Judge releases fire captain in federal sex case

A suspended Clark County Fire Department captain was released from custody Thursday over the objection of a federal prosecutor, who called the man a danger to himself and the community.

Martin Vohwinkel, 55, is accused of using the Internet to arrange a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old "girl" who turned out to be an undercover detective. Henderson police arrested him Feb. 26.

"He was looking for a girl to have sex with in exchange for money," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Koppe said Thursday.

Vohwinkel was charged in state court with using technology to lure a child. His lawyer, Bill Terry, said he spent almost 24 hours in jail before his release in that case.

The defendant surrendered to federal authorities Wednesday, a day after a federal grand jury charged him with a related crime: using a computer to coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity.

Vohwinkel made his first court appearance in the federal case Thursday, and Koppe urged U.S. Magistrate Judge Lawrence Leavitt to detain him pending trial. The prosecutor said Vohwinkel poses a danger to all girls in the community.

"This is someone who went to great lengths to seek out a minor child to have sex with," Koppe said.

She also said Vohwinkel poses a danger to himself.

"He threatened to kill himself over the weekend, and he was hospitalized over the weekend," the prosecutor said.

In addition, Koppe said she considers Vohwinkel a flight risk, and she is concerned that he wants to obstruct justice in the case. After his arrest, the prosecutor said, Vohwinkel called a colleague and asked him to retrieve a personal computer that he had stored at work.

Koppe said the colleague alerted authorities after learning about Vohwinkel's arrest. The prosecutor said investigators have seized that computer, as well as two computers from his home, but a forensic analysis of the devices has not been completed.

According to Vohwinkel's arrest report, an undercover detective arranged a meeting with him after seeing a Craigslist.com ad for a casual encounter with a "very young girl." Police arrested him in a parking lot where he was expecting to meet a 14-year-old girl, according to the report.

"We don't know how many times he advertised," Koppe said. "It may be the first time."

Koppe said Vohwinkel sent the detective an e-mail in which he wrote "the younger the better." Vohwinkel also sent a nude picture of himself.

She also said Vohwinkel offered to bring marijuana to the meeting and had a condom in his vehicle.

"This is a defendant who is a trusted figure. He's a firefighter in our community," Koppe told the judge.

Terry told Leavitt the case has no true victim.

"It was a feigned victim," the defense attorney said.

Koppe later countered that Vohwinkel "clearly believed that he was going to have sex with a child."

Terry described Vohwinkel as a 29-year veteran of the fire department and a lifelong resident of the community. He also said Vohwinkel has the support of his wife, who attended the hearing.

"Don't overlook everything that this man has accomplished in the past," Terry told the judge.

The defense lawyer argued that prosecutors "rushed to judgment" in bringing the federal indictment.

"They cannot represent that there's any evidence on those computers," he said.

Leavitt said he does not consider Vohwinkel a flight risk but does worry that he could endanger the community.

"Fortunately there was no real -- quote -- victim in this case," the judge said.

Leavitt released Vohwinkel from custody with numerous conditions. Vohwinkel must remain at home unless he needs to visit his lawyer or obtain medical or psychological treatment. He also is prohibited from using computers or alcohol, and he may have no contact with minors unless another adult is present.

A trial in the case is scheduled for May 3.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.