The following story contains explicit descriptions. Readers may find portions disturbing or offensive.
RALEIGH, N.C. — David Chatham earned six figures making companies look good as an executive for a Raleigh public relations firm. His BlackBerry contacts read like a roster of Research Triangle Park power players. He and his wife vacationed at beach resorts and had season tickets to the Carolina Hurricanes. He attended charity events with governors and city council members.
In December, Chatham's life crumbled. A team of state and federal investigators came to his home and confiscated computers loaded with more than 3,400 images and videos of naked, molested boys and girls, toddlers and teens.
Over the next nine months, Chatham left Capstrat, where he had managed $5 million worth of accounts. He downsized his life, selling his 3,000-square-foot home and moving into a tiny condo his wife can afford when he leaves for prison.
Once sought for his marketing advice, he now couldn't give his expertise away. His days became endless cycles of therapy, Bible studies and 12-step sex addicts meetings. He confessed his acts to friends and family; some shunned him.
"I had it all. I had so much," said Chatham, 43.
Chatham now sleeps in a bunk at a county jail, waiting for a judge to decide how long he should spend in prison for possessing child pornography. Five years is the most lenient sentence he can expect.
Chatham is a public relations specialist who knows the power of a compelling story and the need to get ahead of a negative one. Since he got caught, Chatham has launched a blog about his plight, partnered with child pornography opponents for an educational campaign and let psychiatrists film an interview with him to use to train doctors. He disregarded friends' advice to keep quiet and accepted the humiliation that coming out has brought.
"I could just stick my head in the sand and hope this goes away, but it won't," Chatham said. "I want to put a face on this. I could be your neighbor, your husband, your brother that's struggling."
Chatham knew detectives would come eventually. Every time a police car raced toward him on the highway, Chatham assumed they were looking for him. Some days, he practiced what he'd say, thought about whom he'd call. Other days, he just hoped they would come, pulling the plug on a shameful obsession he didn't have the discipline to quit.
Chatham was 9 when he found his dad's Penthouse magazine, tucked away in a briefcase in a closet.
He liked what he saw, glossy images of women with enormous breasts, looking at him seductively. He was an awkward boy, a redhead with buck teeth. He wasn't athletic or handsome like his brothers. He felt misplaced in his family.
But, alone with these airbrushed women, none of that mattered. He stared at them for hours, he said, touching himself, just as an older relative had when she fondled him two summers before.
His mother caught him with a magazine one day. She scolded him and warned Chatham's father to hide his stack of magazines in a different place. Chatham found those, too.
On the outside, his world looked idyllic. His parents had come to Raleigh in the 1970s with a wave of employees relocating when IBM anchored Research Triangle Park. They lived along a rural stretch of Old Creedmoor Road in North Raleigh. They walked to church, and the boys played at a nearby community center.
It was here that Chatham smoked his first joint. By high school, he was a full-blown drug addict, snorting cocaine and popping pain pills and animal tranquilizers.
"Anything to get me out of me," Chatham said, describing his desperation to escape his feelings of inadequacy.
At 18, he checked into a drug rehab center. The program clicked, and Chatham got sober and stayed sober.
Meanwhile, a sexual addiction ballooned. Some addicts feed their fixations with infidelity or prostitutes or peeping. Chatham tended his with pornography, an obsession he could manage in secret.
The Internet, which Chatham first encountered at college in his late 20s, fueled his habit. Online, he met a community of strangers living their own fantasies. They assumed fake names and lied about their ages. Sometimes Chatham was a middle-aged woman, other times a teenage boy, replaying the years he'd lost to drugs and alcohol.
They swapped doctored pictures of women, videos of threesomes. He traded to build a bigger, better collection.
Deeper into obsession
By day, his life soared. He landed good jobs, married Lisa, an engineer, and joined boards of nonprofits.
At night, he would stare at the images and masturbate. In these moments, his anxiety subsided. Work deadlines seemed manageable. He couldn't hear his wife's complaints. He wanted to escape, and this fantasy world was his haven.
As with his drug addiction, the longer it persisted, the more potent his stimulant needed to be. He invested more time, as many as 14 hours a day looking at porn, and sought more deviant images. His lines of decency eroded, and he began collecting violent, depraved images: women being raped or people having sex with animals.
Chatham had drawn a thick line against child pornography. Even in the throes of his addiction, he knew it was wrong and illegal.
About 12 years ago, a man he met in a chat room sent Chatham an image of a young teen girl posing nude. He was repulsed and told the man never to send him pictures of children again.
In time, that edict fell. Another chat-room friend sent another picture of a child. This time, it seemed softer, somehow OK. Before long, Chatham asked for more. He's not sure why. He said he was never attracted to children, never had the desire to be with one.
"I knew it was wrong, but where there was risk, there was excitement," he said. "It was taboo."
These children weren't real to him. They had no mothers or fathers, no baseball games to play, no school field trips. There, on a flat computer screen, Chatham convinced himself this was make-believe. He didn't hear their screams, didn't notice their vacant expressions. This was his personal, private fantasy, and they were actors.
Then, this spring, Chatham met Joe.
Meeting the victims
Joe can still see the flashes of the camera, hear the giggles of the grown ups gathered to watch him and a neighborhood girl splayed, vulnerable.
He was 6, caught in a neighbor's evil game.
Joe tells his story in short fragments, going over it again for newcomers joining psychologist Donna Peaslee's group therapy. She treats 30 or so sex addicts and their spouses, helping each to figure out the hole they are filling with their deviant habits.
Her practices are raw: She lets victims question offenders, offers ammonia sticks for clients to bite to break their porn habits, plays mournful ballads during sessions and lets patients beat a chair with a plastic bat to work through their anger. Chatham went to Peaslee after investigators caught him.
This spring, Peaslee wanted Chatham to met Joe. Though it has been 30 years since Joe was photographed, new details still wash over him with each telling. Now and again, Joe said, he is overcome with fear and shame that strangers have seen those images, watched him being abused for their amusement.
Chatham sat in a cushioned chair in a boardroom and listened to Joe. He heard his pain, saw the shattered man that remained. The children Chatham had watched flashed before him, suddenly real, suddenly children that someone tormented to feed his appetite for pornography.
Chatham broke. Tears washed his face. When he caught his breath, he looked Joe in the eyes: "I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry."
Relating to his wife
Chatham has apologized much in the last nine months.
It began with his wife, Lisa, and will end with Lisa. He's sorry they had to sell their nice house and most of their furniture. He's sorry he's abandoning her. Every few days, he offers her an out, tells her it's fine if she wants to divorce him, run away from the mess he's made. Some days, he thinks it's the only fitting punishment.
She holds tight and reminds him that he's a good person, worthy of her love.
"All these years, he was afraid to tell me because he thought I'd leave him," she said. "I see now that he's sick. It's like him having cancer. I couldn't leave him in that state, and I can't leave him like this."
When investigators came in December, they were two strangers sharing a home.
Once upon a time, they'd been nuts for each other. They met at a pool party for the Raleigh ski and outing club in 1999. Lisa, a civil engineer, thought he was hysterical and decided to not let him out of her sight.
Lisa Chatham remembers David telling her early in their courtship that he needed Sundays to himself, to regroup. She thought that was silly but gave him space. She now knows that even then, porn was stealing her husband.
Lisa never wanted children, and David was more than happy to oblige, fearing his obsession with pornography could somehow be cast upon a child. And though he said he never had a desire to touch a child sexually, he worried that, over time, that inhibition would slip, too.
Chatham's addiction eventually took his ability to be intimate. Most nights, he'd retire to bed with Lisa, wait for her to fall asleep, anxious if she were fitful. Then, he'd slip out of bed and spend the whole night staring at strangers tangled in intimate poses.
Lisa Chatham would see him sometimes when she woke to use the restroom, his face lit by the bright computer screen. His knee bounced against the chair as he stared intently at the screen. She assumed he was working or checking scores on ESPN.com. He'd always battled insomnia and was a workaholic.
In the months since Chatham's secret shame hijacked everything that was their life, they fell in love again.
They laughed. They splashed each other in the ocean. And when the tears came, as they often did, they held each other until it stopped.
At the end of August, they sat together on a loveseat in Peaslee's office. Peaslee pushed Chatham to mourn his future in prison.
"You have to grieve the loss of the life you lived," she said. "Can't you see what you are doing? You are avoiding."
Lisa pressed, too. "It's like there's a gun pointed to our heads and you're just happy to be the PR guy. I need to hear that you're scared, because I'm terrified."
A tear dropped onto Chatham's cheek, and his voice trembled as he answered Lisa.
"I'm scared to death I'll lose you, but I don't know if I want you to wait," he said. "It's going to be a long time, Lisa, and you have a right to be loved and not visit a sex offender in prison."
Chatham hoped to walk out of the federal courthouse in Greenville on Monday, drive his wife home, rub her shoulders, and assure her that life would go on. He was there to plead guilty to receiving child pornography, the first step before a federal judge sentences him later this year.