15 Years Ago: Pete Townshend Arrested on Child Porn Charges

Caught up in an international child-porn scandal, Pete Townshend didn’t do himself any favors. Not when he admitted to paying for access to an illegal site, not when his explanation as to why seemed to beg credulity, and certainly not when he refused to appear in court.

In the end, the Who legend was cleared of the worst of the charges – Townshend didn’t download any images, an offense that carries a maximum five-year jail sentence – but not the taint of scandal. His excuse ultimately seemed to be true, but it hardly mattered to those who’d already decided he was a pedophile.

He continued work on various musical projects, and completed a 2012 autobiography titled Who I Am. But it wasn’t easy. “If I had a gun, I would have shot myself,” Townshend wrote in his memoir. “It really did feel like a lynching.”

When the authorities arrived on Jan. 13, 2003 to take Townshend into custody under the Protection of Children Act, he insisted that there was a logical reason for his actions: He’d been surfing the darker corners of the internet as part of research for the autobiography, in which Townshend intended to discuss his own suspected abuse as a child. Enraged by what he found, Townshend said he decided he’d expose this criminal underworld.

“I am not a pedophile,” Townshend said the day of his arrest. “I’d be prepared to have my computer hard drive analyzed. It’s important police are able to convince themselves that, if I did anything illegal, I did it purely for research.”

By then, a team of Scotland Yard detectives carrying blue plastic crates with evidence bags had already begun a multi-hour search of both his business offices and his home in the exclusive London suburb of Richmond, Surrey. Solicitor John Cohen told the Guardian that Townshend was questioned for an hour and 20 minutes by officers at the police station in Twickenham, as local law enforcement assisted with a world-wide crackdown on internet child pornography.

Sean Dempsey, Getty Images

“The access and payment for child abuse images is an offense, and inciting others to distribute these images leads to young children being seriously sexually assaulted to meet the growing demands of the internet customer,” London’s Metropolitan Police said in a 2003 statement. “It is not a defense to access these images for research or out of curiosity.”

Townshend acknowledged providing his credit-card information to Landslide Productions, an illicit Texas-based portal run by Thomas and Janice Reedy – both of whom had already been convicted of child-porn trafficking. Their former site was subsequently run as a police-sting operation, netting more than 7,200 suspected users in the U.K. alone.

“I have looked at child porn sites maybe three or four times in all, the front pages and the previews,” he said a few days after his arrest. “But I have only entered once using a credit card, and I have never downloaded. With hindsight, it was very foolish, but I felt so angered about what was going on, it blurred my judgment.”

A year before his arrest, Townshend had actually admitted to what he did. In January 2002, he wrote a lengthy essay for his website called A Different Bomb where he revealed that, after a friend who had been sexually abused as a child by her father had killed herself, he decided to disclose when he attempted to confront the possibility that he had suffered similarly in his past.

“It is what is unconscious in me that makes me scream for vengeance against my friend’s abusers, rather than an adult understanding of what went wrong,” he wrote.

Townshend described how quickly he found a Russian site that provided him with a free image of a man raping an infant. “The awful reality hit me of the self-propelling, self-spawning mechanism of the internet,” he continued. “I reached for the phone, I intended to call the police and take them through the process I had stumbled upon – and bring the pornographers involved to book. Then I thought twice about it. With someone on trial who had once been connected with me – however loosely – I spoke off-the-record to a lawyer instead. He advised me to do nothing. He advised me that I most certainly should not download the image as ‘evidence’. So I did as he advised. Nothing.”

After a four-month investigation, authorities determined that there were no criminal images on any of Townshend’s computers. Still, a court date loomed – and Townshend feared the worst.

“A forensic investigator found that I hadn’t entered the website, but nonetheless, by the time the charges came to be presented to me, it was five months,” Townshend later admitted. “I was exhausted. I felt that if I went to court I would be offering myself up for sacrifice.”

He was said to be paying some $ 3,000 a day for security at his home, where insults were regularly shouted from passing cars, the Los Angeles Times reported. “The whole thing is ludicrous,” the Who’s long-time publicist Keith Altham said in 2003. “I constantly saw him around kids on the road and his behavior was always impeccable. He was foolish to go to this site even for research. But that’s all. He doesn’t deserve this. He does deserve respect.”

Feeling battered, Townshend told the BBC he simply lacked the “courage and strength” to appear before the judge.

In his absence, Townshend was placed on a national register of sex offenders by Metropolitan Police, and remained there through 2008. A sample of his DNA was taken, for the purposes of possible criminal investigations in the future. Townshend was required to notify police of any lengthy trip abroad, as well as any change of address. He was also required to undergo “multi-agency assessment” to ensure that he was no further risk to children.

Meanwhile, the British investigation – called Operation Ore – also led to the questioning of the Bay City Rollers’ former manager, popular U.K. TV host Matthew Kelly and Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack. Del Naja was later cleared, as were a number of Townshend’s fellow accused – many of them because the credit cards used in these transactions had, in fact, been stolen.

For Townshend, however, the damage had already been done. He chose to fall silent.

Who I Am arrived four years after Townshend finally left the registry, and it did indeed explore abusive relationships from his childhood. (He’d dealt with the topic before: Townshend’s 1969 rock opera Tommy memorably featured a “deaf, dumb and blind” major character who’d been sexually assaulted by a family member.) It was only then, once the book was published, that Townshend felt emboldened to more fully discuss the scandal again.

His intent in paying for access to the site, Townshend said in a 2012 interview, was to expose the financial chain that connects British banks with Russian orphanages.

“It’s white-knight syndrome: You want to be the one that’s seen to be helping,” he said. “I had experienced something creepy as a child, so you imagine, what if I was a girl of nine or 10 and my uncle had raped me every week? I felt I had an understanding, and I could help.”

The entire transaction, which Townshend said he cancelled immediately, had cost him £7 – and then so much more.

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