Platforms used for sex crimes also leave a trail for investigators

When federal investigators first learned Altoona school district Superintendent Dan Peggs may have been involved in a sex trafficking case, they turned to technology to help make their case.

Making use of smartphone records, social media platforms and other technology, investigators were able to build a case after hearing from a young woman earlier this month who claimed that Peggs had trafficked her. 

They discovered a trail of conversations between the woman and Peggs, who authorities said had created several alias accounts in an apparent attempt to keep those discussions secret. Investigators also found evidence that Peggs had used an iPhone in December 2015 to record her, then age 17, engaging in a sexually explicit act, and that between October 2015 and May 2016 he recruited and maintained her, knowing she would take part in a commercial sex act.

In addition, investigators used technology to link Peggs to Bryan Lee Ragon, 43, of Charlotte, N.C., who was arrested Thursday and charged with sex trafficking of a minor, producing child pornography, transporting a minor and receipt of child pornography, court records show.

After piecing together the tech trail of breadcrumbs, authorities on Thursday arrested Peggs on his way to the school he supervised in Altoona, a community of about 8,000 just east of Eau Claire.

“Absolutely, the trail left by actions on social media makes it easier to prove exactly what happened in these kinds of investigations,” said Julie Pfluger, assistant U.S. attorney with the Western District of Wisconsin who is prosecuting the case against Peggs.

During an appearance later that day in U.S. District Court in Madison, Peggs, 32, pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking of a minor and making child pornography. On Monday Judge Stephen Crocker released Peggs on a signature bond. He will be under supervised release and will be confined to a home in the Dane County community of Oregon while his case proceeds through court. 

Investigators have used social media and other technology markers to successfully build evidence in other sex trafficking cases, Pfluger said. Increasingly, she said, putting together timelines spelling out details of such cases is made possible by social networks.      

The commonplace use of social media and other technology doesn’t always alert investigators about instances of sex trafficking, but electronic communication helps prove what happened once authorities are aware of those crimes, Pfluger said. In some cases, she said, authorities have been able to track down sex traffickers who have advertised on such social media formats as Facebook and Snapchat.

A spokeswoman with the state Department of Justice said that agency has increased its use of digital evidence to track down sex crimes in recent years. Such efforts are needed to better investigate those crimes, which often are underreported, state Attorney General Josh Kaul said. 

While the case against Peggs was built in part on a technology-related roadmap of events, it would not have happened, Pfluger said, without the woman whom Peggs is charged with trafficking having alerted authorities about the alleged crime. That is a rarity, she said, as sex trafficking cases typically involve those being trafficked being caught by authorities, not by someone volunteering that they are a victim.

“We are where we are with this case because that victim came forward,” Pfluger said.

The woman turned 18 in mid-2016, Pfluger said. Peggs has had contact with her since then, Pfluger said, but those interactions have not been determined to be illegal. Pfluger declined to reveal details about that continued relationship.

Pfluger said the woman is from Wisconsin but was not a student of Peggs’. He worked in the Chippewa Falls school district, then in the Gilman school district in Clark County from 2014 to 2016, the time the crimes for which he is charged occurred. He was hired to work in Altoona in 2016.

Without the woman approaching authorities, charging Peggs would have been extremely unlikely, Pfluger said. The case against him is unusual, she said, because he had no past criminal record of any sort, not the norm in sex trafficking cases.

Peggs’ case also is different from typical sex trafficking investigations, Pfluger said, because so far only one victim has been identified. Investigations normally include multiple people being trafficked, she said. 

In another unusual twist, Pfluger said, Peggs is the first school administrator she has prosecuted for sex trafficking during her five years in Wisconsin investigating such cases.   

“This case is unusual in many ways,” Pfluger said. “I’ve never had another one like it.”

As the case against Peggs proceeds, teachers and community members in Altoona continue to try to process the shocking news. 

“Trust has been broken, and it is going to take time to rebuild that,” Altoona school board President Robin Elvig said. “We’re going to move forward, managing the best we can.”