The exploitation of hundreds of girls was bad enough, but even Michael Berenson’s cohorts in an online community of men — who worked to coerce girls into undressing and performing sex acts in front of web cameras — drew the line at blackmailing their victims and distributing sexual images of the girls on the Internet.
Berenson, a 30-year-old Shoreline man, did both without hesitation and enjoyed torturing the girls he victimized, Assistant U.S. Attorney April Russo wrote in a sentencing memo filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Michigan. He ridiculed and encouraged girls to harm themselves and made fun of at least three girls who died by suicide as a result of the online sex abuse, Russo wrote.
On Monday, Berenson was sentenced in Detroit to serve 55 years in federal prison, 15 years more than the 23 other men who were sentenced earlier for their roles in the elaborate online scheme that targeted girls ages 8 to 17, court records show.
Though investigators have been unable to identify hundreds of the victims, Berenson was also ordered to pay $95,000 in restitution, split among his 19 known victims, including the mother of one of them, Amanda Todd. Amanda, 15, took her own life in October 2012, a month after posting a powerful YouTube video about the bullying she suffered as a result of being sexually exploited by Berenson and his co-defendants.
According to court records, Berenson and the other men pretended to be teenagers and would strike up online friendships with girls, flattering them and spending weeks earning their trust, then getting them to agree to “flash” their stomachs or bras for webcams. Things would gradually escalate until the girls agreed to undress and perform sex acts as directed by the men, who recorded the sessions without the girls’ knowledge, then traded the videos among themselves.
Berenson — who admitted to sexually exploiting 1,000 girls over more than a decade — took over some of his victims’ web cameras, spying on them for months at a time in their bedrooms, the sentencing memo says. He also obtained pornographic images of children from other pedophiles, remotely downloading the men’s hard drives, changing their passwords and stealing their files while protecting his own collection of more than 110,000 images and videos with a double-layer encryption system, according to the government.
“No bar was too low for him, no conduct too evil, no girl too young. He stalked, he blackmailed, he terrorized. Some girls cut themselves because of him, some attempted suicide and at least one may have actually ended her life,” Russo wrote of Berenson.
Berenson, the most tech-savvy of the nearly 30 men charged in the scheme, compiled personal information about some of his victims, including their parents’ and friends’ contact information and photos of the girls’ houses, according to the memo. In one instance, after a 14-year-old girl tried to end contact with Berenson, he threatened to “tell everyone her father was molesting her” and release sexual videos Berenson had made of the girl, the memo says.
In 2010 or 2011, Berenson and a group of six to eight men began targeting girls on a specific webcam site, court records say. The men, who all posed online as teenagers, established an online “base” where they could strategize and divvy up roles for each member: “Hunters” were in charge of finding kids on monitored websites and tricking them into coming to unmonitored chat rooms, where “talkers,” such as Berenson, would take over, court records say.
Talkers were responsible for grooming girls, often over the course of weeks, and eventually enticing them into performing sex acts that the men recorded. If a girl resisted, a “looper” would play a previously recorded video of another victim and pretend to be that girl, garnering compliments from the group who would ignore the target until she engaged in the same activity, according to the records.
The original group of men disbanded after 10 months, largely because Berenson “thrived on blackmail and he widely distributed the images and videos he made,” causing a division in the group, the records say. Berenson— who continued exploiting girls, alone and in concert with other men — also pitted girls against each other in a game he devised, giving them points for taking off items of clothing and engaging in sexual activity, according to court records.
After an investigation that began in 2015, FBI agents and members of the Seattle Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit showed up at Berenson’s parents’ Shoreline house in May 2017, where they executed a search warrant and took Berenson in for questioning, The Seattle Times reported at the time. He was initially charged in King County Superior Court with first-degree possession of depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
Then in August 2017, federal prosecutors in Michigan — who were prosecuting at least one of Berenson’s co-conspirators — charged Berenson with 10 criminal counts, including engaging in a child-exploitation enterprise, coercing and enticing minors to engage in sexually explicit conduct, and charges related to the production and viewing of pornographic images of children, court records show.
Berenson pleaded guilty to a single count of engaging in a child-exploitation enterprise in June. According to his plea agreement, King County prosecutors will dismiss charges filed against him now that he’s been sentenced in the federal case in Michigan.