‘Horribly Twisted’

Charlotte pornography case shows the 'unsettling' reach of AI-generated imagery

Charles R. Jonas Federal Building in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The federal trial of David Tatum was held at the Charles R. Jonas Federal Building in Charlotte, North Carolina.

When 41-year-old child psychiatrist David Tatum was sentenced on child pornography charges in November, his multiple victims stood up in court and read statements describing how they felt victimized by his actions—taking decades-old childhood photographs and converting them into pornographic images.

"It’s a very strange and unsettling realization that, as an adult woman in her 40s, I became a victim of child pornography," one woman said in her victim impact statement at the North Carolina doctor’s November 8, 2023, sentencing.

Tatum was found guilty last May of producing, transporting, and possessing images and videos of child pornography—including secret recordings he made of minor girls undressing and showering between July 2016 and 2021.

He was also found to have used generative artificial intelligence (AI) to digitally alter clothed images of minors into child pornography. Generative AI lets users easily create new content based on inputs, like existing images and detailed descriptions. In Tatum’s case, inputs included old photographs of classmates and others who were under 18 when the pictures were taken.

FBI Charlotte Special Agents Scott Atwood and Marisa Brown, who led the investigation into Tatum, said the AI-generated images were extremely realistic. They said a priority in their case was determining how and where the images were produced and if they were generated using a real person.

"If so, that’s a real live victim that we need to be considering," Atwood said. It turned out there were multiple victims.

One woman, now in her 40s, said the image of her that Tatum altered and sexualized was from a photograph taken more than two decades ago. She and others were smiling and waiting for the bus on the first day of school when she was 15. "David Tatum took that cherished memory and turned it into a new memory—one that elicits nausea, fear, and overwhelming discomfort and distrust within me," she said.

"I don't even know this man, have never met him before in my life, but he has impacted it so much and in such a negative way."

Victim in Tatum case

The case was the first of its kind in the Western District of North Carolina. Federal prosecutors were able to charge him with possession of child pornography related to the AI-generated images because the images were based on real minors, and the hyper-realistic AI renderings met the federal threshold for being sexually explicit. The investigation into the AI-generated images led the FBI agents to additional images and videos containing child sexual assault material, or CSAM, providing prosecutors with multiple avenues to pursue the case.

The first significant challenge, prosecutors said, was to identify the minors and then contact them. That was the role of investigators in the FBI’s Charlotte Field Office, including special agents, analysts, and victim specialists. Digital forensic experts on the Charlotte Division’s Computer Analysis and Response Team (CART) extracted information from devices that agents seized from Tatum’s home and office. Interviews with Tatum provided additional context.

"Because of the work of the agents and their persistence, they were able to identify the children that were used in these images," said Assistant United States Attorney Mark Odulio, who prosecuted the case with fellow federal prosecutor Daniel Cervantes.

Next, the FBI Charlotte agents sent investigative leads to nearly a half-dozen field offices around the country where the children in the photos—now adults—lived. Agents, accompanied by victim specialists, contacted and visited the women they found in Tatum’s cache of images. This was how many of them first learned they were the victims of a crime.

"I believed it was a scam," said a woman the FBI contacted in September 2022. “I sat in a chair across from an agent and a victim specialist who had several manilla envelopes containing evidence. I can't describe the moment when they showed me my 15-year-old naked body.”

Still another victim said she had just turned 13 and was going into her final year in middle school when the picture of her was taken that Tatum later manipulated into something sexually explicit.

"We were a group of children waiting for the school bus," she said. "It was a happy memory. Mr. Tatum has taken that memory and turned it into something grotesque and obscene."

"The saddest part," she added, "is that I don't even know this man, have never met him before in my life, but he has impacted it so much and in such a negative way."

"How can this be that there exist pictures of me for which I did not pose, consent?"

Victim in Tatum case

The FBI last June issued a warning about bad actors manipulating photos and videos using AI technology. In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, "advances in generative AI are lowering the barrier to entry," meaning we're likely to see more so-called deepfakes going forward.

Last month, the Bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) issued an alert warning that CSAM created by generative AI and similar online tools is illegal. "Federal law prohibits the production, advertisement, transportation, distribution, receipt, sale, access with intent to view, and possession of any CSAM, including realistic computer-generated images," the alert states.

Tatum was sentenced to 40 years in prison. In a statement after Tatum’s sentencing, U.S. Attorney Dena King said the child psychiatrist misused artificial intelligence "in the worst possible way: to victimize children."

FBI Charlotte Special Agent in Charge Robert DeWitt said Tatum’s actions—while in a position of trust, no less—were horrific. "The FBI will never stop working to put predators like Tatum behind bars for a very long time," he said in a statement after Tatum’s sentencing.

At Tatum’s sentencing, another victim who said she knew Tatum in high school asked the court for the maximum penalty.

"I was a child when the photos were taken that have now been so horribly twisted," the mother of two children said. "How can this be that there exist pictures of me for which I did not pose, consent? To put it plainly, this mess is not my fault, but it is now part of my life to deal with."

"The FBI will never stop working to put predators like Tatum behind bars for a very long time."

Robert DeWitt, special agent in charge, FBI Charlotte