By Emily Landgraf
Dr. Austin Winther, a Rider University professor in the Graduate School of Education, is being detained in federal custody after being arrested on March 15 in an online FBI sex sting.
Winther, 64, of Philadelphia, has been on disability leave from Rider since October 2009. He is awaiting trial for allegedly trying to persuade a minor to cross state lines in order to have sex and for electronically sharing pornographic material with an individual under the age of 16.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice of the Pennsylvania Eastern District Court ruled Winther should remain behind bars after he entered a plea of not guilty at his March 18 arraignment.
Winther was arrested by federal agents at Philadelphia International Airport, where he believed he was picking up a mother and her 13-year-old daughter for sex at a nearby hotel, according to an FBI affidavit-complaint.
The arrest came after a five-month investigation conducted by Boise, Idaho, Detective Jason Pietrzak, in which he posed online as a mother and daughter.
Federal defender Felicia Sarner, who represented Winther at the March 18 detention hearing, requested that Winther be released from custody, saying she did not feel indefinite incarceration was appropriate in his case.
“He has never been in trouble before,” she said. “He is a 64-year-old man with a multitude of physical and other serious health problems. This was a government sex sting. It did not involve a prepubescent child. I don’t feel there’s a reason to conclude that he’s such a danger to the community that he can’t be released.”
According to the affidavit, Winther suffers from cerebral palsy on his right side. He will remain in federal custody as he awaits a formal trial date, according to court documents.
Winther taught at Rowan University from 1998 until 2005, and left the institution as an associate professor of elementary education, according to José Cardona, Rowan’s director of media and public relations.
Winther was hired at Rider in 2005 as a nontenured professor in the graduate teacher education program, according to Executive Director of University Communications Dan Higgins.
When he went on long-term disability in 2009, it “was the last action that occurred,” Higgins said. “We do not expect him to return to Rider.”
There is no indication that the university will formally discharge Winther, according to Higgins.
Campbell, who also teaches graduate students, expressed sympathy for Winther’s wife and son.
“I just feel for his family,” Campbell said. “They’ve got to be devastated. They’re victimized, too.”
Campbell said he was familiar with Winther, but did not know him well.
“I knew him to pass him in the hallway and say, ‘Hi,’” Campbell said. “I didn’t know him to sit down and talk with him and spend a lot of time with him. I wouldn’t say that I really knew him.”
John LeMasney, an adjunct professor in the School of Graduate Education, was friends with Winther on Facebook. He said that he did not know Winther well, but that when he consulted Winther as Rider’s manager of instructional technology, he found that Winther was “very interested in using technology to effectively help his students to learn and to work more productively.”
“I helped him on several occasions to work out some comparatively tough technology issues,” LeMasney said. “He liked to solve problems and was very open to new ideas and tools. He was always quite a gentleman to me, and very appreciative of my assistance. I hope he can get the help he needs to make it through this difficult time.”
As part of the investigation, Pietrzak posed as a mother and daughter, “Jill” and “Jen,” on XChat, an Internet Relay Chat program “that allows users to join multiple IRC channels (chat rooms) at the same time, talk publicly, have private conversations, etc.,” according to the FBI complaint.
On Oct. 22, 2010, Pietrzak entered a chat room on XChat entitled #Pedoclub under the alias “marriedmom” and was immediately asked to leave. Upon exiting the chat room, Pietrzak was contacted by someone with the username “Jammmessssss,” according to the affidavit.
Pietrzak issued an administrative subpoena to track the Internet Protocol (IP) address, the unique number a computer uses to connect to the Internet, of “Jammmessssss” on or about Nov. 10, 2010. It was found to be Winther’s. Through obtaining his IP address, Pietrzak and the FBI were able to log the date, time and duration of Winther’s chat sessions, according to the affidavit.
As Winther and Pietrzak chatted, Winther inquired about the age of “Jill’s” children. “Jill” replied that she had one child, a 13-year-old daughter named “Jen,” according to the complaint.
Parts of the complaint suggest that Winther has either engaged in similar behavior or considered engaging in similar behavior before contacting “Jill” and “Jen.”
Most of the conversations referenced in the complaint contain sexually explicit material. Winther as “Jammmessssss” consistently asked both “women” questions regarding sex, masturbation and pornography and stated that he would like to have sex with both of them if that would be possible, among other things.
Pictures were exchanged between the two parties, and all pictures and videos “Jammmessssss” sent appeared to be consistent with a photocopy of a Pennsylvania driver’s license issued to Austin A. Winther, which was obtained by Pietrzak on or about Nov. 2, 2010, according to the complaint.
Winther was apprehended at the airport after he arranged to fly “Jill” and “Jen” in from Idaho for sex.