Crime

Harris supervisor, Boal Mansion CEO Christopher Lee charged with child pornography, exploitation

Harris Township Supervisor Christopher Lee is in custody after federal charges of child pornography and child exploitation were filed.
Harris Township Supervisor Christopher Lee is in custody after federal charges of child pornography and child exploitation were filed. CDT photo

Harris Township Supervisor Christopher Lee has been indicted and was taken into custody Thursday on federal charges of child exploitation and child pornography.

Lee, the CEO of historic Boal Mansion, is also in custody for a litany of crimes surrounding misconduct with children, according to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

At about 4:30 a.m. Thursday, Lee was sending out email invitations to the annual Boalsburg Columbus Ball. Hours later, he was taken into custody by the FBI and State College police after an arrest warrant was issued Wednesday.

He was detained after a hearing in front of Judge William Arbuckle III in Williamsport on charges of alleged use of facilities in interstate commerce to coerce and entice a minor to engage in unlawful sexual activity, transportation of a minor with the intent to engage in sexual activity and receipt and possession of child pornography.

The charges stem from alleged incidents between January and June of this year that occurred on the Boal Mansion Museum premises, according to U.S. Attorney Peter Smith. The museum’s activities include a docent program in which American and international students serve as volunteer tour guides.

Lee’s lawyer, Joe Amendola, claimed Lee is innocent and argued at the arraignment hearing for bail, saying Lee had been aware of the investigation.

He told Arbuckle that there were conditions that could be set, including no contact with children, that would permit Lee to be released on bail. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Meredith Taylor argued against bail, claiming Lee was a danger to the community and a flight risk.

Bail was denied. Although the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to say where Lee was being detained, citing security reasons, a U.S. marshal who took him into custody after the hearing confirmed that Lee is being held at Columbia County Prison.

The information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office was short on specifics in the case, but did say the alleged child pornography was found in connection with a search by State College police.

Officials said the charges could mean a maximum life sentence, with a mandatory minimum of 10 years for the transportation charge and five for the receipt charge. A $1 million fine is also on the table.

In a news conference Thursday at the State College Municipal Building, State College Police Chief Thomas King and Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said the indictment came about as a partnership between local police and federal agencies.

“State College police were very diligent in immediately realizing there was a lot of evidence to start sorting through from a search warrant of his house,” Parks Miller said, “and we’re happy to say there was a great cooperation of law enforcement — State College PD, Attorney General’s Office, the FBI — in a lot of the evidence, and now there’s a partnership in his prosecution.”

The victim originally contacted his family via text message about the alleged incident, King said, saying the act had occurred the first night he was staying at the Boal Mansion. As a result, the family contacted State College police, and the investigation kicked off from there.

Four search warrants were executed June 30, King said. After consulting with the District Attorney’s Office, it was decided to move the investigation to a higher jurisdiction.

Based on that analysis, as well as at least one international victim, police realized they would also like to make use of FBI resources to see if any other forensics could be done, King said.

Federal agencies “have more resources in terms of being able to reach out to more victims,” Parks Miller said. “And, to be quite frank, they have some stiffer penalties that they may be able to impose.”

The alleged victim is still cooperating, King said. His family is supportive of the District Attorney’s Office and State College police and have been updated on the indictment.

“We want to make sure every victim, if there are any additional victims, that they come forward,” King said. “We want to make sure they have a voice. If there have been violations committed against other people, he’s held accountable for it, and that we take appropriate action.”

“At this time, it does not appear that this is a township matter, though Mr. Lee is obviously a township supervisor,” Harris Township Manager Amy Farkas said. “We will continue to monitor the situation. If there is anything that looks like we need to take some action, we’ll step in. But on the advice of our solicitor, we’re not to have any more comment on the matter.”

Lee has previous charges of indecent assault, corruption of minors and harassment in 2005, when two boys, ages 10 and 8, alleged inappropriate touching on an overnight stay at the mansion.

Amendola represented him in that incident as well, when he also maintained his innocence. He received a nine-month accelerated rehabilitative disposition sentence in 2006. An application to partially expunge those charges was denied in 2008 and granted in 2009, according to court records.

Lee has previously sought higher office as state representative for the 171st District against incumbent Kerry Benninghoff. He is currently involved in a legal battle with State College Community Theatre in a dispute over use of the Boal Barn Playhouse.

The FBI continues to investigate the most recent charges. Anyone with information is asked to call Special Agent Clifton Vikara at 234-0341 or State College police at 234-7150.

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