A Tacoma-area soldier who was watching a child rape video set to a continuous loop when police came calling could spend the next four years in prison.
Army Sgt. David Tippens was among the dozens of men nabbed in a controversial FBI operation that saw the bureau run a “dark web” child pornography site for weeks. He may have been the only one, though, who was watching child pornography when officers arrived for him.
Some of the prosecutions have fallen apart in the two years since FBI agents seized Playpen, a child pornography site on the Tor network that drew about 200,000 users in the eight months it was live. Tippens was convicted of child pornography possession following a bench trial earlier this year.
Evidence showed Tippens traded child pornography through Playpen, though U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan convicted him of a lesser charge. Tippens, formerly stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, has been free on bond.
Now, federal prosecutors have asked Bryan to sentence Tippens to four years in prison. Tippens is scheduled to be sentenced Friday at U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
In a memo to Bryan, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Matthew Hampton and Grady Leupold contend Tippens, a Bronze Star recipient, has “a longstanding and overwhelming” sexual interest in children.
“He spent years searching for and collecting images and videos of children being raped and tortured so he could gratify his sexual desire,” the prosecutors said in court papers. “His conduct is reprehensible, and his untreated sexual deviancy makes him a danger.”
Tippens was finally found out when the FBI seized and ran the site Playpen in the spring of 2015. The FBI allowed thousands of child pornography traders to continue to trade during the sting, dubbed “Operation Pacifier,” while agents installed tracking software on their computers.
Playpen users logged 7 million hours before the FBI shut the site down on March 4, 2015. A similar operation in 2012 targeted the “Pedoboard” and two other child pornography exchanges based in Nebraska.
Because the FBI refused to hand over technical information about the takeover operation, Bryan suppressed the evidence collected from Playpen in the case of a Vancouver school worker. Prosecutors ultimately withdrew the charges against the Vancouver man, as they deemed they could not proceed to trial without that evidence.
Colin Fieman, the federal public defender representing Tippens and the Vancouver man, described the operation as “outrageous.”
“The unprecedented nature and scope of the government’s distribution of contraband in connection with this case has no legal justification or excuse and offends common standards of decency,” Fieman said in a memo filed in the Vancouver man’s case.
Bryan convicted Tippens on the least serious of the three child pornography charges he faced. Bryan dismissed counts that he received child pornography or transported it across state lines, but found him guilty of possession of child pornography.
The evidence that Tippens committed that crime could not have been stronger.
In February 2016, a Pierce County Sheriff’s Office deputy assigned to an FBI task force obtained a search warrant for Tippens’ home. Tippens was, at the time, assigned to 710th Explosives Ordinance Disposal Company at JBLM.
When agents arrived at his home, Tippens’ big-screen TV showed a video of the rape of a young girl. Tippens had been masturbating, and told agents he soundproofed his bedroom so others in his home wouldn’t hear him.
Tippens later admitted to regularly trading child rape photos and videos online through “peer-to-peer” sites that allow users to directly exchange files.
The investigation that saw Tippens arrested began when Playpen was launched in August 2014.
Writing the court, a FBI special agent said he had been involved in the investigation of the Playpen site “since it came online.” Agents monitored the site until February 2015, when they took control of the network’s server in North Carolina.
Writing the court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Hampton said agents considered simply shutting down Playpen. They contended that doing so would’ve prevented them from identifying the site’s users or rescuing children exploited there.
FBI agents used what they describe as a “network investigative technique” – a computer hack – to install tracking software on the computers of Playpen visitors. A federal judge in Virginia approved the operation, which identified the IP addresses of more than 1,000 users.
Tippens was stationed outside Honolulu when he joined Playpen in December 2014, and had logged 26 hours on it by the time the FBI closed it. He and his family moved to the Tacoma suburb in September after Tippens was transferred.
The Playpen site promoted collections of images and videos showing children as young as toddlers being sexually abused. Among the posts Tippens accessed was an item showing a toddler-age girl as she was raped by a grown man. Another showed a child bound and raped.
Tippens has admitted to sharing child pornography online but denied having had any “hands-on” sexual contact with children.
Released on bond in February 2016, Tippens offered to plead guilty to possessing child pornography so long as he would be able to appeal earlier rulings in his case. Prosecutors declined his offer, and the case proceeded to a bench trial in March.
Prosecutors have asked that Tippens be sentenced to 15 years of court supervision, as well as the prison term. Tippens is scheduled to be sentenced Friday morning.