CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - A former Richland County Boy Scout leader was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison Wednesday after being convicted of sexual exploitation of children and receiving and distributing child pornography.
The judge also ordered Thomas Close, who was the Boy Scout leader of Troop 406 in Shelby, to be on probation and register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Close was known as “Aqua Joe” to scouts and parents, because he was a swim instructor as well as a troop leader.
Prosecutors said from 2011 through 2018, Close secretly recorded young boys while they changed for swimming or showers.
To date, 143 victims have been identified, with the youngest being seven years old.
According to prosecutors, Close then transferred those videos from a simple spy watch to his home computers in carefully labeled folders and file structures.
Agents said Close had more than 110,000 image and video files and about 60,000 of those files were his own videos.
Court documents showed Close took video of the young boys at the YMCA, the Willard Conservation League, the Firelands Scout Reservation, the Ashland County-West Holmes Career Center, the Mohican Wilderness camp, the STEM camp and his Shelby home.
One of the victims recorded a powerful victim impact statement, which was played during Wednesday’s sentencing.
“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."
Read more on how investigators linked Close to the videos here.
19 News spoke to Carol Skutnik, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio who worked on the case.
“I have been prosecuting cases in this genre for a long time and I can honestly say this was probably the biggest amount of material,” she said.
“Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of images of child pornography. And those are images that may or may not be identified, being traded around the world,” Skutnik said.
Skutnik says the toughest cases she has worked are when the perpetrator was someone parents knew and trusted.
“It’s a betrayal. I know a big sense of Boy Scouts is a sense of brotherhood, and that’s hard for these young men to appreciate that someone who you think is there to help you and guide you and mentor you and turns out to also want to exploit you,” she said.
Close must also pay $949 in restitution and a $300 special assessment.
The Boy Scouts of America provided a statement to 19 News regarding Close’s conviction:
“This individual’s actions are reprehensible and run counter to everything for which the Boy Scouts of America stands. 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.
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 (email@example.com) 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.”