Child molester gets 120-year sentence

Posted: February 15, 2013

The Winchester Star

James Cobler

HARRISONBURG — A local man who knowingly risked transmitting HIV when he sexually molested a young boy was sentenced Thursday to 120 years in prison.

“It’s almost as bad as you can go,” said U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski of James Cobler’s crimes. “This is a very, very, very grievous case.”

Cobler, 28, of Winchester pleaded guilty Oct. 30 to three counts of sexually exploiting a 4-year-old boy for the purpose of producing child pornography, one count of transporting child pornography and one count of possessing child pornography.

His pleas were not made as part of an agreement, and were done early enough that the United States Attorney’s Office did not have to prepare for a trial.

Cobler appeared Thursday for a sentencing hearing in district court — located in Harrisonburg — with attorney Joel Christopher Hoppe of the Federal Public Defenders Office.

Urbanski used the maximum end of the state guidelines to sentence Cobler.

He said during the hearing that he struggled with the case and gave it a lot of thought, but because the acts were so egregious he could not see deviating from the guidelines.

“The risk that this defendant took...takes this case to a category that I’ve not seen before,” Urbanski said. “This is the most serious and egregious conduct.”

Using a peer-to-peer filesharing program, an undercover Page County investigator downloaded several child pornography images from Cobler’s computer in April, according to the prosecutor’s office.

During a subsequent search of his home in the 500 block of Washington Street, prosecutors say Cobler admitted to downloading the images and molesting the boy — for whom he was an occasional baby sitter. He also admitted to taking pictures and a video of the sexual abuse.

Prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Healey said at the hearing that Cobler stated to investigators that he looked at child pornography images to avoid raping children.

He also said that when he molested the child, he just snapped that day and hoped it wouldn’t happen again.

However, Healey pointed out that Cobler’s computer search history indicated to her that the crimes were potentially done with some sort of forethought.

Search terms in Cobler’s history included “Is it OK to teach a 5-year-old sex?,” “raping baby,” “pain,” “toddler” and “crying,” among many others.

“You really can distinguish the nature of the images you’re looking for,” she said.

Healey said Cobler mostly searched for child porn involving 4-and 5-year-old children.

“He already knew he was sexually attracted to children, and then put himself in a situation dangerous to him,” she said.

During the hearing it was also disclosed that Cobler molested the child knowing he had HIV and did so more than one time after researching the chances of transmitting the disease.

Healey said the child recently was tested and did not contract the disease.

Hoppe tried to encourage Urbanski to “show some compassion for Cobler and the tragic life he’s had.”

It was said in court that Cobler was born with HIV and lost his mother at an early age and was raised by his grandparents.

Hoppe said that because of Cobler’s frail stature, sheltered life and the nature of his charges, he would be particularly susceptible to prison abuse.

He asked for Cobler to receive 20 years in prison, so that if he did not end up in a medical prison facility, he would be in a minimum security prison.

Hoppe argued that 20 years for Cobler’s “unique” case would be enough to deter him, send a message and protect the public from future offenses.

An emotional Cobler also made a statement at the hearing.

“I am truly and deeply sorry for my actions,” he said, pausing and asking for a moment.

He stood in his orange jumpsuit and covered his face as he quietly cried for a moment, stating that the next line he wanted to read was very hard for him.

“It has been tearing me up inside and I cry every day about what I’ve done,” he read from a torn off piece of yellow notepad paper.

“I really care about the child and I wish I could take it back.”

Cobler said he didn’t really know why he did it and that he hoped he could one day prove to the court and his grandfather that he is not a sex offender.

While Urbanski expressed sympathy to Cobler — his struggles, medical condition, naive character and the way he has lived his life — he said he just could not deviate from the guidelines.

Urbanski was visibly distraught about the case throughout the nearly three-hour hearing and immediately retreated into his chambers when it was over.

The investigation of the case was conducted by the Frederick and Page County Sheriff’s Offices and the Northern Virginia-D.C. Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The U.S. Secret Service conducted the forensic exam.

It was brought as part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse launched in May 2006 by the Department of Justice.

“Mr. Cobler’s sexual abuse targeted a completely vulnerable victim, a 4-year old boy.” said United States Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy. “When predators like Mr. Cobler exploit children, we will target them with every available resource and ensure they are held accountable.”

— Contact Melissa Boughton at mboughton@winchesterstar.com