Bill Northrup still gets emotional about a day he will never forget.
It was late morning on April 27, 2010.
Northrup, a custodian at Attica Central School, was sleeping.
State police barged in, armed with a search warrant.
“I won’t ever forget,” Northrup recalled, his eyes welling with tears. ‘‘It was my mother’s birthday. They came in and treated it like it was a murder. They told me I was being arrested for child pornography. I was traumatized when they told me. I literally fainted and they had to lift me up into a chair.
“I didn’t know what was going on.”
State police forensic computer investigators had been tracking networks of child pornography and at some point, they had a hit. The images were linked to Northrup’s computer. A search warrant was secured and an arrest made.
“They kept asking me stuff,” Northrup recalled. “I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know about those things you stick in the computer to store stuff. I didn’t have any (flash drives.) They said they found three pictures on my computer that weren’t even opened. But they wouldn’t show me.”
Northrup, then 44 and living in an apartment in Attica, was suddenly all over the news.
Within 24 hours he was fired from his job as a custodian at Attica Central School. He was in jail with bail set at $25,000.
Family members, in disbelief and shock, swarmed him with questions.
Northrup’s life, as he knew it, was over.
“I loved my job,” Northrup, now 48, said. “I was a very good people person. I worked hard and I loved it there. I was planning on retiring from there. I had benefits, health insurance. I had everything going for myself.”
Suddenly, all that was gone. The next few months for Northrup would be a whirlwind of court appearances and more questions than answers.
In Attica, where he and his family are well-known, Northrup would be shunned, though his family and others close to him supported him throughout the ordeal.
Northrup was born and raised “by three women. My mother and two older sisters” in Holland, N.Y.
He was diagnosed young as having cerebral palsy. He also has learning and and anxiety disorders.
Still, he graduated from Holland High School in 1985 and moved to Florida.
He returned to live in Attica, married and had two sons, one adopted.
Eventually Northrup divorced, though he remains friends with this ex-wife.
In 2010, he moved into a new apartment at 96 Main St.
“I moved in and I bought a computer,” he said. “I never had one before. My friend’s son, who was about 15, asked if he could download LimeWire for music. I didn’t mind.”
LimeWire was a hugely popular and free file-sharing program, used mainly to share music and videos.
The problem was, however, that dangerous malware and viruses could easily be attached to files and be sent to unknowing users. LimeWire also made it easy for hackers to invade a person’s personal computers and personal information.
LimeWire was discontinued in October 2010, though new, safer versions are now available.
Northrup knew none of this.
“I had email and Facebook and was on dating sites but that’s about it,” he said. “I still don’t know much about computers.”
And he certainly didn’t know about the images attached to music downloads sent to his computer, he said.
Police knew about LimeWire and more sophisticated agencies such as the FBI and State Police Computer Crimes Unit are able to monitor illegal activity.
Such activity can be traced to a computer’s IP address and identify the user.
That’s what happened to Northrup.
State Police Investigator Scott Folster was conducting an undercover operation on the Internet using peer-to-peer software. At 2:20 p.m., Feb. 9, Folster wrote in his affidavit, “I discovered that another individual, using peer-to-peer software, was offering to share images and/or videos containing sexual performances by children.”
Folster able to request the files and download them onto his computer.
The file contained “multiple images of children” engaging in sexual acts with adult men.
Folster then had to track the computer’s IP address, which he did and two months later discovered that it belonged to Northrup.
On April 22, 2010, Attica Judge Dale Robinson issued a search warrant for Northrup’s apartment.
Attorney Merlyn Bissell still has the files, including two computer discs of recordings investigators made, both of the search and questioning of Northrup at his apartment, and an hour-long interrogation at Attica Police Department headquarters.
At least three investigators can be heard on the recordings.
Northrup, who worked the 3:30 p.m. to midnight shift at Attica Central School, was asleep when police entered.
On the recordings, Northrup repeatedly denies having the child pornography on his computer and denies knowing that the images were there.
“We’ll find stuff on your computer,” an investigator says. “It’s gonna be there. You know it is. Are we gonna find it?”
“I sure hope not,” Northrup replies. “I’m not that type of person.”
The questioning, at times, is harsh.
When Northrup tells investigators that the only other person to use his computer is a friend’s 15-year-old son, one investigator tells Northrup that he is “throwing a 15-year-old under the bus.”
“We’re going to show him these pictures and he’s gonna say ‘No way. Bill’s doing it. And Bill’s molesting me. Why is a 15-year-old in your house?”
The investigators tell Northrup that he was being monitored, that Folster has been “watching what you were doing. That means it’s there. It’s there. Tell the truth. The truth can’t hurt you.”
Northrup repeatedly denies the allegations, at one point breaking down in tears.
He is consistently polite and respectful. The investigators, at times, also treat Northrup kindly, telling him that if he did happen to look at child porn, they would get him help.
“I honestly think you’re a decent guy,” one says. “You can get in trouble. I’m not going to lie. But when they come and ask me, I’m going to tell them that he’s a decent guy and he needs counseling and not prison.”
Northrup continues to deny knowing about the images.
An investigator tells him he will be demonized in public.
“The TV stations, the newspapers, they are going to put the fact that you worked at the school to demonize you, to make you a horrible person. He’s doing all this stuff. He’s peeking in on the girls. You know they are going to do that.
“This is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in your life and people are going to look at it and say he’s defiant and arrogant and trying to throw a 15-year-old under the bus when he didn’t do nothing. It’s on your computer. It’s there. It’s there. It’s there. You have to go in there and say ‘I made a mistake.’ ”
The interview ends when investigators tell Northrup he is under arrest.
He never signs a statement admitting wrongdoing. One of the last things he said was this:
“I don’t understand. Holy smokes. I can’t believe it. I would take a lie detector. I would. You guys wanna give me one, I’ll do it. I’m not that type of person.”
A day later, Northrup was that type of person, at least in the eyes of the community.
An arrest, Wyoming County Public Defender Norm Effman says, is just the beginning of a process.
“The consequences of being arrested should be nil,” he said. “It is meaningless.”
The reality of an arrest, however, is not.
“People presume you’re guilty,” he said. “Forget the rules about presumption of innocence. It does not exist in the media or the public’s eye. If you are arrested, it’s just presumed that you did something wrong. Period.”
In Northrup’s case, that presumption cost him is job, his credibility and labeled him as a purveyor of child pornography.
This was not a DWI arrest. This was not an assault or a petit larceny or any one of a number of less heinous crimes that happen every day.
This was child pornography.
“The consequences of being arrested on a sex offense are so significant and so disturbing,” Effman says. “The public is so focused on the nature of the crime and the heinousness of the crime, regardless of their innocence. The label is there. It creates the vision of the worse pedophile or a violent sexual offender. A rapist. The public reads rape first, rape second or third. It doesn’t matter, unless they have a penal law book sitting in front of them. A rapist is a rapist.”
Effman’s office represented Northrup. Though Effman was not Northrup’s primary defender, he was involved in the case and recalls it with ease.
He readily admits that Northrup was one of those cases where it’s better to accept a certain fate rather than “roll the dice” and take a chance with a jury.
“It’s not rare, unfortunately,” Effman says. “These cases are difficult to defend and have severe sentencing possibilities.”
In Northrup’s case, it was fairly certain, fairly, that Northrup was not at fault, that he knew little about how computers worked and had no idea that images of child pornography were on his computer.
But they were. That’s the catch.
Did he know? Did he do it on purpose? If so, why then weren’t the images ever opened?
In almost every case involving child pornography, hundreds, if not thousands, of images are found on the offender’s computer, cell phone, flash drives and even DVDs.
Northrup had none of that.
Still, three images were found and regardless of where they came from, how they got there, they were found on Bill Northrup’s computer.
Northrup had two choices: Accept a plea deal that would not only keep him out of prison but would allow him to avoid registering as a sex offender with New York state. Or two, take a chance with a grand jury.
An indictment would lead to a trial and a trial could lead to a conviction.
“It’s evaluating a case and risk-taking,” Effman said. “As I recall, we sat down with him and his family and discussed this at length. It’s a risk. If the grand jury indicts him and the case goes to trial, anything can happen. Sex cases are an emotional issue with jurors.”
Northrup was charged with promoting a sexual performance by a child, a Class D felony punishable by up to seven years in prison. He also was charged with possessing a sexual performance by a child, punishable by up to four years.
A decision had to be made.
Should Northrup plead guilty to a lesser charge, he would avoid prison and, at least, the stigma and severe limitations of being on a state registry of sex offenders.
Or, take the case to trial and see what happens.
“The rolling of the dice in this case was a difficult decision,” Effman said. The backdoor out was acceptable.”
The backdoor out was to plead guilty.
Defendants often plead guilty by what’s known as an Alford basis.
The evidence is there. The chance of being found guilty at trial is high.
You may or may not be guilty but chances are, a jury will find you guilty regardless.
That’s what Northrup did, though he did not plea on an Alford basis.
On Oct. 28, 2010, Northrup stood in court and pleaded guilty to one count of possessing a sexual performance by a child, a class E felony.
Sentencing was set for Jan. 11, 2011.
At some point between the plea and sentencing, Northrup’s family contacted Bissell, a longtime defense lawyer practicing out of his home in the town of Attica.
“I think he pleaded guilty out of fear,” Bissell said. “I think he was coerced into the plea and he was scared.”
Bissell listened to the interrogation.
“You can hear one investigator in the background. He says “Maybe we’re moving too fast on this,’ ” Bissell says. “They ignored him and kept going. They never waited. Bill is learning disabled and, to put it bluntly, he’s not smart enough to lie and I think that’s how it came across to the grand jury.”
Northrup maintained his innocence at all times.
In a pre-sentence investigation done by probation officers, a process to determine what kind of person Northrup is and what type of punishment should be recommended, Northrup was “adamant” about his innocence, the report says.
“He said he was bullied into a deal and denied seeing the images and had no idea how they got there,” according to the report. “He was visibly upset and shaken when discussing the situation. He was cooperated with all aspects.”
The report, however, recommended incarceration.
Bissell would have none of it.
Bissell appeared with Northrup at sentencing, withdrew the plea and told the judge that he would now be representing Northrup.
Like Effman said, it’s a roll of the dice and Bissell and Northrup would do just that.
Northrup, unusual for a defendant, testified at the grand jury proceeding.
It took 20 minutes for the panel of 23 jurors to issue a “no-bill,” meaning that they did not find evidence to charge Northrup.
They believed him.
“I won’t forget that either,” Northrup says. “I didn’t do anything.”
Sept. 6, 2011.
That’s the day Wyoming County Court Judge Michael F. Griffith officially terminated the case against Bill Northrup.
“It is ordered that the provisions of Section 160.50 of the Criminal Procedure Law be complied with,” Griffith’s order read.
What that means is that by law, all records of Northrup’s case must be sealed or destroyed.
Mug shots. Fingerprints. Palmprints. All must be destroyed.
In other words, case cleared.
As far as the New York justice system is concerned, no one will ever be able to see records of People vs. William J. Northrup nor use those records against him.
Mr. Northrup you are free to go, an innocent man. Go back to the life you had.
Bill Northrup tried.
After his arrest, he signed up for public assistance. He was able to land two part-time jobs to get him through, thinking that once the case was over, he could go back to full-time employment.
He still has those jobs, one as a custodian at St. James Episcopal Church in Batavia, the other at Tops market in Batavia.
“I’m so thankful they gave me a chance,” Northrup says. “They understood. I’m so thankul. But it’s not enough. I need a full-time job and I can’t get one.”
As it is, anyone can Google Northrup’s name and find the headlines and stories that say Bill Northrup is a child pornographer.
There are no stories that explain the rest. The plea deal. The withdrawal of the plea and, certainly, no stories at all about the exoneration of Bill Northrup.
Bissell and Northrup tried to sue the state and the school district, to no avail.
“He had to move,” Bissell said. “His landlord didn’t want him there. Everyone just assumed he was guilty.”
And, Northrup says, they still do.
“Wrongful convictions,” Effman said, “are the worst thing that can happen.”
Effman knows that all too well.
He assisted in the high-profile case involving Anthony Capozzi, a mentally challenged Amherst man convicted in 1987 of several bike path rapes.
He served 20 years and was exonerated after another man, Altemio Sanchez, was charged with murdering a woman along a bike path. DNA evidence led to Sanchez’s conviction and Capozzi’s freedom.
“Now, with DNA, we have scores and scores of cases like this,” Effman said.
Still, that doesn’t help a person such as Northrup.
“You can’t control the Internet,” Effman said. “Mr. Northrup is stuck in this piece of his past, even though a prosecutor could not convince 12 out of 23 grand jurors that there was evidence to charge him. It’s unfair, but how do you stop it?”
You don’t. You do your best to move on and that’s what Northrup says he has been doing and why after two years has decided to speak openly about his case.
“It was an injustice,” he says. “They could have just taken my computer and investigated it instead of destroying my life. But I’m very thankful for all the people in my life that supported me. I don’t know what I would be doing without them. Everyone at Tops and the church know. They’ve been so good. They know it was a big, big mistake.
“I want my life back. I want those two years. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to someone else.”