By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN Associated Press

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — A federal judge rejected a plea agreement on Wednesday that called for 15 to 21 years in prison for a man authorities described as the world’s largest purveyor of child pornography.

Eric Eoin Marques is entitled to withdraw his guilty plea from last year if the judge departs from the sentencing range prosecutors and defense attorneys recommended.

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But U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang isn’t bound by the terms of the Justice Department’s plea deal.

“It’s too flawed, and I also don’t agree with the outcome,” Chuang said.

The judge said he’s inclined to give Marques a longer sentence for operating a web hosting service that enabled users to anonymously access millions of illicit images and videos, many depicting the rape and torture of infants and toddlers.

The judge criticized a provision of the plea deal that wouldn’t give Marques credit for six years he spent in custody in Ireland while fighting extradition after his 2013 arrest in Dublin. Chuang said he can’t tell the federal Bureau of Prisons to refrain from counting those years when Marques likely is entitled to get credit for that time.

The judge said he isn’t prepared to impose a sentence of 15 to 21 years if Marques does get credit for those six years.

“I want a sentence higher than that,” Chuang added. “It’s not going to be 21 minus 6 to 15. That’s not going to happen. I don’t have to follow what you all did. It’s clear neither of you really understood what you were doing.”

Chuang also expressed frustration that prosecutors and defense lawyers still couldn’t agree on certain facts of the case even after spelling them out in writing as part of the deal.

“I certainly think the process was such that I shouldn’t defer to the parties’ agreement when I’m not sure they really thought it out that carefully,” he said.

Defense attorney Brendan Hurson told the judge that his remarks give them a “platform to negotiate further.”

“If we can’t get somewhere, then we would ask for some time to set a trial date,” Hurson said.

Chuang instructed the attorneys to provide him with a status report by June 25.

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Marques, a 35-year-old dual citizen of the U.S. and Ireland, was extradited to Maryland in March 2019, and pleaded guilty in February 2020 to conspiracy to advertise child pornography. He faced a mandatory minimum of 15 years and a maximum of 30 years in prison before the plea deal.

Marques created and operated a free, anonymous web hosting service, called “Freedom Hosting,” on the darknet between 2008 and 2013. The darknet is part of the internet but hosted within an encrypted network. It is accessible only through anonymity-providing tools, such as the Tor browser, and allows users to access websites without revealing their IP addresses.

Marques’ attorneys have questioned how federal investigators were able to pierce the Tor network’s anonymity and trace the IP address of the server to a web hosting company in Roubaix, France. “This anonymity is notoriously difficult for government investigators to penetrate,” they wrote.

Defense attorneys said they received an initial answer to that question when the government revealed “vague details” of how they discovered the IP address and location of the server. “It appears that this disclosure was delayed, in part, because the investigative techniques employed were, until recently, classified,” they wrote in December 2019.

Investigators found what appeared to be more than 8.5 million images and videos of child pornography on the Freedom Hosting server, including nearly 2 million images that were new to authorities, according to a court filing that accompanied Marques’ guilty plea.

Marques was living in Ireland at the time of the offenses. He used the encrypted server in France to host more than 200 websites that site administrators and users used to upload and download child pornography.

In 2013, FBI agents in Maryland connected to the network and accessed a child pornography bulletin board with more than 7,700 members and more than 22,000 posts. Agents downloaded more than 1 million files from another website on the network, nearly all of which depicted sexually explicit images of children.

In July 2013, Irish authorities searched Marques’ home and vehicle and detained him. When investigators entered his home, Marques moved toward his computer but was subdued before he could turn it off, authorities said.

After his release from custody, Marques purchased a new laptop and logged into his server to lock out the FBI and other law enforcement, the filing says.

Authorities seized nearly $155,000 in U.S. currency from Marques. During an August 2013 extradition hearing, Marques said his business had been “very successful” and profitable.

In an April 28 court filing, a prosecutor said a government witness was prepared to testify at Wednesday’s sentencing hearing that law enforcement had identified Marques as the largest purveyor of child pornography in the world and that he made approximately $3.6 million in U.S. currency from his servers.

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