By Mike LaBella
HAVERHILL — A man charged with slipping his cell phone under a girl’s dress to take a photo told investigators he has done it before, according to a police report.
Police said that on Monday afternoon, Stephen Hager, 38, of 15 Lawrence St., followed a 7-year-old girl and her mother from the time they entered the Market Basket in Westgate Plaza to a point where — unnoticed by the woman and her daughter — he approached the girl from behind.
According to a police report on file in Haverhill District Court, when later questioned by detectives Hager admitted that while in the bread aisle he bent down and held his cell phone under the girl’s skirt and snapped a photo.
He said he’d done this kind of thing before, the report said.
Hager told detectives that the photo he took showed only the store’s ceiling and bread on the shelves. He said that on his way back to his house to meet police, who he’d been informed were looking for him, he erased the photographs from his cell phone, according to the report.
Hager told police that he photographed unsuspecting females in the past using his cell phone, the report said. He also said he would visit online pornographic sites as well as sites that displayed “non nude” girls under 18 and that he would sometimes fantasize about them.
He told police that some of the sites he visited showed photographs of nude females on web cameras and couples having sex on web cameras.
The store’s surveillance video shows a young girl standing beside her mother, who is looking at products on supermarket shelves. Suddenly, a man casually walks up from behind and crouches down. With a cell phone in his left hand, he reaches under the girl’s pink skirt, which startles her. The frightened girl quickly steps toward her mother and then turns around and looks at the man.
Police charged Hager with attempted indecent assault and battery on a person under 14, attempted posing of a child for a sexual act, and attempted photographing or electronic surveilling of a partially nude person.
Hager, a Newburyport native, was arraigned on the charges yesterday in Haverhill District Court where Judge Patricia Dowling ordered him held on $10,000 cash bail.
The judge said that Hager posts bail, he will be under 24-hour house arrest, will be connected to an electronic monitoring device and must have an electronic alcohol-monitoring device in his home. He must stay away from people under the age of 18 and not go online or use computers, smart phones or similar devices that connect to the Internet, according to the order. He must also report to probation within 24 hours of his release and must remain drug and alcohol free.
The judge also issued Hager a 60-day warning, meaning if he is charged with another offense while his case is pending he could be ordered held for up to 60 days without bail.
During the arraignment, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Sholds asked that Hager be held on $25,000 cash bail. Referring to Hager’s criminal record, Sholds said Hager was found guilty in 1998 of operating under the influence of liquor, second offense, and that he also was convicted on a charge of possession of a Class D substance. Sholds said a 1996 charge of operating under the influence was continued without a finding.
Hager’s defense lawyer, Pamela Rogers, argued for lower bail, saying he is not a risk to flee and that he has family ties to the area. Rogers said Hager has lived in Haverhill for the past 12 years in a home his brother owns. She said he’s been employed at the Shaw’s supermarket in North Hampton, N.H., for one year, but has been with the Shaw’s organization for 14 years.
According to police, Hager is employed at Shaw’s as a deli manager.
Hager must return to court Sept. 6 for a pre-trial hearing.
Police Lt. Robert Pistone said the arrest was made after investigators received several tips from the public about the man’s identity. The tips came after a photo of the man from the store video appeared on The Eagle-Tribune’s website. The photo was taken from the store surveillance video.
Pistone thanked the public for helping police on the case by giving tips about the man’s identity.
The incident leading to the arrest happened on Monday about 1:30 p.m. The girl’s mother told police she became suspicious when a man began following her and her daughter around the grocery store. After a while, the woman thought he was gone, so she continued with her shopping, she said.
A short time later, the woman and her daughter were looking at products in one of the store’s aisles, unaware the man had returned.
Police said the store video showed that while the woman and her daughter were looking at products, Hager started to walk past them and then turned around and walked in the opposite direction, looking to see who was in the aisle. Hager then squatted down next to the girl and reached under her skirt with his cell phone, police said.
The girl’s mother told police that she asked the man if he had touched her daughter, and he responded by saying he was sorry — and then walked off.
Police said the incident was brought to the attention of the store manager by the girl’s mother. The manager said the woman and her daughter went to the service desk to report what happened. The manager said that after speaking with the woman, he told her he would call the police, but the woman responded by saying her daughter was upset and thought that speaking with police would further upset her, according to the police report.
The manager said the woman left her name and phone number with him, and then she and the girl left the store. The manager notified police.
After being notified of the incident, police said they issued an alert to local police departments giving the man’s description and asking them to be on the lookout for him.
Police said that on Wednesday, after an anonymous caller identified Hager, they visited Hager’s home and spoke to his brother and his mother, who said they’d seen Stephen Hager’s photograph on the news. They also identified him in store surveillance photos they were shown.
Hager’s mother told detectives that her son was on his way home from his job at Shaw’s in North Hampton, N.H. When Hager arrived home he agreed to accompany detectives to the police station, where he was questioned and his statements were recorded, police said.
Hager was placed under arrest and was held overnight pending his arraignment yesterday.
Police said they seized Hager’s cell phone as evidence.