Ask the kids — it’s never too early to start thinking about summer camp. And…
Day camp counselor’s pornographic photos bring 10 years in prison
Matthew Kuppe, a former Jewish Community Center summer day camp counselor arrested for taking nude photos of three young boys and posting them on a Russian website known to be frequented by pedophiles, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison last week.
The sentence, the result of a plea agreement reached last August between Kuppe’s attorney, Walter Piszczatowski, and federal prosecutors, was met with disapproval by U.S. Eastern District Judge Avern Cohn, who considered it too harsh.
Cohn said the plea agreement took away his discretion to impose a lighter sentence and criticized prosecutors for portraying Kuppe as a dangerous child molester when there was no evidence indicating Kuppe had molested any of the children, according to reports from those who attended the April 11 sentencing hearing, including news organizations such as the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.
Last August, Kuppe pleaded guilty to the felony charge of distribution of child pornography, which carries a penalty of five to 20 years. Kuppe was arrested in August of 2014 after investigators from the U. S. Department of Homeland Security and the West Bloomfield Police Department discovered he had taken nude photographs of three JCC campers between ages 5 and 7 and posted them on a foreign website. One of the campers had been identified by name on the site; the younger sibling of one boy was also photographed although, unlike his brother, he was wearing clothes in the photos.
Kuppe was originally charged with six felony counts of production, distribution, receipt and possession of child pornography although five of the original charges, including the more serious charge of production of child pornography, were dropped as part of the plea agreement.
During the investigation, authorities found an online conversation wherein Kuppe graphically described having physical contact with one of the boys; however, a subsequent investigation by the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office failed to turn up evidence that any molestation had occurred.
The parents of the three boys and their attorney, William Seikaly, expressed doubts about whether Kuppe’s assertions that he did not touch any of the boys could be believed, despite the fact that he passed a lie detector test.
“We found we were left with so many more questions than answers,” wrote one of the parents in their victim impact statement. “Did our son experience abuse? How will this impact him? How do we handle these delicate conversations with an innocent 5-year-old? How will we ever really know what happened to our son at camp that summer?”
The parents’ statements, presented to the court, described how Kuppe’s actions have impacted their families. They claim the incident has destroyed their children’s innocence and shattered their faith in an institution they had always considered a safe haven. They continue to worry about the potential future risks the
photos might pose to their children.
Additionally, the families have been affected by negative comments on social media blaming them for cooperating with the investigation and allowing their children to be interviewed by law enforcement officials.
“One of the most difficult aspects of this experience is the shame and secrecy attached to it,” wrote one family in their victim impact statement. “If our child was injured by a drunk driver or harmed in another non-sexual way, we could be vocal about it. Why is there so much shame attached to children who have been sexually exploited or abused? What does this attitude say about how we value children and their safety in our community? Do you really think that covering up and ignoring this incident would benefit our children?”
Parents were also upset the JCC administration did not take action when concerns were raised during the summer of 2014 about “inappropriate conduct” by Kuppe.
Three members of the JCC day camp supervisory staff, including the camp director, were subsequently terminated after Kuppe’s arrest. According to Seikaly, a civil lawsuit for damages has not been filed.
Since Kuppe’s arrest, the JCC, in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, has put additional safeguards in place that include communitywide staff education and a specific training series conducted by experts in the field.
“It was a very intense, emotional training,” said Brian Siegel, JCC CEO, who added that information about recognizing and preventing sexual abuse is also part of the regular staff orientation process. “The sensitivity is definitely heightened.”
In his sentencing memorandum, Piszczatowski claims his client, whom he described as “a personable, outgoing, intelligent young man … who made some regrettable and life-altering decisions,” deserves a shorter sentence because of several factors, including his lack of prior criminal record.
He explains that Kuppe has been undergoing intensive group and individual psychotherapy sessions and has made significant progress. Kuppe’s doctors have also determined he has a severe form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which had previously been undiagnosed.
Piszczatowski also cited other cases in the U.S. Eastern District where convicted child pornographers received lesser sentences for more serious offenses.
At the sentencing hearing, Cohn gave Kuppe a grace period of 60 days to get his affairs in order before beginning his prison sentence. The judge also removed the previous bond conditions that required Kuppe to wear an electronic tether and remain confined to his home.
Since Cohn released him on bond last fall, an action decried by the prosecutors and the victims’ parents, Kuppe has been living with his parents, Richard and Linda Kuppe of West Bloomfield.
Kuppe presented a letter of apology to the victims and his own family, which included the following:
“… I am sincerely sorry for any harm that may have been caused to the families of the three children as a result of my distributing child pornography. I know that this has had a profound effect on their lives; and I want said families to understand that I know just how wrong my actions were… I did a bad thing, but that does not mean that I am a bad person… While my actions are without justification, if I was allowed the opportunity to take it all back, I would …”
The plea agreement stipulates a prison sentence of 10 years followed by seven years of post-release supervision. Kuppe will also have to register as a sex offender, according to state and federal guidelines.
Ronelle Grier Contributing Writer