CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — A federal judge on Monday sentenced a former Iowa elementary school principal to 30 years in prison for secretly videotaping dozens of young male students using the bathroom, calling his actions a shocking abuse of trust and among the worst crimes against children she'd seen.
U.S. District Judge Linda Reade said former Sageville Elementary School principal Robert Burke was a danger to the community who betrayed children, their parents and a society that puts great trust in school administrators. She said he deserved the maximum prison term after pleading guilty to producing child pornography in August.
Reade recounted how Burke, 43, hid a small video camera near a bathroom sink or on his own belt on 12 occasions between January and June to capture images of the genitals of at least 59 students between the ages of 5 and 11. She said he had one of the biggest collections of child pornography she'd ever heard of — 32,000 images and 12,000 videos, mostly of young boys performing sex acts.
"This is one of the most aggravating circumstances and crimes that I've ever seen," she said. "This, I must say, is the most depraved I have had for some time."
Reade issued the sentence, which also included a fine of $25,000, after six parents of boys who were taped urged her to lock him away. Speaking in open court without giving their names to protect their children's identities, they said their kids would be scarred for the rest of their lives after learning someone they trusted had violated their privacy in such a way.
"This is a person who woke up every day and made a conscious decision to exploit boys over and over and over," said one mother of two victims, who said she felt guilty for putting them in harm's way by volunteering at the school. "His life as a caring and devoted principal has been a fraud."
Another mother of two victims said she taught for five years under Burke, and accused him of pushing out veteran teachers so he could have more control over school operations. She said her children kept asking, "but mom, why would he do something like this?"
"My boy is never going to forget this for as long as he lives," added the father of a 10-year-old boy.
Investigators arrested Burke at his Dubuque home in June after an FBI agent in Washington linked his computer to images of child pornography that were being shared on the Internet. During the raid, they found his collection of pornography on several hard drives. During an interview the same day, he told investigators about how he hid cameras at the school, which they did not know about at the time.
Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation special agent Ward Crawley testified Monday that Burke saved the video files on his computer with the child's first name and last initial in most cases, and investigators identified 59 students whose genitals were recorded and a number of others who were unknown. He said a forensic examination of Burke's computer equipment found that he had considered sharing the images on the Internet but apparently had not done so.
During one online chat, he told another person he had images of "some boys peeing at urinals" but did not yet have them in a format ready to share. "Let me know if you're interested and I'll get those files ready," Burke said, according to Crawley.
"Although Burke victimized many young children and caused tremendous concern to the entire community, the harm in this case might have been even worse had law enforcement not intervened when it did," U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose said in a statement. "The federal, state and local law enforcement officers whose excellent work put a stop to Burke's criminal behavior should be commended, as should the school administrators, educators, and parents whose assistance in this case was invaluable."
Burke, a former Catholic school principal who had been at Sageville since 2004, denied ever sexually abusing students and a federal investigation did not uncover any evidence to the contrary. Reade noted that Burke once put a camera down a student's swimming trunks under circumstances that were not explained.
Burke had asked Reade to show leniency and let him become a productive member of society again as soon as possible. His attorney, Mark Brown, argued that a sentence of 20 years or less would have been appropriate, noting that Burke accepted responsibility and the maximum sentence was typically reserved for predators who sexually abused children. Reade called that argument unwarranted.
Reading from a hand-written statement that he had problems handling through his handcuffs, Burke said he wanted to apologize.
"My selfish actions violated the privacy of the students, betrayed the trust of the parents, brought much negative attention to an excellent school," he said. "I allowed a very personal problem to hurt many people, and for that, I am very sorry."
"This has been a vivid wake-up call. I've learned my lesson."