An arrest warrant was issued June 17 for a male high school student facing three counts of sexual exploitation of children after the defendant failed to appear in court despite release orders that specified he remain on house arrest in Jackson.
The three counts are felony offenses with fines of up to $30,000 and 34 years in prison. The student, who is now 18, has pleaded not guilty.
The charges stem from a cyber tip that the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation Internet Crimes Against Children task force received from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Deputy Dustin Richards with the Teton County Sheriff’s Office was alerted to the child sexual abuse material by ICAC in 2021 and issued a search warrant of the defendant’s Facebook accounts and personal cellphone, which detected that the student possessed child sexual abuse material between August 2021 and February 2022.
Charges were filed Feb. 25 in Teton County Circuit Court, with the case bound over to District Court on March 17. But up until recently, his counsel, Elisabeth Trefonas, was petitioning the court to have the case transferred to juvenile court, citing that the defendant was 16 and 17 years old at the time of the charged offenses.
The defendant turned 18 this past April, at which point he was transported from a juvenile detention center to Teton County Jail.
District Court Judge Melissa Owens dismissed 19 charges against the defendant that Teton County Prosecuting Attorney Erin Weisman then filed in juvenile court.
The defendant still faces three charges in District Court as an adult, as the alleged acts were committed when he was 17 years old, Trefonas confirmed, as well as additional charges in juvenile court, which are not public.
On June 8 the defendant posted a $50,000 cash bond with release orders that he remain on house arrest. When he failed to appear at a June 17 hearing, the arrest warrant was issued.
The case has rankled Trefonas after she said in a June 1 hearing that Weisman “didn’t follow procedure” when she began the process in Circuit Court, rather than in juvenile court. Weisman has defended her decisions based on the severity of the alleged felonies and maturity of the defendant.
According to Trefonas, state statute says all crimes, except violent felonies, where the child is 14 to 17 years old, should be started in juvenile court but can be transferred to criminal court.
For violent felony crimes where the juvenile is 14 years old or older, cases can be started in criminal court.
That applies to the current charges in District Court in which the defendant was 17 at the time; however Trefonas said via email that they are not classified as violent felonies.
Trefonas asked the court at the June 1 hearing to dismiss the case with prejudice.
“It’s important that the county prosecutor has a transparent and universal process for how they treat juveniles,” Trefonas stated in court. “I think very highly of this prosecuting attorney and her office, but to be frank they failed to follow the process. This is clear by their failure to have filed counts 1 to 19 in juvenile court as the statute requires.”
Though her motion to dismiss with prejudice was ultimately denied, Trefonas offered a stern rebuke of the county attorney’s office for “starting this case improperly.”
“I’ve had multiple agencies ask me how our county prosecutor’s office treats juveniles and juveniles of color and, to be honest, I don’t know,” Trefonas said. “No one knows but them how they weigh or apply the factors they are required by law to consider.”
In response, Weisman cited differing interpretations of state statute.
“The state takes issue with the statement that the state is being prejudicial to this defendant,” Weisman said in court. “I filed with the notion that it serves justice.”
In a petition she filed to transfer the charges into juvenile court, Weisman offered justification for why she originally filed in Circuit Court.
“Here the defendant is 17 years old and charged with multiple felony counts, the earliest of which is alleged to have occurred when he was 16 years old,” Weisman stated in her filing. “Jurisdiction over his case is thus proper both in juvenile and District Court.”
Weisman also cited the seriousness of the alleged offenses and protection to the community, as well as the greater weight given to offenses against persons and, finally, the maturity of the defendant.
Weisman declined to comment further, citing ongoing litigation.
Throughout the proceedings Trefonas advocated for the defendant to be tried as a juvenile.
“Seventeen years old is an interesting cutoff when it comes to determining the maturity of a defendant,” Trefonas said. She also said the defendant is “very immature ... with documented disabilities.”
Others in the community have acknowledged a bit of a gray area.
“From the Wyoming Supreme Court, there’s not a standard on charges filed when a juvenile becomes an adult,” Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr said. “I don’t know that we have a clear direction on that.”
Editor’s note: The materials in question are referred to as “child sexual abuse material” instead of “child pornography.” Pornography by its nature is consensual and a child cannot consent to sexual acts, making CSAM a more accurate descriptor. The name of the defendant is being withheld until it is clear he will be tried as an adult.
“I filed with the notion that it serves justice.” — Erin Weisman Teton county prosecuting attorney