Friday, September 21, 2007

Prosecutor's arrest in sex sting leaves his town worried

Associated Press Writer

GULF BREEZE, Fla. (AP) -- Assistant U.S. Attorney John D.R. Atchison led a seemingly idyllic life in this upscale beach community. The married father of three was a respected figure who coached girls' softball and basketball in a park just a few blocks from his home.

But all that came crumbling down when he was arrested last weekend in Detroit in an Internet sex sting for allegedly trying to molest what he thought was a 5-year-old girl. Officials say he later tried to hang himself while jailed.

Atchison, 53, had been communicating with an undercover sheriff's detective Macomb County, Mich., who was posing online as the fictitious girl's mother and arranged for him to have sex with the child, police said. He was arrested carrying presents for her, including a doll and earrings, and sexual materials, officials said.

In the community that once applauded Atchison for his dedication to youth sports, people now worry that he might have held other secrets. Authorities have so far found no cases of child abuse in Florida involving Atchison.

As a federal prosecutor, he mostly worked on tax and financial crime cases. According to court records, it appears he never prosecuted child sex abuse cases.

"There were no red flags. He was normal. He went to work at the courthouse Monday through Friday. It's not like he carried dolls to the ballpark," said Lt. Rick Hawthorne, a Gulf Breeze police officer who knew Atchison for more than 10 years and coached softball.

"My first thought was just how stupid it was, particularly someone of his stature. You couldn't think up something like that. What we know now is that he is in custody and the law will take care of it," Mayor Lane Gilchrist said.

He has tried to reassure concerned parents and residents who were also surprised by Atchison's arrest.

"There was nothing involving local children and there should be no implication that there is," he said.

But city manager Edwin "Buz" Eddy, who spent years attending youth sporting events with Atchison and his family, said he worries the community has not seen the end of the case.

"Who's to say that someone won't come forward with an accusation tomorrow," he said.

Eddy said the hurt he feels as a fellow parent is impossible to express.

"If he called me two weeks ago and wanted my daughter to go on a fishing trip I would have said sure," Eddy said.

Ron Johnson, a Pensacola criminal defense attorney, worked with Atchison and knew him socially because their children played sports together. The only thing that made Atchison different from some others was his slightly standoffish "intellectual manner," Johnson said.

"He was obviously a very bright guy and maybe a little eccentric in that sense," he said.

Atchison's lawyer, James C. Thomas, did not return a phone message Friday.

His boss, U.S. Attorney Gregory R. Miller, said in a statement earlier this week that his office was cooperating with the investigation. He said staff members were "deeply saddened by the arrest."

Atchison was charged with three felonies in Michigan including crossing state lines with the intent to have sex with someone under 12. Conviction carries a minimum 30-year prison sentence and a maximum of life.

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