Ex-Manchester museum director charged in child porn case, spends night in custody

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Apr. 9—Robert Eckert, the former executive director of the Lutz Children's Museum in Manchester, spent the night in custody after being arraigned Thursday on a federal charge of distributing child pornography after a magistrate judge said he needed more information on three issues before he could approve Eckert's release on bond.

But the judge, Robert A. Richardson, said repeatedly that he was "cautiously optimistic" that he could approve the release of Eckert, 56, of Simsbury after a hearing scheduled for 4 p.m. today.

The judge said the issues on which he needed more information were health, "devices in the house," and "random visits to the house."

He added later, "Mental health issues are paramount in these cases."

Eckert pleaded not guilty to the child-pornography distribution charge at the arraignment, which was held via teleconference.

Eddie Widofsky, the architect who serves as president of the Lutz board of trustees, couldn't be reached for comment. Based on information in past news stories, Eckert appears to have begun working at the museum in 2001 or 2002. He was at the museum for Groundhog Day in February 2020 and left his post sometime between then and October of last year. The museum now has an interim executive director as officials search for a permanent replacement.

If convicted, Eckert will face a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum of 20 years, prosecutor Nancy V. Gifford said.

His lawyer, Trent LaLima, said Eckert was in Florida this week and flew back to Connecticut Wednesday night to appear at the arraignment.

LaLima said there is a "very low risk" that Eckert will flee. He and the prosecutor agreed that Eckert has known about the investigation for about 10 months, since last June.

The defense lawyer added that Eckert has a wife and children and that his wife owns their home, with $125,000 to $150,000 in equity, which she is willing to offer as security for his bond. He also said Eckert had a potentially serious health issue several months ago that led to complications.

Under the defense lawyer's bond proposal, Eckert's wife would serve as his "custodian" and he would be prohibited from having unsupervised contact with children younger than 16. He explained that Eckert's youngest child is 17 and has friends the same age.

He said Eckert's wife knows she will have to be "extra cautious" in her role as custodian because Eckert engaged in "activities she was not aware of."

He added that Eckert's wife mostly works in their home and "will be around to keep an eye on Mr. Eckert."

The prosecutor said federal law contains a "rebuttable presumption" that defendants in child pornography distribution cases should be held without bond while awaiting trial. But she said the defense lawyer's proposed bond conditions "sound OK."

She acknowledged that Eckert's "self-surrender" is a factor the judge should consider in deciding on bond, as are the COVID-19 pandemic and Eckert's health problems.

But she added that there are "aggravating issues," including the seriousness of the charge and evidence that Eckert used "multiple platforms" over "a sustained period of time," accessing the material involved from several locations, including his former workplace, the Lutz.

She added that he was "licensed for youth camps" at the time.

The prosecutor said the government's evidence indicates that Eckert "did not have hands-on contact with minors." But she said he had "numerous chats" in which he expressed a preference for teenagers.

A Lutz strategic plan developed in the first decade of this century said the museum's target audience was children in the 2- to 10-year-old age range.

The prosecutor said Eckert's involvement with child pornography occurred in secret, presumably when his wife was in the house, and there was evidence that he was involved in significant sexual activity with adults over at least an 18-month period without his wife's knowledge.

She said she wanted to be sure his wife knows about this "level of deceit" so she can be a "little more vigilant" in her role as custodian, which will include an obligation to report to the court.

As to contact with children, the defense lawyer argued that the prohibition should be on unsupervised contact with children younger than 16 because that is the age of consent in Connecticut. But Gifford argued that it should be 18, the age threshold used in relevant federal laws.

For updates on Glastonbury, and recent crime and courts coverage in North-Central Connecticut, follow Alex Wood on Twitter: @AlexWoodJI1, Facebook: Alex Wood, and Instagram: @AlexWoodJI.