WASHINGTON – Investigators say Eric Justin Toth’s five-year run as a fugitive began when he was fired from his teaching job at a prestigious private school after a fellow employee found images of child pornography taken with a school camera the man had been using.
It ended over the weekend when Nicaraguan authorities acting on a tip found him living in that country illegally, with phony passports, driver’s licenses and credit cards. The FBI has said it’s investigating why Toth was living there, but the bureau has previously said that he may have been advertising online for work as a nanny or tutor.
Now, investigators are trying to piece together how he avoided capture even after being placed on the FBI’s most wanted list, a notorious designation reserved for dangerous criminals that has featured the likes of Osama bin Laden and Whitey Bulger. They’re encouraging any other potential abuse victims from other states to come forward as prosecutors proceed with a federal child pornography case against the 31-year-old Toth, who was ordered held without bond during a brief court appearance Tuesday.
“The fact that he is a known child predator and that he’s been on the run for five years, we assume that there’s potentially other victims in other places that he’s been over the past five years,” said Valerie Parlave, the head of the FBI’s Washington field office.
A federal public defender assigned to Toth didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. Phone listings for possible relatives of Toth either declined to comment or did not return phone messages.
The arrest on Saturday, near the border with Honduras, ended a frustrating international manhunt for the computer-savvy teacher and camp counselor.
There were tantalizing clues along the way – a fake suicide note in Minnesota, an apparent sighting at a homeless shelter in Arizona, a tip that led agents on an extensive search of South America – but he continued to elude the authorities, even as pictures of his bespectacled and sometimes bearded face were featured on news programs, billboards across the country and the FBI’s list of 10 most wanted fugitives.
The big break came last week when a female tourist who encountered Toth in a social setting contacted authorities after recognizing him, said FBI spokeswoman Jacqueline Maguire. Toth first arrived in Nicaragua in October and appeared to have spent at least part of his time in that country creating false identities and ID documents, police said. When his house was raided, police found passports, driver’s licenses and credit cards from three banks, under different names, suggesting he was preparing new false identities to use, said national police Chief Aminta Granera.
Federal prosecutors unsealed a criminal complaint Tuesday charging Toth with possessing and producing child pornography, charges that together carry a maximum 50-year prison sentence. Toth wore a blue jail jumpsuit, his hair considerably longer than in the photographs the FBI had made public, and spoke softly in response to a judge’s perfunctory questions. Prosecutors revealed no new details of their case in court, but according to the complaint, multiple images of child pornography – including one in which Toth allegedly appeared alongside an undressed young boy – were found on a media card in his classroom in June 2008.
Toth had been teaching third grade at Beauvoir, a private elementary school that occupies 60 acres on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral and that educates all students, from Pre-K through third grade, how to speak Spanish. Although “not the most socially adept guy,” he was an engaged teacher who helped students think outside the box in math and logic and who even incorporated lessons on why people do or don’t do the right things, recalled Michele Booth Cole, whose daughter was in Toth’s class.
“He wasn’t teaching from the textbook. It was really much more creative and thought-provoking for the kids,” said Cole, executive director of Safe Shores, an advocacy center for abused children.
The media card with the pornographic images was found in a box addressed to Toth at the school’s address, the complaint says. Although some of the images showed children laughing and playing, others were every parent’s “worst nightmare,” said U.S. Attorney Ron Machen. Those include photographs and videos showing an adult male fondling a boy, the complaint says.
Toth was fired and escorted from campus after the images were discovered. He disappeared immediately, long before anyone could arrest him.
His car was found later that summer in a long-term parking lot at the Minneapolis airport along with a fake suicide note inside that claimed he was going to kill himself in a nearby lake. But no body was found, and investigators concluded it was a ruse.
“Clearly, he was trying to throw investigators off at that point,” said FBI Special Agent Kyle Loven, an agency spokesman in Minneapolis.
He was believed to have been sighted in Phoenix in 2009, apparently working as a quasi-counselor at a shelter under an assumed name, the FBI has said. But he fled before agents could get him. Authorities also believe Toth, who is from the Midwest, has traveled in the last four years to Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
In April 2012, the FBI, concerned that the trail was going cold and that Toth’s experience in interacting with children and earning their trust might be putting other kids at risk, added him to the FBI’s most-wanted list, where he filled a slot left vacant by the death of bin Laden. That inclusion reflected the FBI’s emphasis on electronic crimes, as well as violent crime and act of terrorism, the bureau said.
“This is a dangerous person because of his nature, because he is a child predator, because of his ability to groom both adults and potentially these children to develop some sorts of bond of trust,” Ron Hosko, then the special agent in charge of the criminal division of the FBI’s Washington field office, said at the time.