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Miss America won’t testify in sex predator sting

Long Island- Here she won’t be — Miss America.

The case against at least one — and probably more — of the 11 men arrested in Suffolk with the help of the beauty queen and the television show “America’s Most Wanted” is in jeopardy because representatives for Miss America 2007 Lauren Nelson have told prosecutors she won’t return to Long Island to testify, said Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota.

Without Nelson available as a star witness, every case she actively participated in during the undercover police sex sting may be up in the air, said Spota. He called the police operation well-intended but “nothing more than a publicity stunt.”

“Given the fact that we have now determined that Miss America was actually speaking to one of those arrested, I have instructed prosecutors not to present any more cases to the grand jury until we can determine her involvement,” said Spota, who added that police didn’t tell his office about the April 20 operation until the afternoon before it went down.

Referring to one case that already has been presented to a grand jury, Spota said, “That case, in my view, could be compromised.”

Deer Park defense attorney John Powers said Spota is likely referring to his client, Robert Accomando of West Islip, whose case was presented to a grand jury Monday. Powers said he commended Spota’s honesty and called police’s exclusion of prosecutors in their operation “disgraceful.”

Spota said he has information that a high-ranking police official instructed computer crimes officers not to inform Spota’s office, because he had previously opposed a similar televised sex sting in 2006.

Police did not address Spota’s concerns directly.

“Raising awareness of the potential dangers lurking on the Internet is a top priority of the Suffolk County Police Department,” said police spokesman Tim Motz. “We will continue to use any means at our disposal to keep our kids safe from sexual predators and focus the public’s attention on protecting our children.”

Spota’s comments came a day after a Newsday story spotlighted the debate over the propriety of the televised sting.

As featured Saturday night on the popular Fox program, Nelson, 20, of Oklahoma, posed as a 13-year-old girl in an undercover police operation to lure Internet child predators. In addition to using a photo of her as a young teenager as bait, police also had Nelson chat with suspects online, arrange meetings with them on the phone and greet four suspects who arrived at the Bay Shore “sting house.”

“Why would we need Miss America to be contacting a sexual predator?” Spota said. “We never would have approved of that.”

Although Spota and defense attorneys said police “decoys” are often the most important witnesses in online sex crimes cases, in an interview Friday Nelson said she was never told that she might have to return to Suffolk to testify. “There’s not been talk of that,” Nelson said.

Det. Sgt. John Cowie of Suffolk’s computer crimes unit said police made it clear to Nelson “that she’s part of an undercover investigation and there may be more expected of her down the road.” As to the specific issue of Nelson being required to return to Suffolk and testify, Cowie said, “That’s between her and the D.A.’s office.”

“I don’t think anybody in the police department seriously thought of the ramifications here,” said Spota. “Had they consulted with our office, we would have told them that she’s potentially a witness in the case.”

Officials with the Miss America Organization did not return several calls for comment Monday. Spota said his office was trying to contact Nelson Monday, but was unable to do so. “Her agents have told us that she’s not coming back to testify,” Spota said.

Several attorneys representing the 11 men arrested in the sting said they don’t intend to give Nelson a choice. They said they plan to subpoena Nelson, and if she failed to appear at any court date, she could be held in contempt and face criminal charges herself.

“You’ve now made Miss America a witness,” said attorney Michael Brown, of Central Islip, who represents Ronald Stahl, 43, of Holbrook — one of the 11 men nabbed in the sting.

“If Miss America is going to be saying that, ‘This is the person I had a chat with,’ I absolutely have the right to cross-examine her,’ ” said Brown, who said the possible complications are just one of the many reasons police usually avoid recruiting civilians — much less celebrities — to assist in busts.

“They use undercover detectives,” Brown said. “They don’t use a pretty blonde.”

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