robert Diduca, 48, who was sentenced last month to 18 years in federal prison. A photo found on Diduca's computer led to 33 arrests – eight in the U.S., according to a June news release from the Department of Homeland Security. Diduca chatted online with another person, who is being prosecuted in Arizona. The news release says Diduca persuaded the other person to sexually abuse and take explicit photos of a 4-year-old child.

News Channel 8 reporters Peter Bernard and Yolanda Fernandez contributed to this report. esilvestrini@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7837

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