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Key Biscayne Mayor Joe Rasco said the arrest of a local attorney on child pornography charges saddened him deeply, calling it a “horrific situation. “

But Rasco insisted  residents were not put at risk by the decision of local law enforcement to keep mum on the federal arrest last summer.

Law enforcement experts back him up. They say many times, sensitive investigations are not just about one individual but a larger ring trafficking in what is now called CSAM – child sex abuse material.

The question is a vexing one: When do circumstances warrant minimizing public information versus keeping a community informed of a potential danger? 

The July 28 arrest of William McCaughan Jr. only became public when the media learned about it on New Year’s Eve.

“This defendant has been incarcerated for the last six months. I don’t think our community was in any danger at any time,” Rasco said after speaking with Police Chief Frank Sousa. 

Sousa  said his department “probably” was informed — a routine practice—  of the investigation during the spring and summer of last year. The FBI staked out McCaughan Jr.’s residence and executed search warrants at his Key Biscayne condo. 

Key Biscayne Police Chief Frank Sousa said his department “probably” was informed of an FBI investigation into a local attorney for soliciting and obtaining illicit photographs of children. Sousa is pictured here at his swearing-in ceremony, Oct. 21, 2021. (KBI Photo/Tony Winton)

Court documents show agents also found cocaine in McCaughan Jr.’s condo and car, but no drug charges have been filed – again begging the question if Key Biscayne police were involved and whether there is an active investigation into where he got the contraband.

There were a handful of people on social media who frothed residents were not informed when the FBI arrested the attorney, claiming the children of Key Biscayne were being put in danger.

Sousa said the arrest doesn’t change the safety level of the island, but also encouraged parents to monitor their children’s social media use.

“This is an extremely safe community and one incident can’t blemish it,” Sousa said. 

Read: Are we winning the battle against child sex abuse imagery?

The FBI declined comment, but law enforcement experts interviewed said it’s not unusual to keep such an arrest under the radar.  It’s seen as the best way to nab others circulating illicit images. 

“It’s possible he (McCaughan Jr. ) was operating a server and disclosure of his arrest would have alerted other subjects so they kept it quiet,” said former FBI Agent Mike Donohoe, now a private investigator in Jupiter. “They didn’t release the info because they probably have other guys on the hook.”

Prosecutors confirmed as much in a legal pleading Oct. 9, asking  U.S. District Judge Rodolfo Ruiz for an order restricting the handling of what McCaughan Jr.’s legal team receives in discovery.

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“The government still has an open and pending investigation into others that may shoulder criminal responsibility in addition to the defendant,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Abbie D. Waxman said in the motion, which Ruiz granted.

Prosecutors are currently reviewing a 38-page “mitigation packet” that includes medical information about the 41-year-old defendant. Ruiz granted a delay but set the next court appearance for Feb. 13.

McCaughan Jr.’s arrest was preceded by that of a Texas man who had taken photos of his niece with a hidden camera and passed them on through the messenger app Kik, which allows users to register anonymously, the FBI said.

A grand jury indicted McCaughan Jr. on two charges, receipt of child pornography that is alleged to have occurred in January 2023 and attempted receipt of child pornography in April. Each carries a minimum mandatory sentence of five years in prison. The government also is also seeking civil forfeiture of any property that could be tied to the alleged crimes. 

Court documents did not indicate the address of McCaughan Jr’.s condo on Key Biscayne but records show he incorporated a business in 2022 with the mailing address of 300 Sunrise Dr., Unit 3D.

Read: Key Biscayne attorney indicted on federal child porn charges

While not always the case, it’s common for federal and local authorities to cooperate – or at least stay out of each other’s way, experts said. There are multi-agency CSAM task forces operating in every state though sometimes the feds operate solo. 

“They would have advised the local municipality that there will be a federal presence. They let them know. It’s in everyone’s best interest,” said David S. Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Miami who now represents white-collar defendants. 

“The FBI isn’t going out in marked cars,” noting that informing local police is a safety precaution.

Key Biscayne Mayor Joe Rasco presides at a Village Council meeting Aug. 29, 2023. Rasco said the community was never in danger from law enforcement not publicizing a local attorney arrested on child pornography charges. (KBI Photo/Tony Winton)

Weinstein said he isn’t surprised that no charges have been filed on the suspected cocaine, given the gravity of the child sexual abuse imagery charges.

“Under the guidelines that are applied, he is looking at a significant minimum mandatory sentence,” Weinstein said. “If it was a personal use amount, he would have ended up in drug court and received treatment.”

Weinstein said that as part of any plea agreement, McCaughan Jr. would be required to say how he received any pornographic images as well as the drugs.

With an ongoing investigation, the arrest remained unknown until the Miami Herald discovered it doing a routine beat check of discipline of South Florida attorneys. McCaughan Jr. had decided to turn over his law license, approved by a Florida Supreme Court order. 

The Independent,  in its story, reported McCaughan Jr. had been in custody since his arrest in July and even posted on chats a screenshot from the Bureau of Prisons.

Despite that information, some on social media chats stoked fear the defendant was roaming the streets of Key Biscayne. Other residents on the chats were perplexed why didn’t the Key Biscayne police alert the island to the arrest back in July.

“This is serious, our children could be in danger. Why wasn’t it reported to the residents?” posted Alina Gomez on Nextdoor.  Gomez declined to elaborate on her post when contacted.

The Justice Department often issues a media release on CSAM cases but only after a conviction.

Experts say by publicizing an arrest for the peace of mind of Key Biscayne residents, law enforcement risked not catching others trafficking in illicit images of children in other communities.

“Once they ID’d the girl in Texas, they would have reached out to everyone who received pictures and tried to rope them all in,” Donohoe said.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

Editor-in-Chief

Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.