Man gets 5-year prison term for child pornography

Extensive collection of graphic materials leaves judge to call defendant a con man and pedophile

Dennis DeRego (left) and his attorney, Richard Gronna, listen to a friend speak in support of DeRego during his sentencing hearing Friday in 2nd Circuit Court. DeRego was sentenced to a five-year prison term after police recovered more than 1,800 images of child pornography while investigating a report of sexual assault of a 9-year-old girl. -- The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo

WAILUKU — A Haiku man said he collected more than 1,800 pornographic images of children so he could warn others and report it to authorities, but a judge called the defendant a con man and pedophile, sentencing him Friday to a five-year prison term.

Dennis DeRego, 57, also was sentenced to a one-year jail term, to be served at the same time, for assaulting a 9-year-old girl who is related to him.

“I’m convinced you are a pedophile, that you enjoy looking at images of young children and you get sexual gratification doing so,” 2nd Circuit Judge Richard Bissen said to DeRego. “What a coincidence, you’re doing investigation for the FBI and (the victim) accuses you of fondling her. It’s because it’s not a coincidence.

“You’re an opportunistic pedophile.”

By downloading the 1,829 images and videos, DeRego “revictimized children across the world,” said Deputy Prosecutor Iwalani Gasmen.

“All of these images involved real, living and breathing children that were under the age of 12 at the time,” she said.

In addition to the 73 children, including some as young as 3 and 4, there was a 74th child — the 9-year-old girl — who was affected by what DeRego did, Gasmen said.

She said a woman who had moved into DeRego’s residence in December 2013 reported that he would walk around nude in front of the girl. The woman also told police that DeRego would drive to different locations and take cellphone photos of children between ages 6 and 10 and would take family members to the beach, where he would take underwater photos of young girls’ private areas while they were swimming, Gasmen said.

She said DeRego showed the woman child pornography on his computer and would tell her “he knows it’s naughty but it gets him really excited.”

The woman called police on Aug. 8, 2014, to report that she had seen DeRego sexually touching the 9-year-old girl.

In April 2015, the girl confirmed that DeRego had touched her under her clothing, Gasmen said.

She read a letter from the girl, who said that when she was first questioned by police she “lied” for DeRego.

“I was scared to tell anyone because I didn’t know what they would think of me,” her letter said.

“Then one day I finally told someone,” she said. “It felt like a brick was lifted off me.”

“What you did was a blessing and curse because those memories will always be there, but I have an even better life without you,” she said, referring to DeRego.

In a letter to the court, the girl’s mother said she had heard her daughter, now 13, say more than once, “Mommy, maybe it happened so I can help others through something like this.”

Gasmen said it appeared that both the girl and her mother “have taken the path toward healing and recovery.”

“But what’s very clear is they need to be away from the defendant for their healing process to continue,” Gasmen said.

In recommending a prison sentence for DeRego, she said he had done poorly after posting bail to be released from jail in July 2015. He tested positive for opioids and the active ingredient of marijuana five times in 2015 and early 2016 and submitted diluted specimens for testing two other times in 2016, Gasmen said.

DeRego, who asked to be placed on probation, said he came across the images while searching online for a modeling agency for children.

“The links that popped up on the searches took him down the rabbit hole,” said defense attorney Richard Gronna. “As he went further down in the rabbit hole, he continued to obtain these images that were already online.

“His purpose was to obtain these and to alert people of the fact that it’s out there and to essentially warn them.”

The images were stored on flash drives, which DeRego turned over to police, Gronna said.

“I wasn’t thinking of breaking laws,” DeRego said. “I’m thinking I’m trying to get attention to this.

“I take full responsibility of downloading the images and trying to be the hero. I’m sorry.”

He also said he had downloaded some photos of poses so he could use them in his wedding business.

Gronna said police didn’t recover other images that the woman reported DeRego had taken, questioning whether that had occurred.

“Outside of this situation, you have someone essentially very engaged in the community,” Gronna said. “You have an individual who is otherwise outgoing and helpful to everyone.”

Gronna said DeRego had delayed further diagnosis and treatment for a “thyroid nodule” found in 2016 and has a medical marijuana card for a “plethora of medical conditions.”

Gronna referred to a “fainting episode” in April 2015 when DeRego was helped into a wheelchair and taken out of the courtroom by paramedics during his bail hearing.

Toward the end of his sentencing Friday, DeRego ended up lying on the floor but later got back into a chair after Judge Bissen told DeRego, “You can lay down” but the sentencing would continue.

Nine friends, including a tenant who said he has known DeRego for about a week, spoke in court to support him.

Lisa Porter said she has known DeRego for more than 25 years and worked with him when he was a wedding minister and musician.

“He’s gone through a lot in the four years since this started,” she said. “He’ll never be able to get his reputation back. He’ll never get his business back as a minister, which was a great business.”

She said she was “kind of outraged” by what she heard in court Friday.

Referring to the woman who called police, Porter said, “My impression was she was a mentally ill homeless person who had been invited into his home.”

Said Jonet Ahuna, whose family has known DeRego’s family for 42 years: “What I found hard to understand is that all of this sounds like a very different person than I know and I love.”

Derek Hoyte, who has known DeRego for 14 years, said he “basically was stunned by what was admitted in court today.”

“I don’t believe that Dennis is capable of things that he’s been accused of,” Hoyte said.

Originally facing sexual assault charges, DeRego had pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of third-degree assault of the girl from July 27, 2013, to Aug. 8, 2014, and third-degree promoting child abuse. Other charges were dismissed in exchange for his pleas.

In court Friday, DeRego said he hadn’t touched the girl sexually.

Addressing three reported incidents of fondling, he said there were reasons he had touched the girl those times, including once because of redness in her private area and another time when he was helping her put on her underwear.

DeRego said he was naked when he held a blanket that he threw over the girl, covering her eyes. “Yes, I stood naked in front of (the girl), but she couldn’t see me,” he said.

In sentencing DeRego, Judge Bissen referred to DeRego’s statement to a probation officer that he felt he had been “railroaded” in the case.

“The court finds that kind of amazing that you would feel like you’re the victim, that somehow you were wronged in this situation,” Bissen said. “Everyone who has spoken, everyone who has felt sorry for the time you have spent awaiting the outcome, I think misses the point — that you put yourself in this position.

“I think you’re a con man and you’ve attempted to con people into thinking that you’re the victim or you’re the one that’s the true person in this.”

The judge said some friends in the courtroom gallery may have been shocked by what DeRego said in court Friday.

“I choose to believe (the victim), all 13 years of her,” Bissen said. “Because I think she loves you. Despite the hurt, she lied for you the first two times. She wasn’t going to do it again. She got old enough. She found her courage.”

Bissen noted that DeRego had locked his laptop computer in his gun safe.

“Who has the need to lock their iPad in their gun locker?” Bissen said. “Nobody does that. That speaks a lot.”

He said DeRego seemed more worried about his reputation than the girl’s welfare.

“Everybody’s concerned about your wedding business or your reputation in the community,” Bissen said. “Everyone’s focus should be on this 13-year-old — someone who is in a situation that she did not ask for, she did not create on her own. In my opinion, you did that.”

The judge said he was surprised to hear DeRego apologize to the girl, her mother and the woman who called police.

“The only way you’re going to get better is for you to admit that you need help,” Bissen told DeRego. “Denying, shifting the blame, putting it off to other people — that’s not going to help you.”

DeRego was ordered to pay $400 in restitution.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

COMMENTS