A Labette County judge has ordered an Altamont man to stand trial for a range of felony crimes alleging internet trading in child pornography.
Michael E. Rankins, 47, is charged in Labette County District Court with three off-grid felonies and six mid-range felonies. The off-grid felonies can be punished by life in prison upon conviction and require serving 25 years before being eligible for parole. For the mid-range felonies, the minimum prison term is less than three years upon conviction.
The complaint alleges three counts of internet trading in child pornography, all off-grid felonies. One count of internet trading is listed as mid-range felony, as are five counts of sexual exploitation of a child. The complaint alleges the incidents happened between Feb. 12 and June 1.
Rankins, a former Labette County USD 506 maintenance worker, has been jailed on a $300,000 bond since early October. Rankins resigned his position in August after he learned of the investigation and his computer was seized.
A Wichita law enforcement officer testified at Rankins’ preliminary hearing on Friday.
Jennifer Wright has been a member of the Kansas Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force since it was formed in May 2000. She had been a law officer for eight years before that. The task force investigates child exploitation cases on digital devices and the internet.
The investigation into Rankins started in February 2020 when a KICAC detective downloaded images of child pornography from a public folder on the BitTorrent network. The files were in a BitTorrent container, a storage medium on the network. These folders are identified by an info-hash (a complex file name) created by the Secure Hash Algorithm 1, she testified. The info-hash name of the container changes each time someone accesses or changes the information in the container.
Law enforcement, including the national and state ICAC task forces, know these info-hash names and have software that allows them to look for those sharing info-hashes, especially those that contain known child pornography. Each state then looks for people sharing these publicly within their jurisdiction, she testified.
A detective in the task force subpoenaed internet service provider information and traced the IP address used to publicly share an info-hash container to Rankins’ address, a house he shares with his parents in Altamont.
Wright testified that she first contacted Rankins at work and he agreed to talk to her at the Altamont Police Department. Rankins told Wright and another detective with her that he used the Torrent software and BitComet to view child pornography, including the same images that other detectives downloaded from Rankins’ publicly shared container on Torrent. There were 371 files in that public container and detectives were able to download 16 to begin the investigation in February 2020.
Four of those image files are related the charges against Rankins. The other five charges relate to child pornography he downloaded to and stored on a computer in his bedroom.
Wright described the images she viewed as part of the investigation. Most depicted girls under age 14, some as young as 4. In some, the girls are nude and touching or penetrating their vaginal area. Others showed young girls with nude adult men. Children in two of the images were bound by rope.
Rankins told Wright that he downloaded the images found on his computer and used his internet connection to share the container on BitTorrent.
Labette County Attorney Stephen Jones asked Wright how she knew the ages of the girls in the photographs. Wright responded that in some of the images detectives from agencies in other states had investigated the pornography and identified the children being abused. The file names corresponded to these investigations. In others, Wright said she used her experience in investigating thousands of child pornography incidents to determine the age of the children in the images.
Edward Battitori, Rankins’ attorney, asked if the containers on BitTorrent could be shared accidentally. Wright said the user can place the content there as private or public and the files tied to the case were public. She said if someone knows how the software works making a container public would not be an accident. If a user was ignorant of how the software works it could be that the user didn’t understand how the container is shared when it’s designated public.
Battitori asked for additional reports from Wright related to the ages of the girls in the pornographic images, especially those tied to previous investigations.
Wright also testified that if she is not able to determine a child’s age in an image, she refers to the image as “age difficult.” None of the images in the Rankins’ case were “age difficult.”
She also testified that Rankins had been using the BitComet and BitTorrent software for several years.
After testimony, Judge Steve Stockard ordered Rankins to stand trial on the nine charges. Arraignment will be Feb. 25. Rankins remains jailed on a $300,000 bond.