A Tri-City photographer who used his business to get close to children has admitted sexually assaulting a preschooler and two toddlers.
Sean Michael Challe’s guilty pleas on Monday in Benton County Superior Court could keep the 29-year-old man in prison for the rest of his life.
But Challe isn’t done answering to all of his criminal charges.
On April 17, he will make his first appearance in U.S. District Court on six counts involving production, distribution and possession of child pornography. And, three days later, he’s expected to return to federal court to plead guilty.
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The Kennewick man has been in custody since Sept. 21, after he was caught molesting his friends’ daughter as the preschooler slept in her bed. That case sparked an investigation into other possible illegal activities by Challe, owner of Sean Challe Photography.
Richland detectives allegedly found more than 20,000 images of child porn, along with videos, on three digital storage devices seized from Challe. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, or NCMEC, reviewed the child porn and identified victims in at least 3,600 images.
Richland police Capt. Mike Cobb in October called the case one of the largest Tri-City child sex offense investigations in recent memory.
Some of the explicit images and videos found by police show Challe and young children, Cobb told the Herald. Authorities believe Challe traded the images with other online users.
He was arrested last September after he and his girlfriend went to the Richland home of another couple and were drinking on a patio when Challe went in the house.
About 10 minutes later, the homeowner checked on his sleeping daughter and found Challe leaning over her bed and her pajamas were pulled down.
When asked what he was doing, Challe replied, “I don’t know who I am or what I am,” and “I don’t know why you are not kicking my (expletive) right now,” documents said.
Challe then told the mother he was a horrible person and had screwed up. The couple ordered him to leave and called police.
When confronted by police the next morning, Challe said he had no idea why they wanted to talk to him “because he had been very drunk earlier in the night,” court documents said.
Richland police found suspicious pictures in an envelope inside Challe’s desk. The pictures were of the molestation victim from when she was a baby.
Another drawer held several prints of boys and girls naked in bathrooms and negatives of children in states of undress. The children ranged in age from 1 month to 2 years.
Detectives confiscated cameras, a desktop computer, a safe, CDs, memory cards, almost a dozen computer devices from Challe’s Kennewick home and more items from his mother’s home.
The ensuing investigation led to the identification of two other Tri-City victims, a boy and a girl.
On Monday, Challe pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree rape of a child and three counts of first-degree child molestation. Three of the charges include the aggravating circumstance that he used a position of trust to commit the crimes.
The standard sentencing range for child rape is 20 years to 26 1/2 years, and the range for child molestation is 12 years and five months to 16 1/2 years.
However, each charge carries a maximum term of life, which means Challe’s ultimate release on the state charges after serving the mandatory minimum will be decided by the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board.
Deputy Prosecutor Laurel Holland wrote in Challe’s plea statement that she will recommend an exceptional sentence of 30 years — 3 1/2 years above the top of the range for child rape. She also wants him to be ordered to sex offender treatment.
Sentencing is scheduled for July 15. He is now being held without bail in the Benton County jail.
His sentence will be served along with his federal term, and likely served in a federal prison. However, since the federal system does not have indeterminate sentences, Challe probably will return to state custody once he’s served the time because the state review board must decide if he’s no longer a risk to the community.
Holland said though it is a joint agreement with federal prosecutors, the pleas were negotiated separately.
Challe stood next to defense attorney Dennis Hanson as he admitted guilt before Judge Cameron Mitchell.
“I never intended to go to trial on these charges,” Challe said in his plea statement. “Based on advise from counsel, I knew that I would likely be indicted in federal court so I made the decision to wait for the indictment. The decision to wait was based on the recommendation from counsel.”
A federal grand jury in January indicted Challe on three counts of producing child porn and one count each of receipt, distribution and possession of child porn. He has yet to appear in federal court.
Hanson said his client will plead guilty April 20 before federal Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. Court documents state that production of child pornography has a sentencing range of 15 to 30 years.