The Danville man accused of housing pornographic images of children on his computer could have faced a nearly 1,000-year prison sentence if found guilty by a jury. Instead, he traded a guilty plea for no more than 17 years in prison.
The paper titled “plea of guilty to a felony” holds the signature of John Mark Aaron and was signed Monday, the day he pleaded guilty in Danville Circuit Court to 50 counts of possession of child pornography.
A grand jury indicted Aaron, 36, with 100 counts last August. He was slated for a jury trial but waived it in favor of a plea deal.
Had Aaron been found guilty of the 100 counts, he could have faced the maximum penalty of 995 years in prison and fines of as much as $250,000. With the guilty plea, prosecutors agreed instead to limit his maximum possible sentence to 17 years in prison. As part of the plea, registration with the Virginia sex offender registry, probation, post-trial supervision and other aspects of his sentencing will be at the discretion of a judge.
Aaron fell under the suspicion of law enforcement April 3, 2019, when the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force had been monitoring child pornography on the internet and watched as someone moved a suspicious file through a shared network to a computer at a Martindale Drive home in Danville.
The Danville Police Department was alerted and served a search warrant at the Martindale Drive address. Once inside, officers found a room with a locked door. One of the occupants of the home told police that Aaron lived in that room. Aaron returned home, unlocked the door to his bedroom, where police found “several computers and related hardware,” notes the summary of evidence filed by the Danville Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office
Aaron gave the police the password to his computer and police conducted a preliminary search. They found multiple images of child pornography, court documents state. When interviewed by detectives, Aaron told police he believed there would be “dozens of images” on his computer. But a report prepared by the Virginia Attorney General’s Computer Forensic Unit stated there were many more such images.
According to the report, which was presented as evidence during Aaron’s guilty plea hearing, more than 3,000 pictures and 58 videos of “suspected child exploitation material” were discovered on the hard drive.
Aaron could have been charged with thousands of counts of possessing child pornography, explained Benjamin White, Danville senior assistant commonwealth’s attorney.
“Under Virginia Law, a person can be charged for each individual image they possess. This applies to photographs and potentially each and every frame of a video,” he wrote over email. “Though the Commonwealth could bring 3,000 or more indictments, at a certain point, adding those additional charges would serve no tangible purpose.”
During Aaron’s interview with the detective, the summary of evidence states, he told police he originally started downloading child pornography with the intent of “helping law enforcement regarding child pornography.” At some point, he said, the images and videos became “appealing” and he began to download them for his personal enjoyment.
White mentioned the case was hard to prosecute and investigate because of the subject matter.
“Law enforcement officers, computer forensic analysts, and prosecutors are often required to view many thousands of horrific images and videos while investigating a case like this and preparing for trial,” he wrote. “Even after photos and videos are extracted from electronic devices, they often must be reviewed several different times by investigators and prosecutors to ensure that legal requirements are met, and ensure our ability to prosecute the case effectively.”
Aaron, who remains free on bond, would not talk to the Danville Register & Bee about the case when reached at his home Wednesday.
“I don’t have any comment,” he said.
A sentencing date has not been set.
Avent is a reporter with the Danville Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 797-7983.