The Kennewick mother used to enjoy flipping through her little one’s baby book, seeing how the girl’s smile changed every three months the first year of her life.
Then came the devastating news that Sean M. Challe, the photographer she had trusted to be in her home around her young family, was arrested last fall for child molestation and producing child pornography.
“My heart stopped, time stopped, and in that moment my world turned upside down,” the mother recalled Friday at Challe’s sentencing hearing in Benton County Superior Court.
“There are days when I look at my child and I start to cry. I look at her and wonder why, why did this happen to my baby? My baby who could not speak. My baby who could not tell me (anything). My baby who could not run away from this monster.”
The mother — whose name is withheld under a Herald policy not to identify victims of sexual assault — pleaded for justice for her baby. She asked that Challe be locked up for a very long time, and she may get her wish.
Challe, 29, was sentenced to a maximum term of life for sex crimes involving a boy and two girls.
He must serve every day of a 30-year minimum term before the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board will decide if he is sufficiently rehabilitated, is no longer a risk to society and is ready to be released.
Challe used both his friendships and his Sean Challe Photography business to prey on children, then took pictures and videos of himself sexually assaulting the kids.
He was caught in September molesting a friend’s daughter as the girl slept in her bed. That led to the discovery in his home office of prints and negatives of naked children, and more than 20,000 images on digital storage devices of different kids engaged in sexually explicit acts.
Challe was an avid trader of child porn on the internet.
The mother recalled how Richland police showed her pictures of Challe touching her daughter, images she will never be able to get out of her head. She struggles every day with feelings that she failed her husband and her family because this happened under her watch in their house, and she was not able to protect her baby.
Now, the professional portraits Challe took of her daughter are gone from the wall at home, a tragic memory of what happened to the little girl during those sessions.
“My baby’s photos I can’t look at because I know behind the camera was a monster,” the mother said while choking back tears. “A monster that was just waiting for the right moment, that moment to let me trust him for just two minutes while I left the room.”
Another mother who had been friends with Challe for several years sobbed as she questioned how someone she trusted could rape her baby girl.
“This has been one of the hardest things that we’ve ever been through. ... It’s just sick,” she said, stopping abruptly because she was so overcome with emotion.
Challe didn’t make a statement during the hearing. He pleaded guilty as charged in April to one count of first-degree rape of a child and three counts of first-degree child molestation.
Judge Cameron Mitchell agreed to the exceptional sentence, which was well above the standard range of 20 years to 26 1/2 years.
Deputy Prosecutor Laurel Holland said the extra time behind bars is warranted because three of the charges included aggravating circumstances that Challe used a position of trust to commit the crimes.
The victims were two toddlers and a preschooler.
“Mr. Challe is a very brazen person in the way that he committed these offenses,” said Holland, noting that the parents of two separate victims were home at the time.
Investigators found a manual in Challe’s property that lists different jobs a person can do to get close to families and ways to make it so the children don’t feel threatened by the sex offender’s inappropriate actions, Holland said.
After Challe was indicted in U.S. District Court for producing, distributing and possessing child porn, Benton County prosecutors negotiated with the federal government to resolve the two cases.
Challe was sentenced last month in Richland by federal Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. to 30 years in prison on three counts of producing child porn.
On Friday, Mitchell recognized that the 30 years was negotiated, but said he isn’t sure “there is a punishment that is proportionate to the seriousness of this offense.”
In his 11 years on the Superior Court bench, Mitchell said he has seen “a lot of lives that have gone in very unfortunate directions and a lot of trauma and damage done to individuals and families through criminal acts of other individuals who have seen fit, I guess, to (satisfy) their own selfish desires.”
The judge said as a parent he always feared that his own children would become victims of a sex offender.
“I really can’t imagine what it’s like for the families who are having to endure this ... and I’m not going to insult them by saying I understand what they’re having to go through,” Mitchell said.
“But this circumstance, Mr. Challe, is quite frankly the most heinous that I have come across. ... The damage that you have done to these young children and families is unfathomable.”
Since Challe was sentenced first in federal court, he will do his time in the Bureau of Prisons before being transferred to the custody of the Washington Department of Corrections.
The 30-year terms are to run concurrently, but Challe isn’t guaranteed freedom after three decades because of the indeterminate sentence.
Mitchell told the parents that he wishes he could say or do something to turn back the clock so that it had never happened. He acknowledged that no matter how much prison time he ordered, it would not take away the pain and anguish that Challe’s actions have caused the families.
The judge encouraged the parents to bind together and help each other move forward from these tragic events because the kids will be relying on their strength to “become healthy, happy and productive young adults.”
Challe was told he is to have no contact with the victims or their families for the rest of his life. He also must register as a sex offender.