OWATONNA — An Owatonna man has pleaded guilty to both stolen property and pornography charges after an investigation of gold stolen from a local jewelry maker uncovered images of children, both naked and clothed, in what appeared to be sexually suggestive positions.
In a plea agreement, John Clements Eppel on Tuesday admitted his involvement in the selling of stolen gold and of having the images of children on his computer. As part of the agreement, Eppel pleaded guilty to one count of receiving stolen goods and one count of possessing pornographic work, both felonies. As part of the agreement, an additional charge of aiding and abetting theft was dropped and prosecutors agreed to place Eppel on probation.
Eppel will be formally sentenced in August.
Police investigators were first alerted to the case when an official with Black Forest LTD, an Owatonna jewelry manufacturing company, came to the Law Enforcement Center to report that about $4,300 worth of gold had been stolen from the business, according to the criminal complaint. The Black Forest official had been contacted by a local jewelry store who told him that the jeweler had purchased some gold which was believed to have been stolen from Black Forest.
The jeweler, who indicated that she had purchased the gold on 10 separate occasions beginning in February 2018, identified the person from whom she had made the purchase as Eppel. In all, the jeweler paid a total of $1,249 over the course of about a year for the gold purchased from Eppel, always paying with a check made out to Eppel. The estimated value of the 10k gold, according to the Black Forest official, was $4,386.
Eppel was the roommate of Harley Leroy Norberg, an employee of Black Forest.
When police investigators spoke to Norberg about the gold, he admitted to taking the 10k gold pieces and said he had been doing so for more than a year, the complaint says. Norberg said he would take the gold to his roommate, Eppel, who knew the gold was stolen, and Eppel, in turn, would sell the gold to the jeweler.
When investigators spoke to Eppel, he said he thought the gold was stolen, but didn’t know it for a fact. And, he confirmed that the two had been engaged in selling the gold for about a year, the complaint says.
When asked in court Tuesday about whether he knew the gold was stolen, Eppel said, “Why else would I be selling it for him if I didn’t think it was stolen.”
As part of the robbery investigation, in early March, an Owatonna police detective received a search warrant for a laptop computer, two cell phones and 17 memory cards used for cell phones and other electronic devices, according to a second criminal complaint. The computer was taken to the FBI office in Rochester where the hard drive was copied.
In reviewing the hard drive, the Owatonna detective came across 23 images that showed “young women exposing their intimate parts and some also depict minor females performing actual or simulated sexual contact,” the complaint says.
Owatonna Police secured an additional search warrant — this one for Eppel’s residenct on 21st Street Northwest — an executed the warrant. The police knocked and announced their presence at the door for 10-15 minutes and were ready to force the door open when Norberg opened the door. They found Eppel “sitting shirtless at the kitchen table, nervously smoking a cigarette,” the complaint says.
When the police spoke to Eppel, he told them that the memory cards they had taken with their earlier search warrant were items he had found “while dumpster diving.” according to the complaint.
In their search of his apartment, police also located three to four drawers “full of young girl’s underwear and swim wear as well as your girl’s clothing in the closet, on the floor, and under the couch,” the complaint says.
Eppel told investigators that some images he had — kids both naked and clothed — had been downloaded onto a cell phone he had purchased a few years previous. He also said that he had put photos of naked children — mostly girls — and had kept them on his computer “out of stupidity,” the complaint says. And when confronted about dressing an 8-year-old child “he blamed this activity on drugs and alcohol.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh asked Eppel was aware that he would have to be registered as a sex offender for his entire time on probation. Eppel will also undergo a psychosexual evaluation being formally sentenced in August.
Norberg pleaded guilty to theft in May.