A judge Friday sentenced a Gorham man to 50 years in prison for sexually assaulting two girls, videotaping the incidents and sharing images of the victims with other computer users.
James Berke, 46, performed sex acts with a 4-year-old girl and a 7-year-old girl. Evidence seized by investigators, including several videotapes and a bottle of chloroform, suggested that Berke used the chemical compound to render his victims unconscious during some of the assaults.
"This is about as bad as it gets, in my view," Justice Roland Cole said at the sentencing hearing in Cumberland County Superior Court.
Cole said it is rare for investigators to have such damning proof of guilt as he did in this case. "Those tapes are vile and disgusting," Cole said. "But for the tapes, he might not be facing very many serious charges here at all."
Cole convicted Berke on March 16 after a jury-waived trial. The judge sentenced him Friday on six counts of gross sexual assault, three counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, three counts of unlawful sexual contact and one count of violation of privacy.
Cole acknowledged that the sentence could mean Berke will spend the rest of his life behind bars. Berke would likely serve at least 35 years in prison before being eligible for any sentence reduction due to good behavior.
The judge said he has sentenced hundreds of defendants for sexual assault, and this case included some of the most disturbing behavior. "In my view he presents a very real risk" to reoffend, Cole said.
The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Meg Elam, said the most serious aggravating factor in the case was the fact that Berke distributed images of the assaults to people he chatted with online, and possibly to online bulletin boards.
"He stored it and shared it, and these girls and their families now live with the very real fear that these images will be traded among other pedophiles forever," Elam told Cole. "He deserves every minute of 50 years," she said.
At a few points during the hearing, Elam turned and spoke directly to Berke.
"They were not your peers, they were not your friends, they were not your willing sexual partners," Elam said. "They were little children who should have been able to depend on you.
"You would have kept doing it if those teenage girls had not stopped you by looking at your computer," she said.
The investigation began on March 22, 2008, when Gorham police Detective Dana Thompson received a call from a distraught mother. The woman was friends with Berke and had allowed her three children to spend time with him and sleep over at his homes. Berke had moved several times in the previous few years.
The night before the mother called police, two of her children and one of their friends had stayed at Berke's home in Gorham. The 14-year-old witnessed her 7-year-old sister walking out of the bathroom with Berke, who was carrying a camera.
While Berke slept that night, the 14-year-old and her friend used a memory card to make a copy of the videotape that was stored on Berke's camera. The tape showed the 7-year-old using the bathroom.
Thompson got a warrant, and on March 25 he and other Gorham officers searched Berke's home. They seized computer equipment, cameras, DVDs, videotapes, negatives and film, according to police reports. Berke was arrested on April 1 after investigators from the Maine Computer Crimes Task Force reviewed the evidence.
Sarah Churchill, Berke's defense attorney, asked Cole to send Berke to prison for 15 years. She said Berke is genuinely remorseful and he is a good candidate for treatment and rehabilitation.
"He full well understands the depth and the breadth of what he did to these kids," she said.
Although it provides no solace to the victims or their families, Churchill said, there are far worse categories of sex assault against children, such as cases involving penetration, torture and the use of weapons, none of which were done by Berke.
"Everyone in this room realizes that these cases are the most difficult that the court or any of the parties have to deal with," Churchill said. "None of us really understand why people commit this kind of behavior in the first place."