CLEVELAND -- A Shelby man was sentenced Wednesday in Federal Court to 30 years in prison followed by lifetime supervised release (which includes lifetime sex offender registration obligations), according to Bridget M. Brennan, First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.
Thomas Close, 39, a former teacher at the Ashland-County West Holmes Career Center, was also ordered to pay $949 in restitution and a $300 special assessment. Close was known to many in the Boy Scouts of America as “Aqua Joe” because he was a swim instructor as well as a troop leader.
Yet from 2011 through 2018 Close abused these positions to surreptitiously record young boys while they changed for swimming or showers, Brennan said. He then transferred those recorded images from a simple spy watch to his home computers in carefully labeled folders and file structures.
“This individual’s actions are reprehensible and run counter to everything for which the Boy Scouts of America stands," the organization stated in a press release. "Upon learning of these reports from federal investigators, we took immediate action to remove him from Scouting and preclude his future participation in our programs."
Close also victimized children in his care at a YMCA in northern Ohio (not Mansfield), the Willard Conservation League, the Firelands Scout Reservation, the Ashland County-West Holmes Career Center, the Mohican Wilderness camp, the STEM camp, and even his own home in Shelby.
“It is difficult to imagine a more heinous crime, particularly when the ages and youthful experiences of children were so calculatingly exploited,” said U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman. “If we have not made it clear before, let this sentence send a message to all who seek to prey on our children: there is no place we cannot find you and we will bring you to justice.”
“This individual used his position and regular access to children to exploit the young people who he was entrusted to take care of and protect,” said Vance Callender, HSI special agent in charge for Michigan and Ohio. “While no amount of prison time is sufficient for the depraved abuse of trust by Mr. Close on his innocent victims, hopefully, today’s sentencing can begin the healing process for all of those impacted.”
Additional details of these crimes were described in court filings and during Wednesday’s sentencing hearing:
In May of 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (HSI) Cleveland received information from the Cyber Crimes Center (C3), Child Exploitation Investigations Unit (CEIU) regarding a child exploitation lead in Sandusky, OH. C3 provided several videos that were taken of minor boys changing before or after swimming, with a series of lockers visible in some of the pictures.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) confirmed that these videos were seen in previous child pornography investigations but the children depicted in the images had not yet been identified. However, the NCMEC Victim Identification Lab was able to identify the manufacturer of the lockers as the Bradley Corp.
Since only a few YMCAs purchased lockers from Bradley Corp, C3 was able to confirm that the images were likely taken at the YMCA facility located in Sandusky.
With little to go on, agents set out to identify the boys. They focused on landmarks and the Boy Scout logo captured in images, which let them to speak with representatives of the Boy Scouts and local YMCAs. Both the Boy Scouts and local YMCAs assisted agents with their investigation.
In speaking with the Boy Scouts, agents were directed to an incident report in which one den leader noted Close’ frequent and unnecessary contact with scouts during swim time.
Later, and based on this tip, agents interviewed Close. Close admitted to the following: accessing child pornography from the TOR network; using a Russian photo sharing site to access child pornography; receiving and distributing images of child pornography online; being sexually interested in boys as young as 5 and up to 18; and possessing approximately 5 terabytes of child pornography.
He also acknowledged leaving a watch with video capability in the designated changing areas in order to record the boys as they undressed.
Agents conducted a forensic analysis of Close’s devices and confirmed that he had more than 110,000 image and video files that depicted minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
Approximately 60,000 of those files were unique images. Close also created 1,900 images of child pornography. To date, 143 victims have been identified, with the youngest being 7 years old.
One of the identified victims, who is referred to in court filings as Minor #21, provided a recorded victim impact statement which was played during the sentencing hearing. He stated in pertinent part:
"Never have I been so sad. This whole thing lingers in my mind all the time. I wish I could make it go away. ... I have a question for you, Aqua Joe: Why? Why would you do this to me? Why would you do this to any kid? How dare you do this to a kid that can’t defend himself. I don’t understand.
"I’m supposed to be able to trust the people that I’m told I can trust. You took advantage of me and you spied on me. Now I don’t trust anyone. You ruined part of my life! And I hate you. ... I especially hate you for hurting my mother. You broke her heart – and mine. ... I hope someday I can forget about you."
This case was investigated by Homeland Security Investigations, the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) and the Shelby Police Department. It was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Carol M. Skutnik.
The Boys Scouts of America issued the following statement:
"Nothing is more important than the safety and protection of children in our Scouting programs – it is our top priority. The BSA has a multi-layered process of safeguards informed by experts, including the following, all of which act as barriers to abuse: a leadership policy that requires at least two youth-protection trained adults be present with youth at all times and bans one-on-one situations where adults would have any interactions alone with children – either in person, online, or via text; a ban on the use of recording devices/cell phones near bathrooms and shower houses; a thorough screening process for adult leaders and staff including criminal background checks, and the prompt mandatory reporting of any allegation or suspicion of abuse.
"The BSA also offers a 24/7 Scouts First Helpline (1-844-726-8871) and email contact address (firstname.lastname@example.org) to access counseling and help needed to report any suspected abuse or inappropriate behavior.
"We steadfastly believe that one incident of abuse is one too many and we are continually improving all of our policies to prevent abuse.
"This is precisely why we fully support and advocate for the creation of a national registry overseen by a governmental entity, similar to the national sex offender registry, of those who are suspected of child abuse or inappropriate behavior with a child, thus allowing all youth-serving organizations to share and access such information. We call upon Congress and other youth- serving organizations to support this initiative."
For more information about the BSA’s youth protection policies, please visit: www.scouting.org/youth-safety.