A Florida man accused of running a catalog business with a Lavina man to distribute nationwide obscene videotapes depicting violent gang rapes, torture, bestiality and sadistic conduct pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court.
Sanford Wasserman, 65, of Lauderhill, Fla., admitted the material on the videotapes was obscene and that he received money from co-defendant Thomas W. Lambert, 65, of Lavina, as proceeds from sales. Wasserman said he provided Lambert with mailing lists.
Wasserman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute obscene material in interstate commerce using an express company. His case had been set for a jury trial Monday. Lambert, who agreed to testify for the government at Wasserman's trial, pleaded guilty to the charge on Feb. 25.
U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer said the Justice Department has made prosecuting distribution of obscenity a priority. Mercer called the material on the videotapes "corrosive” to society.
"There is absolutely no place for that material in society,” he said. "The department wants to push back.”
The case is the second obscenity case brought in Montana. Last year Billings resident Gary Robinson, who was an employee of Lambert's, pleaded guilty to transporting obscene materials and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
Mercer said Wasserman's and Lambert's Montana enterprise, called Pet Tec, grossed about $400,000 in 15 months.
Material deemed obscene is not protected by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
Mark Morse, a U.S. postal inspector in Montana who viewed the videotapes seized in the case, called the material the worst he's seen in 20 years as an agent. "It would make some people physically sick to see them,” he said. "They are graphic beyond belief. It's so far over the line, it's not even a close call.”
Titles included "Anything Goes” and "Rape and Sodomize.”
Had the case gone to trial, the videotapes would have been played for a jury to decide whether they were obscene.
Mercer said at a news conference that the case started when a federal judge in Texas received a catalog and turned it over to law enforcement for investigation.
In the government's proof, which contained sexually explicit descriptions of 12 videotapes and was not read aloud, Mercer said Wasserman was indicted in the Texas case. He pleaded guilty to mailing obscene material and aiding and abetting. Wasserman was sentenced in December 2001 to two years of probation and was fined $10,000.
Wasserman's company, New Technology, grossed $1.7 million from 1998 until 2001, Mercer said.
While on release during the Texas case and while on probation, Wasserman continued to operate a warehouse and video duplication studio in Florida, Mercer said.
In about January 2002, Lambert, who was a friend of Wasserman, transferred the business, inventory and videotape duplicating equipment to Lavina. From there, the two continued doing business as Pet Tec. Many of the videos offered for sale in the New Technology and the Pet Tec catalogs have the same titles, stock numbers, prices and descriptions.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigated the case because the videotapes initially were distributed through the mail before being sent through express companies.
Bill Morris, the postal inspector in charge of the Seattle division which includes Montana, said numerous videotapes were seized from Lambert's home. The investigation involved postal inspectors in Washington, Montana and Oregon with some acting undercover to buy videotapes from Lambert.
Investigators said the videotapes cost between $30 and $65 and were from one to two hours long. The catalog offered 250 to 300 different videotapes.
As part of a plea agreement, Wasserman can appeal a pre-trial ruling in which U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull denied a defense motion to dismiss the case. Zachary Cain, Wasserman's federal defender, argued in his motion that the obscenity laws were unconstitutional.
The government also intends to seek a five-year prison sentence. While five years is the statutory maximum for the crime, Mercer said he thought the guidelines would place the sentencing range at five years because of Wasserman's criminal history and the nature of the case. If the judge orders a five-year sentence, Mercer said, it would be the longest in the country for the crime in the last four years.
Cebull set sentencing for June 16 and continued Wasserman's release. Co-defendant Lambert is to be sentenced June 8.