Published in the Idaho Statesman on Aug. 25, 2002
BURLEY — Esther Bowcut is living a nightmare that started with a simple search on her family´s desktop computer.
Looking for a picture of her young daughter, she found one so sexually depraved that she told police later it made her sick.
Her husband had taken the photograph.
She confronted him. She turned to her church.
And she thought — and she may have been right — that he had stopped.
But by then, it was already too late.
Two years later, the secret has torn the family apart.
Her husband was arrested and could be in prison for the rest of his life.
Her children, one still a baby, were taken away from her for months.
And now, federal prosecutors are saying Leslie Peter “Pete” Bowcut is one of 15 people around the world who traded pornographic images of children on the Internet.
The members called it “The Club,” U.S. Customs agents say. About 80 percent of them molested and filmed their own children.
Burley seems an unlikely place to find a segment of an international pornography ring.
Once notorious for its bars and prostitutes, the town has grown far more tame over the years. More than half of the county´s residents are Mormon — including the Bowcuts. Agriculture is still king.
Though the methamphetamine trade brought its share of petty crimes and turf-war killings, Cassia County Sheriff Jim Higens has seen the county´s crime rate improve in four of the past five years.
In his third decade as a law enforcement officer in this rural town, the sheriff has to shake his head when he thinks about this case.
“I´m not a prude,” he said. “I keep thinking I´ve seen it all. Still, this shocked me.”
A Devout Boy From a Large Family
Pete Bowcut was an Eagle Scout, the 11th of 13 children.
He had an extended family in the area, with strong ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The family has been here for generations.
“We´ve never had anyone that we know of in jail,” his father Jerry Bowcut said. “This has been the most horrible thing.”
Pete Bowcut served his church mission in South Carolina and met Esther back home at a church singles event. They married about eight years ago.
He worked for a local furniture store for a while, then sold insurance.
He made money through his photography, dabbled in Web design and fixed computers around town.
He stayed involved within the church.
He took Boy Scouts camping and mountain bike riding.
And at some point, he started taking sexual and sexually suggestive pictures of very young girls — of his own daughters and of one other child.
Some of the photographs, according to court documents, showed him engaged in sexual behavior with the children. Others showed girls in explicit poses. Many had suggestive and explicit captions.
Court documents have been blacked out to protect the girls, so the exact ages aren´t available, but an affidavit indicates one series of photos shows a child between the ages of 2 and 4.
Pete Bowcut´s parents say now that he was powerless, that he had lost his life to an addiction to pornography.
The pictures are horrible, they say. Not their son.
“We haven´t seen them — we don´t want to see them — and he did some horrible things with them, under addiction,” Jerry Bowcut said.
“This boy has been taught better,” he said. “We always read the scripture. We worshipped God together.
“He´s not a bad person. He doesn´t come from a bad home. He doesn´t come from a bad environment. He doesn´t associate with bad people.”
An Interest in Photography Turns Lucrative, and Criminal
Photography started as a hobby for Pete Bowcut, but he soon found ways to make money at it.
He had a deal with a company that sold children´s clothes. They provided the swimsuits and outfits, he recruited and photographed young local models.
The kids got to keep the clothes, and he paid them for their time.
“He took great pride that his models were dressed modestly,” Helen Bowcut said. “He wouldn´t shoot skimpy stuff.”
He once sent some swimsuits back because they were too revealing.
“I think that´s true,” Cassia County Prosecutor Al Barrus said. “I really believe that part of it was true.”
But there was more.
Bowcut called himself “Paul Jones” for a lot of his photography — both pornographic and legitimate.
He registered two companies with the state of Idaho — “Paul Jones Photography” and “P.J. Crew,” an online site where people could buy a membership to look at photos of the same models he was shooting for the catalog company.
Not lewd or pornographic prints, Barrus said, but simply young people modeling clothes and swimsuits.
Neither the kids, nor their parents, knew the photos were being used this way, Barrus said.
“If you´re a good, active LDS person in this community, they trust you,” said Ann Harper, Esther Bowcut´s mother.
And it paid. In the less than a year the Web site was running, it made “big money,” Barrus said.
The county can´t find evidence that Pete Bowcut shot sexually exploitative photos of these other models, but the raid that led to his arrest in February raised one lingering question for the parents — did Pete Bowcut secretly exploit their children, too?
“There is one tape of a hidden camera,” Barrus said. “But it´s very poor quality, and it´s hard to tell exactly who anyone is.”
Investigators haven´t found that Pete Bowcut made money from his pornographic pictures. He simply traded those with others.
During that February raid, the police confiscated some high-end digital equipment, including a $5,000 Canon camera.
“I wish he´d never seen that digital camera,” Jerry Bowcut said.
An Investigation Leads From Denmark to Burley
It all started unraveling in November, when the Danish National Police arrested a married couple on charges of posting on the Internet images of their 9-year-old daughter being molested.
Their e-mail logs led police to a chiropractor living near Fresno, Calif., and his computer disks contained several pornographic pictures — attributed to “Paul Jones” — and one photo of a young model standing by a fire truck carrying the banner “Burley Kiwanis.”
It didn´t take long for investigators to discover who had taken the pictures.
There are just two towns named Burley, and on Feb. 14, California police and the agents from U.S. Customs contacted Idaho authorities.
The next day, Cassia County deputies and federal agents searched the Bowcuts´ home. Along with computers and the photo equipment, investigators found a wedding ring and a tie that helped prove Pete Bowcut was the man in the pictures.
Esther Bowcut and her mother had to help police identify the girls and their father in the photographs.
But at the time, prosecutors weren´t sure how much Esther Bowcut had been involved, and the children were taken into state custody.
Though the youngest child was still nursing, they weren´t returned to Esther Bowcut for three months.
Jerry and Helen Bowcut have been allowed to see their grandchildren just once in six months.
The two had been on a two-year mission for the church in Tahiti and Fiji until January.
A month after they got home, their son was in jail.
“It took me eight times to get into the Burley prison,” Jerry Bowcut said. “I told him, ´Whatever you do, don´t tell a single lie.´ “
The Families, and the Town, Try to Cope
Most people in Burley know a Bowcut, if not Pete or Esther. And most everybody else thinks they may have come across them at one time or another.
“The thing that scared me is he looked so familiar,” said Suzanne Livermore, who was drinking coffee recently with her friends at the Lost and Found Bookshop. “I thought, ´My gosh, I´ve driven past that guy.´ “
Sheriff Higens said he has seen more interest in this case than most others he´s dealt with.
“We had tons of people that were coming in,” he said.
Esther Bowcut´s family has been devastated.
“I have seen my husband, who thinks he´s such a strong, tough person — I have seen him break down and sob,” Ann Harper said.
She´s angry at Pete Bowcut — angry enough to write a letter to the editor of a local paper calling for an extended sentence — and she feels he had a manipulative control over her daughter.
Pete Bowcut´s parents, though, are trying to support their son, and they wonder why Esther´s family has not done the same.
Jerry Bowcut will be 70 next month. His wife is 60.
Now, with the court costs draining their retirement fund, Helen Bowcut is looking for a job.
The devout couple still can´t believe what they´ve been hearing.
“For the first three months, we were in shock, literally,” Jerry Bowcut said.
Coming home after their mission, they could tell something was weighing on their son. But they didn´t think it was anything like this.
“I didn´t have the vaguest idea,” Jerry Bowcut said. “Not my boy. It could happen to anyone else´s kid, but not ours.”
They see their son´s problem as one of addiction — that he became addicted to pornography and that eventually, it controlled his actions.
“If he had been an alcoholic, nobody would have heard anything about it,” Jerry Bowcut said.
The Bowcuts said they believe the girls were asleep when the photos were taken and that they are too young to know what was going on anyway.
“Pete has not hurt one single soul other than Pete,” his father said.
Prosecutor Barrus, though, said the girls were awake.
To help them understand, the Bowcuts have turned to a book published in Orem, Utah, “The Drug of the New Millennium.” It says pornography can be just as addictive as heroin and can exert just as much control over an addict´s life. The book details a 12-step program that turns the addict to God.
“This man,” Jerry Bowcut said, “is totally rehabilitatable.”
Helen Bowcut said that after six months, her son is exhausting the therapy available at the Cassia County Criminal Justice Center, where he´s been jailed since the arrest on a $500,000 bond.
“He´s not just in there lying around and watching the television,” she said. “In fact, he won´t even watch their television. He´s studying and working and healing his mind.”
He calls home twice a day.
“He´s well into recovery,” she said.
Now, they´re asking friends and family to send letters of support to 5th District Judge Roger Burdick of Twin Falls, who will decide how long Pete Bowcut will serve in prison.
She hopes he will agree with her view, that one day Pete Bowcut can rejoin society.
“Do I hate my son because he has an addiction?” she asked. “I hope not. I want him to heal. But you don´t heal with hate. You heal with love.”
An Inquiry into the LDS Church
On July 2, Pete Bowcut pleaded guilty to 14 of 40 charges, each of which could bring a life sentence. Burdick will preside over the two-day sentencing hearing in early October.
The hearing could be partially closed, to try to protect the innocent girls Bowcut victimized.
But court documents raise an issue few in this religious community feel comfortable talking about.
According to a police affidavit, Pete and Esther Bowcut turned to their church after she confronted him with the picture two years ago.
“Esther stated that they took care of it through their church and that she thought it was over,” the document states.
But her attorney, Dennis Byington, said the court document was misleading.
“I´m not sure she was ever adequately quoted on that,” he said about Esther, who´s still dealing with Health and Welfare officials over the custody of her children and declined to comment for this story.
“That statement doesn´t appear to have been made — not in the way it was reported.”
Barrus concurred, saying investigators explored that part of the story, wanting to know who knew how much, and when.
“The best I can tell, no one was told about this from her or from Peter,” he said. “That was something they´ve looked at pretty hard, because we´d like to have known that, if somebody was holding back.”
Idaho law requires “any physician, resident on a hospital staff, intern, nurse, coroner, school teacher, day-care personnel, social worker, or other person having reason to believe that a child under the age of 18 has been abused,” to report it within 24 hours.
Since 1995, though, religious leaders have been exempt from that law, based on the idea that religious beliefs forbid clergy and other church leaders from betraying the confidence of the people who confide in them.
The LDS Church press office said that all its church leaders are trained to deal with these cases.
A 24-hour phone line helps bishops and others “to determine when and whether a report is legally required to be made to civil authorities and whether the information is protected by a priest-penitent or other clergy confessional privilege,” an information sheet explains. “The church emphasizes that the law of the land must be obeyed. If a report is required, Help Line personnel assist the local church leader in such things as who should make the report — whether it is best made by a family member, whether the perpetrator can be persuaded to self-report.”
The Story Unfolds Around the World
It´s been six months since Pete Bowcut was arrested.
The children are back home with Esther Bowcut. Last week, Burley was celebrating its county fair. People were again enjoying the small-town atmosphere.
“When I first started here in 1970, this place was wild; there were 20-some bars, two whorehouses,” Higens said. “But it´s a nice place to raise a family, a good little town — in spite of its problems.”
Now, the wounds are reopened by a federal indictment of Pete Bowcut and 14 other people around the world on charges of trading child pornography over the Internet.
Bowcut will be taken to Fresno, Calif., to face these charges, which will be pursued even though he will be sentenced by the Idaho court in October.
Local officials tried for half a year to keep the victims´ names and identities out of the papers, but when the federal indictments were released this month, prosecutors identified which suspects were believed to have used their own children.
The attention has given new life to the case and the unease it has brought to Burley.
“It´s hard on a community like this, for one of their homegrown to have this kind of problem,” Barrus said. “It´s sad, and a little unsettling, when you see your town mentioned in the national news. You´d sooner have it mentioned for something else.”