published Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Georgia man to be tried again on child sex abuse charges

A man accused of soliciting children for sex four years ago in Catoosa County, Ga., whose case was overturned, will go back to court to face those same charges.

In an opinion released Tuesday, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Dennis Cosmo can be tried a second time for violating the state's law about searching the Internet for sex with a minor. The FBI's Northwest Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force arrested Cosmo in 2010, and a Catoosa County jury convicted him in 2012.

But last year, the Georgia Court of Appeals overturned the case, arguing that Cosmo should not have been charged because he interacted with an undercover agent pretending to be a mother, not a child. In that case, Cosmo also was convicted of other crimes. The Court of Appeals ruled in March 2013 that Cosmo should get a new trial on those remaining charges because the trial judge never explained to the jury what "entrapment" means.

On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed that Cosmo should get a new trial. But the court ruled that the solicitation charge should be part of that trial, not dismissed from the case.

"Direct communication [with a child] was not required for a conviction," Justice Robert Benham wrote in the unanimous ruling.

On Tuesday, Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin said the top court justices made the correct decision. He does not know when the case against Cosmo will be back in Catoosa County Superior Court.

But Adam Hames, Cosmo's attorney, said his client never took a substantial step toward soliciting any children. Therefore, he didn't attempt to commit a crime, Hames said.

After an undercover agent posing as a mother told Cosmo he could have sex with her daughters, Cosmo expressed interest in doing so with the nonexistent 14-year-old child. However, he later said he was not actually interested in having sex with any children.

"Are we talking about punishing somebody for their thoughts?" Hames said. "That appears to be where the case is at the moment."

Legal experts told the Chattanooga Times Free Press last year that the Court of Appeals' decision on the case dealt a significant blow to the local FBI task force. In several cases, members of the task force have posed as legal guardians looking to rent their children for sex.

The Court of Appeals ruled that those cases had no merit, but the Supreme Court argued this was a misinterpretation of the law. Defendants are guilty of the crime if they "attempt" to solicit children, Benham pointed out.

He said talking to a mother about sex with her child is like talking to a pimp about having sex with his prostitute. That conversation alone shows that someone wants illegal sex.

Cosmo was a staff sergeant in the 75th Ranger Regiment when, in March 2010, he answered a Craigslist ad posted by a woman named Amber Hill.

"Hey guys, we're back in town and looking forward to return engagements with our old friends," she wrote.

"Drop us a line if you're interested."

Cosmo responded, and Hill told him that her 14-, 12- and 9-year-old daughters specialized in a service that took things "beyond the legal limit."

But the girls weren't real, and neither was Hill. In fact, she was actually Rossville Detective Dave Scroggins, working for the federal task force.

Cosmo said he was interested in having sex with Hill and the 14-year-old daughter. He gave details about what he wanted the teenager to do to him.

Eventually, Cosmo agreed to drive from Fort Benning to Ringgold, Ga., for a meeting with Hill. But on the phone, he told a woman posing as Hill that he wanted to meet with her, and only her. No kids. He said he was uncomfortable about "the underage thing."

He sent her a text: "Just you and me though right?"

The woman posing as Hill called him again, and Cosmo reiterated that he didn't want to have sex with Hill's daughters. He then showed up at the Quality Inn where he was supposed to meet Hill, and officers arrested him.

During his March 2012 trial, Cosmo testified that he wasn't thinking about having sex with children until Hill introduced the idea to him.

"[I] gave her a response that I expected she wanted to hear," he said.

The jury then found him guilty. Cosmo was sentenced to one year in a detention center, followed by nine years of probation.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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