Federal jury says Sand Springs man sent “cesspool of memes and messages” to groom 12-year-old
A federal jury convicted a church youth group leader Wednesday for engaging in a sexualized relationship with a minor, announced U.S. Attorney Clint Johnson.
Thomas Daniel Johnson, 48, of Sand Springs, was found guilty of attempted coercion and enticement of a minor. U.S. District Judge Karen E. Schreier presided over the trial.
“Thomas Johnson was known for being a mentor to adolescent males. He hid behind that reputation when he repeatedly sent a vulnerable child sexually explicit texts and requests for nude photographs,” said U.S. Attorney Clint Johnson. “I want to commend the victim in this case who exhibited courage and strength as he testified at trial this week. I am also proud of the work of Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeff Gallant and Valeria Luster who fought for justice for this child.”
Thomas Johnson knew the victim’s family and volunteered as a youth leader at a church both families attended. Johnson was known as a mentor to adolescent and teenage boys, so the victim’s family asked him to mentor their child.
On Aug. 15, 2020, the victim’s mother discovered numerous sexually explicit texts, memes and images sent to her child by Johnson and confronted the defendant. Then both parents contacted law enforcement and turned their child’s phone in to authorities. Further examination of the phone revealed thousands of messages exchanged between Johnson and the victim, dating back to March 2019.
During the trial, prosecutors contended that Johnson engaged in a sexualized relationship using text messaging when the minor was 11, 12 and 13 years old, thus committing the crime of attempted coercion and enticement of a minor.
The United States argued Johnson groomed the victim, first gaining the victim’s trust and friendship. Johnson regularly encouraged the victim and called the victim a stud, sexy beast, and made sexual references and jokes.
Then the sexualized relationship increasingly involved the exchange of memes and comments with references to oral sex, penises, ejaculation and more. Johnson eventually told the victim about several sexual experiences he (Johnson) had taken part in.
The victim testified that at first, he felt the exchange of texts and memes were jokes, but he grew increasingly uncomfortable as the defendant began routinely making comments about the victim’s penis and physical appearance, as well as implying that he was sexually attracted to the victim.
Johnson repeatedly asked the minor to send pictures of his penis or “nudes.” The defendant further suggested in messages that he could give the victim oral sex or vice versa. A few days before the communications were discovered, Johnson sent the victim a selfie of himself with a banana in his mouth simulating oral sex and during the texting exchange, asked the victim if he “could handle it,” implicitly offering to perform oral sex on the minor victim.
The victim testified that he believed Johnson would have acted on his (Johnson’s) requests had the victim complied.
The defense contended that taken in context and with the understanding of Johnson’s reputation for making sexual innuendos among family, friends, and other adolescents and teenagers he had mentored, the messages were simply misguided humor and did not represent grooming behavior. The defense further argued that Johnson was mentoring the child and trying to connect with the child by using common terminology, references and memes used among teenage males today.
Federal prosecutors argued that Johnson’s behavior was consistent with psychological tactics exhibited by child predators known as grooming behaviors. In court documents, prosecutors cited United States v. Chambers which stated, “The ultimate goal of grooming is the formation of an emotional connection with the child and a reduction of the child’s inhibitions in order to prepare the child for sexual activity.”
In closing, prosecutors reminded the jury that the defendant’s actions were no joke and that framing the texts as jokes was not a defense. They reminded the jury that the defendant told the victim to delete their text messages, which indicated Johnson understood the communications were questionable and criminal. They said instead of simply being misguided, harmless jokes, Johnson’s communications were meant to sexualize a 12-year-old child and desensitize the child to inappropriate sexual communications and material. They stated the only thing that stopped the inappropriate behavior was the intervention by the child’s parents and law enforcement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Gallant noted Johnson wrapped himself in “a cloak of authority” and took advantage of the victim’s trust. He stated that mentors set age-appropriate boundaries with children. Instead, Johnson, a man in his forties, repeatedly crossed those boundaries by sending a “cesspool of memes and messages” that degraded and sexualized a vulnerable boy. He asked the jury to hold Johnson accountable with one word: Guilty.