March 10, 2010

Defendant says offers to rent girls were 'role-playing'

TREVOR MAXWELL

— By

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — At his federal trial on charges of enticing minors for sex acts, Michael Berk said Wednesday that investigators and prosecutors have mistaken an elaborate fantasy for a crime.

Berk, 29, who most recently lived in Brownfield, described himself as the product of a dysfunctional family and the cultural rise of the Internet, who by age 28 was deeply immersed in online role-playing and casual sexual encounters.

Images of child pornography and explicit online chats related to social taboos -- including his own offer to pay a father so Berk could have sex with an underage daughter -- are concepts that Berk says he and countless other Internet users have employed to fuel their fantasies.

Berk adamantly told U.S. District Judge George Singal that those concepts were only in his mind, that he was strictly interested in sex with adults, and that he never attempted to have sex with children.

''I'm looking for role-playing. I'm looking for fantasy,'' Berk testified about his online interaction with a man from Biddeford, who called police last Aug. 28 after Berk allegedly offered to rent his 12-year-old daughter for sex acts.

Berk said he felt comfortable role-playing because he and the man had exchanged messages online just a few days earlier, allegedly about getting together for partner-swapping. The man has denied sending those messages.

''I didn't believe that there was a 12-year-old daughter,'' Berk said. ''This looks like the same type of plot device that I've used in fantasy chats with other people. I expected that he was going to role-play with me.''

The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank, had just begun his cross-examination of Berk when court adjourned at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. Frank is expected to resume his questioning of Berk this morning.

Berk, who has lived in several states, faces two counts of enticing a minor, and has pleaded guilty to a count of possessing child pornography. All three counts carry minimum penalties of 10 years in prison.

Because Berk waived his right to a jury, the decision on his innocence or guilt rests with Judge Singal.

On Aug. 28, Berk responded to a help-wanted notice posted by the Biddeford man on Craigslist. The man said he needed work to help provide for four children.

Berk contacted the man, asked about his children, and later asked whether he would be willing to rent out his daughter. The man notified police, who set up an undercover operation at a coffee shop in Westbrook. Agents recorded Berk offering to pay up to $300 a week for three visits with the 12-year-old. He was detained, interviewed and arrested.

About a week later, a woman reported that Berk also had approached her about renting her 12-year-old daughter for sexual training. Berk had responded to her Craigslist post, in which she asked for help finding housing.

During testimony Wednesday, Berk explained that his ''standard operating procedure'' was to respond to Craigslist posts that piqued his interest, including requests for help from people who appeared to be down on their luck, and those that referenced teenage or pre-teen daughters.

Berk said he reached out to such people to see whether they shared his interest in exploring alternative sexual relationships. Sometimes those online messages led to fantasies that played out via the Internet, Berk said, and sometimes they led to in-the-flesh encounters.

But he insisted that all of his talk about underage girls was simply part of the role-playing with adults.

The real goal, Berk said, was for him to play the dominant role and for others to play submissive roles. He said he had an ''insatiable'' need for control and to subjugate others, probably because of his troubled childhood.

With the scenario involving the Biddeford man, Berk said he wanted the man to offer up his daughter -- not literally, but as part of dominant-submissive role-playing.

''I was talking with an adult about a fantasy concept. There was nothing illegal about it,'' Berk said.

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

tmaxwell@pressherald.com

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