T. Denny Sanford child pornography investigation triggered by tip about 36 photos

Court documents show law enforcement investigated Sanford after receiving a tip in August 2019 from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Denny Sanford.jpg
T. Denny Sanford, the namesake benefactor for Sanford Health.
Special to The Forum

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota court officials on Thursday, April 27, released previously sealed affidavits describing what triggered a child pornography investigation into T. Denny Sanford, the state’s richest man and billionaire mega-philanthropist whose namesakes include the Sanford Health system.

The documents show law enforcement investigated Sanford after receiving a tip in August 2019 from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The tip indicated they suspected Sanford's AOL email contained 36 images suspected of depicting child pornography. The tip originated from Oath Inc., which owns email provider AOL.

A search warrant of Sanford's Verizon cell phone and AOL email account uncovered several images law enforcement considered depictions of child pornography, the affidavits show. The search warrant affidavits were unsealed after a ruling from the South Dakota Supreme Court on April 5.

Sanford was never charged in the matter, and has claimed his email was hacked. The treatment in his case raised eyebrows around the state and nation. Sanford was referred to as “Implicated Individual” in court documents, shielding his involvement until news media linked him to the matter in August 2020 and requested documents that had been sealed.

But over multiple rulings, the South Dakota Supreme Court required many of the case's sealed documents be made available to the public, including, most recently, lightly redacted affidavits from law enforcement that supported a search warrant.


Marty Jackley, who initially served as Sanford's lawyer in the matter, was previously the state's attorney general and was re-elected to the position last year. As Sanford's lawyer, Jackley led the charge to keep documents related to the case sealed, although he stepped down as Sanford's legal representative before becoming attorney general again.

After the affidavits were made available Thursday, Jackley's office released the following statement to media:

"In 2019, the Division of Criminal Investigation began investigating whether T. Denny Sanford had possessed child pornography. Search warrants were issued. That investigative file was then forwarded to the United States Attorney office in South Dakota, which forwarded it to the Department of Justice. The file was also forwarded to the authorities in Arizona and California. To date, none of those authorities have lodged charges against Sanford. In 2022, after Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg was impeached and suspended, his administration issued a statement that it did not find probable cause for criminal charges in the state of South Dakota."

Sioux Falls television station KELO reported it had received a statement from Sanford's current lawyer, Stacy Hegge:

"Mr. Sanford appreciates that after a thorough investigation the authorities concluded there exists no prosecutable offense. Here, because there is no prosecutable case or further action to be taken, the court records being released contain only allegations.  These preliminary allegations were provided to law enforcement prior to law enforcement’s exhaustive investigation and its realization that various individuals had documented access to the electronic devices at issue, including signs of hacking. While some claim releasing affidavits that reiterate these allegations constitute transparency, releasing preliminary allegations made prior to completing the full investigation only misinforms people and obscures the investigation’s conclusions that no prosecutable offense occurred."

Jeremy Fugleberg is editor of The Vault, Forum Communications Co.'s home for Midwest history, mysteries, crime and culture. He is also a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
What To Read Next
Get Local