Child porn suspect’s suicide leaves a twisted, encrypted mystery

Jonathan Kent Lee
Jonathan Kent Lee Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office

The strange story of Jonathan Kent Lee began when a lover told police that the South Beach businessman enthusiastically showed him disturbing videos of children engaged in sex acts. Two days after police raided Lee's apartment, he hurled himself to his death from atop a downtown Miami condo garage.

Two years after Lee’s suicide, the extent of his crimes remains frustratingly unclear for police and prosecutors.

On one laptop, detectives found 3,000 images of child porn, plus suggestive photos of a young local girl that may have been abused by the 50-year-old Lee. Investigators believe there may be more local victims, but their images are hidden in two external computer hard drives, locked and encrypted.

After months of efforts, state and federal cyber-crimes investigators have been unable to crack the hard drives — popular devices bought at any electronics store. Western Digital, the California company that manufactured one of the hard drives, would not commit to helping police and prosecutors, who eventually dropped their efforts with the company.

In the age of heightened sensitivity about cyber security, Lee’s case is one of a number across the country that highlight a growing challenge for law enforcement. Investigators often are unable to access increasingly encrypted electronic devices and they’re getting strong pushback with tech companies increasingly wary of government intrusion.

“It’s really frustrating that the possibility of identifying victims lies within those hard drives and we have been unable to get in,” said Miami Beach Detective Jenny Velazquez, the case’s lead investigator who works crimes against children as part of a federal task force.

It’s really frustrating that the possibility of identifying victims lies within those hard drives and we have been unable to get in.

Miami Beach Detective Jenny Velazquez

Western Digital declined to comment on the case, but noted that it has “does not have a method to decrypt data that has been encrypted on our hard drives.”

Most recently, Apple famously resisted the federal government's attempt to order the company to help unlock an iPhone owned by the Islamic State-inspired gunman who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, CA., last year. The company insisted it could not enter the encrypted phone; the government eventually dropped its court battle after an undisclosed third party got into the phone.

But the San Bernardino case was not new. The New York district attorney’s office has cited it has in evidence over 200 “warrant-proof” electronic devices, encrypted and unable to be accessed by investigators.

“There are hundreds of cases that fall into this category,” said Jim Lewis, a cyber-security expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “San Bernardino got a lot of attention across the country, but local police are increasingly bumping into encrypted devices, and most of the cases are child pornography, murder and drug running.”

In a world more reliant than ever on digital devices, cloud storage and powerful computing networks, the securing of data has become paramount for government, companies and consumers. Encryption programs, which scramble data until a password key is provided, became available to the public in the late 1990s and have been employed particularly to protect online bank and financial accounts.

Digital privacy advocates have long resisted government attempts to force companies to create “back door” entrances to encryption. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, such efforts are impossible anyway – any digital entrances available to police can just as easily be used by hackers and criminals, defeating the whole purpose for encryption.

“Including a trap door for law enforcement is not something we’ve ever had in this country, and the idea that we should cross that line and start forcing American companies to subvert their products is really shocking and un-American,” said Nate Cardozo, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Foundation.

And after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of government surveillance programs in 2013, which included tapping into domestic digital networks, some tech companies have pushed back. Just in April, Microsoft sued the U.S. Justice Department in an effort to overturn a federal law that forbids the company from disclosing to customers when agents are seeking their information.

Including a trap door for law enforcement is not something we’ve ever had in this country, and the idea that we should cross that line and start forcing American companies to subvert their products is really shocking and un-American.

Nate Cardozo, attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation

In 2014, Apple and Google re-engineered their phone operating systems to make their devices automatically encrypted; the companies now say they cannot unlock their own phones.

That has lead to criticism from prosecutors, police and some lawmakers who say key evidence is lingering in phones seized in criminal cases. That includes Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who in a letter sent to the U.S. Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary said that “criminals will go free, and the safety of all of our citizens will be diminished.”

“While I understand and appreciate the tremendous value on privacy, the terrible cost that Apple’s and Google’s actions will have on state and local law enforcement, and on crime victims across country, must also be considered,” she wrote in July 2015.

After the San Bernardino dust-up between Apple and the U.S. Department of Justice, district attorneys in New York, Los Angeles and San Diego also came out in support of a proposed Senate bill that would require tech companies to help law enforcement decrypt data if ordered by a court.

But the law is unlikely to pass, at least in its current form. Critics skewered the bill, saying the vague language could potentially outlaw seemingly mundane technology such as web browsers or the “virtual private network,” which businesses routinely to protect their internal data.

“The drafters of that bill are completely and utterly out of touch with modern technology,” said Cardozo, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Getting help from suspects themselves has proved legally thorny as well, with legal experts saying that forcing someone to give up their password violates the Constitutional right against self-incrimination. In the most recent case, a former Philadelphia police officer suspected of keeping child porn was jailed for refusing to “decrypt” hard drives that investigators were unable to access.

Were Lee alive, he might have faced the same dilemma, according to his defense attorney, Dustin Tischler, who said he would have fought any attempts to force him to provide passwords.

“He could have been held in contempt of court,” Tischler said. “Who knows, it could have gone to the Florida Supreme Court.”

Lee moved to South Florida nearly a decade ago, after working at the Chicago office of Marcus & Millichap, a major Wall Street real-estate investment firm.

Lee was the founder of a start-up called Miami Apartment Finders, which after the real-estate bust hoped to tap into the growing rental market. After its creation in 2008, former employees said, the South Beach company eventually fizzled as Lee squabbled frequently with agents he had employed.

He was also involved in the creation of an electronic cigarette company called American Vapor. In a bitter dispute, Lee and another man later sued a former business partner over ownership of the company, litigation still ongoing in Miami-Dade civil court.

Former associates described Lee, who once lived at the swank Mondrian hotel in South Beach, as arrogant, temperamental and driven by money. He was also unusually guarded about his private life, rarely allowing friends into his home.

Lee came to the attention of police back in December 2013 when a young man, identified only as R.M., reported an unusual story.

He claimed that he had placed an ad in the “casual encounters” section of the classified website Craigslist, looking for someone interested in “incest role play.” A few days later, Lee responded to the ad, and the two agreed to hook up at Lee’s Venetian Way apartment on Belle Isle.

According to a search warrant, Lee asked if he could trust the man, then showed him a series of photos of “naked boys and girls” on a silver laptop. The images showed sex acts, and appeared to be stored on two external hard drives.

Lee told R.M. that he paid a woman on the Internet for videos of her children “engaging in sexual activity.” In all, Lee showed him some 15 child-porn videos.

Uncomfortable and “turned off” by the child pornography, R.M. nevertheless had sex with Lee because he “was horny” and attracted to Lee’s “sizable genitalia,” according to a search warrant. R.M. also noticed something odd: a baby crib being used as storage; Lee claimed it belonged to his landlord.

Afterward, R.M. felt guilty about what he had seen and called police, spurring an investigation by a Miami Beach police and the Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force. After surveillance and checking records, detectives raided Lee’s apartment in July 2014.

During the raid, Lee — stark naked — tried to jump out of his window, but was pulled to safety by officers. He was later committed to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. But when he was released, Lee walked to the The Sail condo, 170 SE 14th St., and hurled himself from the top of the 11-story parking garage.

His death did not diminish the urgency of the investigation.

The same day of the raid, in an unrelated case, Detective Velazquez and Homeland Security Investigations Agent Tim Devine flew to Polk County to bust a man who had distributed videos of himself sexually assaulting a baby and a toddler. That man, Benjamin Cuadrado, was later sentenced to 80 years in prison and the case underscored the importance of finding real-life victims in Lee’s case.

The digital forensic analysis uncovered the trove of child porn images on his laptop.

There were also a wealth of suggestive, but not explicit, photos of a young girl that Lee had been caring for. She denied being abused, but investigators were disturbed that Lee took a photo of the girl’s bathing suit with her genitalia.

But any evidence of additional victims remain locked on the hard drives, which initially went to the U.S. Secret Service with no luck.

At the time, prosecutors and detectives underwent talks with Western Digital, which would not commit to helping investigators try to get around the encryption. Prosecutors eventually dropped the effort, instead sending the drive to the FBI’s computer analysis lab, where it remains today, still encrypted.

A Western Digital spokesman said the company does not comment on specific cases, but said “we have a rigorous process for reviewing inquiries from law enforcement.”

Said the spokesman, Steve Shattuck: “Inquiries relating to encrypted hard drives have been very infrequent.”