Dr. William Kenneth Stewart, scientist, had 22,000 child porn images on his computer, records show

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - As an oceanographer, Dr. William Kenneth Stewart made a career of exploring the depths of the Atlantic, including the sunken wreckage of the Titanic.

But in his private life, he hit bottom on Sept. 8, 2011.

That night, the distinguished scientist was alone in his West Palm Beach apartment at 8:30 p.m., downloading child porn videos, when detective Charles Ramos knocked on the door.

Ramos, a Boynton Beach police investigator and member of the South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task force, had a search warrant and seized Stewart's hard drives, which were later found to contain 22,000 images of child porn.

Stewart, 62, pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of receiving child pornography, faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced Thursday in West Palm Beach federal court.

"It's a devastating offense," said Stewart's lawyer Dean Willbur, referring to the strong sentencing guidelines that accompany the charge.

Stewart built up a stellar 40-year career, earning his doctorate in oceanographic engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and being among the first group of scientists to explore the Titanic in 1986, the year after it was discovered. He had served in the navy, attended four colleges, and spent 16 years with the famed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Since 1999 he had been a chief scientist and chief consulting engineer at the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach.

His resume alone ran 11 pages.

Willbur, in a sentencing memorandum filed last week, is asking for a five year sentence followed by supervised release. Willbur cited the damage done to Stewart's reputation.

"This incident has basically been devastating to his professional career, it has been devastating to his family," Willbur said, adding he couldn't comment further before sentencing. "They don't believe this one incident is who Stewart is."

Stewart's family members wrote pre-sentencing letters on his behalf, urging federal judge Kenneth Ryskamp to show mercy.

"Despite the hype, vilification and connection promoted in media and politics, I believe (as is supported by research) that receiving and viewing obscenity is very different from perpetrating it," wrote Victoria K. Tauxe, Stewart's ex wife.

"That is not to say that it is a victimless crime — we all recognize that — just that he did not directly hurt anyone," Tauxe wrote.

Impact statements written by actual victims of child pornography were also filed with the court.

In the letters, the victims said there's not much difference between consumers of child porn and those who physically abuse children.

"Regardless of whether they directly abused children themselves, reveled in the images of suffering, or persuaded others to abuse children on their behalf (to provide images of the abuse) each participant has a responsibility for the effects," wrote one mother whose daughter descended into a "silent hell" after being victimized by child pornography.

According to Stewart's resume, he studied engineering at Duke University, marine technology at Cape Fear Technical Institute in North Carolina, and ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University before obtaining his Ph.D. in oceanographic engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1988.

Erika Fitzpatrick, spokeswoman for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, confirmed that Stewart was a student in the MIT/Woods Hole joint program from 1982 to 1988. He was an assistant scientist from 1988 to 1992 at Woods Hole and an associate scientist without tenure from 1992 to 1998.

Based in Massachusetts, Woods Hole is considered one of the world's preeminent marine research facilities. It was a joint U.S.-French expedition led by Woods Hole scientist Robert Ballard that in 1985 discovered the Titanic. While Stewart wasn't part of that team, he did take part in later missions to the doomed ship.

"He participated in the 1986 expedition to explore Titanic," Fitzpatrick said of Stewart in an email statement. "He was not aboard the 1985 expedition that discovered Titanic."

A November 1993 article about Stewart in the Wilmington, N.C. newspaper Morning Star reported that when Ballard's team found the doomed ship three miles below the ocean surface, Stewart was helping to develop underwater research technology that would be used to explore the wreck.

In 1986, Stewart operated the remote camera that captured footage of the Titanic from a deep-ocean research vehicle, the newspaper reported. Stewart's resume said he piloted a remote operated vehicle from the well-known underwater research pod Alvin in the 1986 Titanic exploration.

"If you're going to do something, why not do something sexy?" Stewart told the newspaper, now

called the Star-News. "Doing the Titanic is going to make a bigger splash than some 1940 freighter that sank off the coast."

Randy Smith, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, said he could only confirm that Stewart's employment with SFWMD began on Aug. 9, 1999 and ended on Sept. 14, 2011.

Stewart has been in custody since his arrest, according to the court documents.

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