A man who operated a web server that hosted multiple websites that allowed users to view and share child exploitation material has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge.
Eric Eoin Marques, 33, a dual citizen of the United States and Ireland pleaded guilty to conspiracy to advertise child pornography in a court in Maryland on Thursday, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). He faces a minimum of 15 years in prison and a maximum of 30 years, but with his plea agreement, he hopes to ask the federal judge to sentence him to 15 to 21 years in prison—something the judge is not bound by.
Federal prosecutors say that Marques from Dublin, Ireland, was operating a free anonymous hosting service located on the “dark web”—a part of the internet that requires special software to access—between July 24, 2008, and July 29, 2013, that allowed users and websites to remain anonymous or untraceable. Dozens of the websites hosted on the service allowed users to view and share images that displayed sexual abuse of children, violent sexual abuse, and bestiality.
Authorities extradited Marques to the United States from Ireland in March 2019. He was subsequently charged with a four-count indictment alleging that he conspired to, and did advertise and distribute child pornography, between July 24, 2008, and July 29, 2013.
The FBI agents found through their investigation that Marque’s hosting service contained over 8.5 million images of child exploitation material. Over 1.97 million of these images and videos involved victims that were not previously known by law enforcement. The department said one of the child exploitation websites hosted on the server reported almost 1.4 million file uploads as of July 2013.
“The defendant’s anonymous web service hosted dozens of insidious criminal communities dedicated to the sexual exploitation of children and spread millions of images of that abuse,” Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division said in a statement. “His guilty plea is proof of the department’s fierce commitment to rooting out those who hide behind anonymous networks to commit serious child exploitation offenses.”
Marques is scheduled to be sentenced on May 11.
The department said the case was brought under the project safe childhood (PSC) initiative aimed at combating the epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse. The initiative marshals “federal, state, and local resources to locate, apprehend, and prosecute individuals who sexually exploit children, and to identify and rescue victims.”
Last October, the department announced that over 300 people were arrested worldwide following an international operation to take down the largest secret child exploitation website hosted on the dark web.
U.S. law enforcement cooperated with authorities from other countries to target the website operator and users, leading to investigations in 38 countries and yielding the arrests of 337 people suspected of possessing or sharing child sexual abuse content.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.