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GASTON, N.C. –Druid Daniel Scott Holbrook pleaded no contest Apr. 4 to dissemination of obscenities, accepting a suspended sentence as well as six months of probation. While Holbrook’s claims of innocence ring true for some members of his community, others are withdrawing contact in the wake of what is functionally similar to pleading guilty.

Scott Holbrook [Courtesy Photo]

Scott Holbrook [Courtesy Photo]

Holbrook, who has maintained all along that the images were downloaded unintentionally, agreed along with his wife and a family friend to speak about what happened over that July 4th weekend. He also wrote about what happened in a recent blog post, in which he recounted how he and his wife were entertaining an old friend from out of town and decided to download a movie using a peer-to-peer BitTorrent client. He said:

“The first file I tried to download, at the top of the queue, was tagged as being the movie we were looking for, though the actual file name was some unmemorable string of letters and numbers. When I opened the partially downloaded folder to check on its progress, I saw that what was inside it was not the sought-after video file, but images. I opened one to see what it was, and discovered immediately that it was very much not what I’d been trying to download. I was horrified.”

The offending files were deleted, he said, as was the video download, and the three friends went on with their evening.

Holbrook’s account is essentially how his wife and friend Eric remember the evening’s events.

Peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent are intended to leverage the power of multiple machines. A file can be downloaded from several different locations simultaneously, speeding up the process. To facilitate that process, clients such as BitLord, which Holbrook was using, allow uploading of those same files immediately.

Holbrook acknowledges he didn’t turn off that setting.

According to the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, “Files shared through P2P applications may include pirated software, copyrighted material, or pornography. If you download these, even unknowingly, you may be faced with fines or other legal action.”

Files shared on these systems are named and tagged by other users, and typically the ones that rise to the top of the queue are not those that are accurately labeled, but those which are subject to the highest volume of traffic.

Eric said that he believed at the time that there was no outside risk in seeking to download the movie.

“I knew viruses and unwanted files could slip through, but the site they were using was one that was widely used by other friends in that area, including many in the Pagan Community, and seemed to be a fairly trusted site.” He provided screen shots of a number of text messages that place him at the scene.

Holbrook later found out that the images were legally classified as “erotica” because the content was “revealing” and “sensual,” rather than explicitly sexual. However, that fact made the one he viewed “no less disturbing.”

However, Holbrook was unaware of any legal distinction until months later, when an FBI agent and two police officers came by for an interview in the early morning hours of Oct 18. The files involved had been flagged as illegal, and their investigation had led to Holbrook and his laptop computer.

After the computer was examined, the assigned detective charged Holbrook with “dissemination of obscenity,” which Holbrook said was, “a rarely-used and vaguely-worded crime that has an extremely broad range of application . . . . In my case, it applies to the fact that the offending images — despite them being accidentally accessed — were then seeded/disseminated and intercepted by the police. [The detective] emphasized, however, that what I was being charged with was not a sex crime and did not entail registration as sex offender, or even jail time.”

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Believing that being cooperative had earned him a simple process of speaking to a judge, Holbrook instead found himself put into a cell after the judge set bail. As he went to court alone and was unable to post the bond, his wife Amber found out what had happened the same way many Pagans did, from a local Gaston Gazette article.

“I found out at 4:38 that afternoon from a friend via text message after they had seen the Gazette article on Facebook,” she confirmed. “It felt like my entire world had been entirely obliterated. Panic and shock completely took over. After a moment I composed myself and called my mother to figure out what to do and contacted a couple of friends to figure out how to post bail. I also talked to my spiritual mentor shortly after that.”

Eric helped with the fund raising, and also submitted a defense of his friend to The Wild Hunt, “but I quickly found out that due to being there I was a witness and was bound by law to keep my mouth shut and just watch the internet continue to talk and speculate.”

Some consequences were swift. Holbrook lost his job after missing work while sitting in a cell, and the couple was evicted after his address was published.

“When I arrived home after that day, I discovered that same article — an inaccurate and sensationalized rendering of the police blotter — had been sent straight to the ADF Mother Grove and was being actively discussed on email lists and social media,” said Holbrook.

“My own Facebook wall was being peppered with insulting comments, and people who I’d thought were friends were dropping in droves from my contacts list. I soon found that everything from my place of work to anyone the Druid group I’d been leading had been in contact with, and most of the groups and organizations with which I had any involvement, had been broadcast across the internet in a way that made my family and I feel distinctly unsafe, not to mention prematurely condemned.”

Holbrook added, “However, the majority of people I’ve actually interacted with, including most of my local community, have been enormously understanding and supportive, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to them.”

Holbrook was, at the time of the incident, deputy regional Druid for North Carolina in Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, as well as organizer of the Raven’s Hollow Protogrove. He resigned that leadership position soon after the arrest and, while the protogrove was also dissolved, its members continue to meet outside of ADF auspices.

He also resigned as local coordinator for Piedmont Pagan Pride, likewise to spare leaders “the difficult situation that had been laid at their feet.”

When the case came to trial after several adjournments in response to motions and scheduling conflicts, Holbrook entered a plea of “no contest” on the advice of his attorney.

“I emphatically did not plead guilty,” he said. “I pled[sic] no contest to my single charge, because the only alternative would have been to take the case to a lengthy trial which was far outside the reach of what I could afford.As it was, I was forced by my own severely-limited resources to depend on the generosity friends and family to afford the services my lawyer had thus far provided, and no one I knew had access to anything like the $10,000 his office told us it would cost to try my case before a jury.

“Furthermore, my lawyer advised me that because I have made no secret of my religious affiliation in an area where conservatism and Southern Christianity dominate (to the extent that our Pagan Pride events get whole Christian counter-festivals set up down the street to protest us), it was extremely unlikely that I would receive fair treatment from an unbiased jury.”

Holbrook’s attorney was unavailable for comment.

Reverend Tony Brown of the North Carolina Church of Wicca was on hand when the plea was entered. As a member of the local Pagan community, he wanted to know as much as possible firsthand. He’s also read the accounts written by Holbrook and Eric.

“Some of the details in those accounts differ from what I heard in court,” Rev. Brown said. “I don’t know if that’s because of additional information or clarifications that Scott got from his probation officer, or what. I know that both the DA and the judge did describe the mandatory treatment program as ‘sex offender treatment,’ but they didn’t provide any details about the actual name of the program itself.”

A plea of no contest is a statement that defendant does not wish to contest the charges. While it may pave the road to a lesser sentence, it nevertheless is treated the same as a guilty plea or verdict; in some locales, including this one, they are entered into the official court records as “guilty.”

Brown said that among the conditions Holbrook agreed to are warrantless searches of his electronic equipment. The judge also ordered the laptop destroyed, which Brown thought was “misdirected,” as the computer itself could have been wiped and reused.

Amber has “mixed feelings” about the deal. “I feel that we took the best option that we were given, but that Scott was given an unfair deal, since the officer made the statement several times to multiple people that he thought Scott just got caught up in some BS.”

She and her husband speak of now being able to try to rebuild their lives.

“The most difficult injustice I’ve encountered though has been from the Pagan community,” said Eric, the members of which he feels jumped to conclusions. “In their zeal to cut themselves off from association with a certain class of criminal, they jumped on our situation and assumed that’s what we were even when that was not what the legal documents themselves implied.”

Eric goes on to say, “It was being widely published, disseminated, and discussed in Pagan journals before Amber and I even had Scott safely home. I understand the need to separate ourselves from abusers, but there is an unfortunate tendency in some Pagan circles to succumb to gossip and engage in witch-hunting behavior without seeking out the whole story, or in this case even reading the actual charges. Due to the small size of the Pagan world, one of the effects of this is that even little people like Scott get booted to celebrity status by the barest hint of a scandal, and the story is allowed to grow and skew.”

Pagans have become much more aware of, and vigilant about, sex-related crimes since the arrest of Kenny Klein in 2014. “I think people like Klein can make us hypersensitive,” said Brown. “Scott’s case is only marginally similar, and there’s a real danger of unfairly lumping the two together.”

Holbrook is expecting the recovery to be hard work. “I don’t imagine the road forward to be at all easy, and there are many relationships in the Pagan and Druid communities that need to be restored and the trust and honor inherent in them renewed, though a number of people local and otherwise have assured me that I have their support. My Druid group has expressed repeatedly that they want to continue holding regular ritual as they have done and see me as a respectable person who they want to keep around.”

Some of those relationships are within ADF. A statement from that organization read in part:

ADF does not automatically ban people with convictions from membership, as we believe everyone should have access to our church and public worship. We do however disallow those with certain felony convictions from holding leadership positions within the organization. Per the court, Mr. Holbrook is not required to register as a sex offender, therefore not automatically restricted from a leadership position. However, Mr. Holbrook does not hold any position of leadership within ADF, and we don’t anticipate him holding one in the foreseeable future. We wish healing to all parties involved, and may the Kindreds bless all of us.

While not a member of the former protogrove, Eric said of them, “I do know they weren’t a large group, more a small group of friends who would get together for ritual and work together on study programs, and this series of events did put an uncomfortable spotlight on them in the local scene. But they’ve kept their spirits up from what I know. Scott is also a member of other local groups as well, and there has been some strain there as well.”

Relations with other local groups will also change. While Brown has generally warm feelings toward Holbrook, the North Carolina Church of Wicca’s doors will not be open to him for the time being.

“Our events are known for being family friendly,” he explained, “and whatever my personal feelings about Scott might be, a suspended sentence isn’t the same as an acquittal. Our group talked it over and we didn’t feel we could justify having him involved. It just wouldn’t be fair to parents who might have children in attendance.”

While that may seem a rebuke, Brown is hopeful that the conversation about these issues can continue in a civil fashion. “If people can keep in mind that this isn’t a case with easily discerned lines of black and white, then maybe we can maintain at least some sense of unity,” he said.

“I know that Scott and his family (including his close friends) must feel beleaguered, and it would probably be impossible for them not to take things personally. I’d like everyone to do their best to maintain a sense of empathy for everyone involved. There’s bound to be a lot of disagreements about decisions being made, and maybe even about what the underlying facts are. But those disagreements don’t have to turn people into enemies.”

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The work of journalist Terence P. Ward was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.