A 52-year-old photographer drugged, sexually assaulted, and took illicit photos of young models, many of them teenagers, for years along the West Coast, federal authorities said Wednesday, describing the man as a "suspected serial sexual predator" who likely victimized many other women.
Robert Arnold Koester, known as “Bert Kay,” is facing 57 felony sex crime charges, including first-degree rape, first-degree sodomy, first-degree unlawful sexual penetration, and possession and production of child pornography, in California and Oregon, where he owns a rural 28-acre farm.
Since 1994, authorities say Koester photographed women, often coercing them to pose naked and, in some situations, would drug and then record himself sexually assaulting them.
The FBI said in its release that Koester, who also went by "Rhake Winter” and “Qitooly,” targeted women in multiple cities across the US. He faces 23 felony charges in San Diego County, where he was living at the time of his arrest, and another 32 in Yamhill County, Oregon, where officials say he assaulted four women at his farm, one of whom was a minor. Three of them were from out of state, authorities said.
In a federal complaint in California, the photographer argued that he took nude pictures of the teenagers to "get them comfortable with taking pornographic photographs for their modeling careers."
So far, investigators have identified at least eight models, several of them under the age of 18, and are still combing through "many terabytes of digital evidence" from his phone and computer to try to identify other victims, Yamhill County District Attorney Bradley Berry said at a press conference Wednesday.
“We believe there are women who don’t know they were victims," he said.
While Koester primarily booked and brought models to his sprawling ranch in Carlton, Oregon, for shoots, the photographer also rented apartments and condos in California, where he would "live temporarily for different periods of time," according to Davene Butler, an FBI special agent in San Diego.
"He operated out of multiple properties and has been doing this photography for more than 25 years, so who knows the number of victims there might be," Butler told BuzzFeed News. "There are multiple agencies working on this investigation and we are looking at leads from Southern California all the way up to Oregon."
Federal investigators were first alerted to Koester last fall after a 16-year-old aspiring model in Carlsbad told police that the 52-year-old sexually assaulted her during a photo shoot.
On Nov. 12, the teen went to the condo Koester had rented while he was working with Frank Model Management, an agency in the area. During their session, the young model told police that he took hundreds of photos of her while she was naked, putting her in compromising positions. She said the photographer "touched her neck, breasts, vagina, buttocks, and anus with his hands," the complaint noted.
Carlsbad police arrested Koester the next day and, less than a week later, another young woman came forward after seeing the photographer in news articles. By late November, two more young models in the San Diego area also said Koester sexually assaulted them.
About two weeks later, Frank Model Management sent an email to clients informing them that the agency was "closing its doors indefinitely," apologizing for the abrupt notice and writing that their "hearts were broken" over the decision.
At the time, the alleged victims ranged from 15 to 17 years old, Deputy District Attorney Dan Owens said, and their accounts sparked a federal and multistate investigation.
The photographer told police that he took nude photos of the teen "to prepare her for a future modeling career with Playboy," that he posed her to "sexualize her for photographs," and that he had sent her nude images ahead of time "so she would know what type of work he did," according to court documents.
He often traveled to California for work and told detectives that "he had taken similar photographs with other minors over the past several years of his photography career, some of which had been deleted."
The second young model told police that Koester took photos of himself touching her and warned her not to "tell anyone because she could get in trouble because she was a minor."
Authorities in California and Oregon searched his residences, cars, and electronics, finding troves of photos and videos. At the Carlsbad condo, detectives discovered several videos of a man having sex with the 16-year-old and a second young model, who was under 18 at the time, while they were "naked from the waist down" and "appeared to be unconscious and non-responsive," the detailed in the federal complaint.
In one video taken at the Carlsbad condo in September, detectives say Koester puts his hand around the neck of the second young woman and then sticks his fingers inside her mouth. She gags and he laughs.
Known as Bert Kay, the veteran photographer was well-known and admired. Modeling agencies in both states regularly recommended their young models go to him to "get their portfolios done," two women who worked with him and said they were stunned by the allegations told BuzzFeed News.
A self-proclaimed "wandering eye," his Instagram profile is filled with images of mostly young women models, captured in black and white and on beaches.
Kendra Barber, a photographer from the Portland area, said that he first contacted her in 2013 on ModelMayhem.com, a site that connects models with professional photographers.
"He sent me a message and said he thought I had a lot of talent and wanted to meet up," the 27-year-old told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. "He became a mentor figure to me because he was doing the type of work I wanted to do and I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could."
In addition to California and Oregon, Koester spent ample time working in Arizona, Barber said.
"I got a lot of messages from girls who wanted to work with him," she said. "He had been doing it for years and years, basically his whole life. He was seen as a mentor to a lot of photographers and models."
The FBI is urging anyone who may have worked with Koester to contact investigators via a confidential online questionnaire, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.