LOCKPORT – It started as a case of harassing telephone calls to an 800 number in another state – not the type of thing that normally commands a high police priority.

But unfortunately for Che A. Villar of Niagara Falls, law enforcers from Texas to Lockport felt there was something about the case that compelled them to keep working.

The story ended Tuesday, when Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas sent Villar, 37, to state prison for 16∑ to 19 years for possession of child pornography.

“It was through good, old-fashioned police work that led to the images that put him in prison,” said Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth R. Donatello, who prosecuted the case with Deputy District Attorney Holly E. Sloma.

The sordid tale began in January, when Villar phoned the toll-free customer service number for Oshkosh B’gosh and Carter’s, two well-known brands of children’s clothing. He made two calls, one of which was recorded by the company.

Villar asked the call center staffers to bring up certain item numbers of little girls clothing that he was viewing at the time on the company’s website, Niagara Falls Detective Patricia McCune said.

When asked by police why she didn’t simply hang up on Villar, a female call center staffer replied, “That is a fireable offense.”

“It was very creepy. I was pretty amazed by what I was hearing,” McCune said of her experience listening to the tape.

“I contacted the District Attorney’s Office.”

Donatello said, “It is very easy to dismiss it as just another misdemeanor, but Patty recognized a sexual predator. In Holly [Sloma], she found somebody willing to assist her with the work necessary.”

But before the audio made its way to McCune’s desk, the case began in Plano, Texas, where employees of the clothing makers’ call center complained to a supervisor about the phone calls, and the supervisor called the local police.

Plano Detective Jon Hoffman tracked down Villar and found through a search of law enforcement databases that Villar was a registered sex offender. He had been rated a Level 1 offender, the least serious classification, following a 2008 conviction for attempted possession of a sexual performance by a child.

In a Feb. 3 telephone interview, Hoffman got Villar to admit that he made the phone calls to Oshkosh B’gosh and Carter’s.

“Thank God for Detective Hoffman in Texas,” McCune said.

Donatello said in court Tuesday that subsequent investigation eventually showed that Villar had made calls to the 800 numbers for other retailers, including Gap and Gap Kids, Kohl’s, J. Crew, Children’s Place and Crazy 8, .

“He basically said he can’t afford the 900 numbers [for phone sex], so he was calling the 800 numbers to do what he wanted to do,” McCune said,

“He would just sit on the phone and dial until he found someone he could talk to about his attraction to kids,” Donatello said at Villar’s sentencing.

“He has that attraction. He’s never denied that,” Assistant Public Defender Michael E. Benedict said in court.

Villar had been placed on probation after his 2008 guilty plea for child pornography, so Hoffman contacted Niagara County Probation Officer William Collins, who specializes in monitoring sex offenders.

Villar’s probation term had already expired, but Collins passed the information on to McCune.

Sloma said, “Detective McCune needs to be commended for not letting this be just another misdemeanor that came across her desk and recognizing that what she had was a dangerous sexual predator.”

McCune said Villar’s status as a registered sex offender, his past connection with the viewing of child pornography and the fact that he was pleasuring himself on the phone with customer service workers made her strongly suspect that Villar probably had been viewing child porn again.

A search warrant was obtained for Villar’s 20th Street home. It was executed at 6:03 a.m. April 25 by McCune, Detective Capt. Willian Thomson and Officers Mark Martinez and Louis Territo.

Villar’s computer was seized – analysis disclosed 400 to 600 images of child pornography – and Villar was interviewed at length by McCune and Detective Daniel Dobrasz.

“The entire interview was him saying he wasn’t a bad person,” McCune recalled.

“He just does this on the phone and looks at pictures on his computer. He wasn’t hurting anyone.”

Villar pleaded guilty to three counts of promoting a sexual performance by a child as a sexually motivated felony and one felony count of failure to register as a sex offender because Villar hadn’t reported all of his Internet screen names and other identifiers to the state as required. He left out the ones for child porn websites.

The plea deal gave Farkas the ability to sentence Villar to between 10 and 20 years in prison.

By pleading guilty, he avoided a possible federal child porn prosecution that could have brought him a longer sentence.

Farkas gave Villar 1∑ to four years for failure to register the Internet identifiers and five years for each of the three child porn charges.

He will serve those sentences consecutively.

In addition, Farkas imposed 30 years of probationlike post-release supervision, meaning that someone in law enforcement will be on Villar’s case until he is 86 years old.

Benedict said Villar “had a troubled upbringing. His family life was not the greatest.”

He called his client “introverted” and commented that Villar’s use of computer child porn was “a coping mechanism [to] reach a way to deal with his desires.”

“If he’s doing this, he’s a disturbed individual,” McCune said.

“We had to make a move. You don’t know when he’s going to take his fetish out into the community to a child.”

“He’s not reaching out to try to find live underage victims,” Benedict told Farkas.

“He’s not going out into the community to act as a predator.”

Benedict argued that it would be wrong to punish Villar for something he hadn’t done but might potentially do someday.

Donatello said that wasn’t what she and Sloma were asking. “He should be punished for what was found on his computer and for not taking responsibility,” Donatello said.

She said there have been cases where children from Niagara County were found to have been posed for pornographic photos, although Villar does not seem to have had any of those particular images.

“These are live kids. They aren’t nameless, faceless children on the Internet,” Donatello said. “Every time an adult male looks at those images, they’re victimized all over again.”

In court, Villar repeatedly said, “I’m not a monster.”

“I don’t know how I ended up with [these desires],” he added. “I can’t hurt anyone. I never would. … That’s not who I am.”

“Every picture you’ve ever viewed of a child bound, gagged or being raped or sodomized, you harmed that child,” Farkas told Villar. “Once you make that connection, you become that monster that you so vehemently espouse not being.”

“He takes all of his resources, all of his mental ability, to finding excuses and finding ways to continue this behavior,” Donatello said. “That’s what makes him a criminal, and that’s what makes him dangerous.”