POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The Polk County Sheriff’s Office has arrested and charged a local special needs teacher with over 400 counts of child pornography, according to Sheriff Grady Judd.
During a press conference Saturday, Judd said 46-year-old Shawn Fitzgerald was arrested Friday and charged with 408 counts of possessing child pornography.
Fitzgerald is a Lakeland High School special needs teacher, the varsity soccer and tennis coach at LHS, and a youth director at First Methodist Church in Bartow.
According to Judd, an investigation started after the sheriff’s office received a report from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a private, non-profit organization that provides information to law enforcement from Electronic Service Providers. The report showed that a KIK messenger app was used to upload a video depicting child pornography on Feb. 20.
The sheriff’s office said the 20-second video showed a young female performing oral sex on an adult male.
On Thursday, detectives from the PCSO Computer Crimes Unit served a search warrant at Fitzgerald’s house. While detectives were searching his cell phone, they found a “Calculator Vault” app, which is an application that is designed to look like a calculator but has the capability to hide saved images. Fitzgerald told a detective that he used the app to store images from an extramarital affair, deputies say.
According to the sheriff’s office, a forensic exam of the cell phone revealed 408 files depicting child pornography. The images showed both male and female children being sexually battered by adults and/or engaging in sexual acts with other children, with some of the victims appearing to be as young as 10-12 months old, Judd said.
The investigation is ongoing. Deputies say additional searches of Fitzgerald’s cell phone and other electronic data storage devices will be performed, and additional charges are possible.
The sheriff’s office said, at this time, there is no evidence that indicates the files were made locally.
“An arrest like this shakes the entire community. A man entrusted with the education and guidance of so many children, working closely with them, and betraying that trust in such a heinous way. Sadly, people who possess child pornography are out there, all over the world. But making these kinds of arrests are not rare in Polk County, due to the diligent work of the PCSO Computer Crimes Unit,” Judd said.
Below is a statement from Polk County Public Schools:
“Shawn Fitzgerald taught special needs students at Lakeland High School. He also coached tennis and soccer.
The school district is in the process of terminating Mr. Fitzgerald’s employment.
Mr. Fitzgerald has been employed with the school district since 1998. He previously worked as a teacher at the following schools: Lake Alfred Middle, Stephens Elementary, Bill Duncan Opportunity Center, and George Jenkins High School.
There is no previous discipline in his personnel file.
“We are shocked and disgusted by these charges. As educators, we are entrusted with the well-being of our young people every day. It is our sacred duty to set the highest moral example in our schools and our communities,” said Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd. “We are cooperating fully with the investigation to ensure justice is served, and we are in the process of terminating this employee.”
Below is a statement from the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Bartow:
“We are saddened to learn of the arrest of Shawn Fitzgerald, youth director at First UMC, Bartow. Upon notification of his arrest, he was placed on unpaid administrative leave. We have no knowledge of any inappropriate conduct by Mr. Fitzgerald with anyone associated with First UMC.
We have a strict Child and Youth Protection Policy that we continue to enforce. It is our understanding that the police investigation is on-going. Our prayers are will with all involved in this situation.”Rev. Armando J. Rodriguez, Jr.