A series of unsolved burglaries involving missing Pop Tarts and a 1,000-piece puzzle led investigators to a single-wide mobile home near the North Carolina border and more than 5,000 images of child pornography.
Seven years later, the man accused of cultivating that collection has been sentenced.
James William Thomas III was sentenced Wednesday to 40 years in prison. Now 36, Thomas will be well into his 70s when he’s released from federal custody. Prosecutors, however, had pushed for 55 years, citing the magnitude of damage Thomas is accused of inflicting on underage girls and his apparent lack of remorse.
“The facts of the case paint the picture of a true sexual predator,” prosecutors said in sentencing documents. “The defendant sought out potentially almost 200 victims, lied to them, groomed them, and abused and exploited them to gratify his own sexual lust.”
The government’s case against Thomas dates to 2014, when a fed-up attorney in Franklin, Va., paid a retired cop to stake out his practice overnight following the burglary of a rare coin shop next door, court documents state.
The robber had cut a hole in the attorney’s roof to get access to the coin shop, and he believed the person might return.
The break-in was one of several that year in Southampton County, just over the border from North Carolina in Virginia. A few months before, prosecutors said, a man reported at least 38 items were stolen from his second home in Southampton — everything from binoculars and paper towels to granola bars and Pop Tarts.
Police later told investigators the thief wasn’t picky.
“The items taken ranged from typical targets of burglary — high value and easily transportable items such as televisions, electronics, cash, and firearms — to very odd unusual items that were ‘large, cumbersome, low-value items, or low value for the effort, and minuscule, small, low-value household items’ such as refrigerators and toiletries,” the judge said in court filings.
On the night of the stake out, the burglar did return to the attorney’s practice. In his possession were several new DeWalt tools reported missing from the man’s second home in Southampton County and bearing his name, prosecutors said.
Law enforcement would later identify the man accused of the break-ins as Thomas, and a search warrant for his home in nearby Branchville, Va., was issued.
Nearly 200 victims
The warrant took three days to execute, such was the state of Thomas’s trailer when sheriff’s deputies arrived.
There were piles of trash, cat poop and dirty dishes in and among a “litany” of items deputies identified as stolen, including a 1,000-piece puzzle of a cabin, guns, a bow and arrow, a refrigerator and a trash can.
The stolen belongings were tied to more than 25 unsolved burglaries in Virginia and North Carolina dating back to 2006, prosecutors said.
Deputies also seized several electronic devices they believed Thomas had stolen. In the process of trying to identify the owners, prosecutors said, investigators uncovered what looked like child pornography.
The devices were turned over to the FBI.
FBI agents ultimately found more than 5,000 images of child pornography and at least 80 videos, prosecutors said in court filings.
The images were linked to nearly 200 girls Thomas is accused of abusing online while posing as a 17-year-old boy named Cody Austin. At the time, prosecutors said, he was in his late 20s.
Investigators found 198 folders containing the names of underage girls with whom Thomas reportedly communicated. More than 180 of those folders had chat logs with “cheat sheets” to help him keep track of who they were.
“This information included items such as their age, where they lived, how the defendant was able to obtain pictures from them, and any sexual experiences they may have told him about, among other things,” prosecutors said.
According to court filings, most of the girls were between 12 and 16 years old.
Prosecutors said Thomas became abusive if the girls refused to concede to his demands, “hounding” them to send naked pictures.
He is accused of telling one 12-year-old girl who was hesitant to send photographs that their conversation had been “nothing but lies,” saying, “you seriously led me on like woah.”
In another instance, prosecutors said, Thomas told a girl “if ur gonna be shy and send crappy pics then go away… ur loss, im sexy and ur overweight.”
Prosecutors said he also met up with a 14-year-old girl on three separate occasions to photograph her in “sexually explicit poses” and film “the two of them engaged in sex acts.”
A grand jury indicted Thomas on April 5, 2018, court filings show.
Thomas was appointed a federal defender who later asked to be removed from the case, saying the relationship had “completely broken down.” A second public defender was appointed to represent Thomas, who he also pushed to have removed.
A judge denied the request, but Thomas ultimately opted to represent himself.
His trial was delayed several times, ultimately beginning on Feb. 10. It concluded after three days with a jury finding Thomas guilty on all 11 counts of producing and possessing child pornography.
In a 17-page handwritten letter to the court, Thomas objected to much of the government’s characterization of his case. In response to the court’s request he submit a position on sentencing, he invoked his “Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.”
A court-appointed attorney on standby for Thomas declined to comment in a statement to McClatchy News on Thursday, and Thomas could not be reached for comment.
In the government’s sentencing request, prosecutors described the evidence against Thomas as “overwhelming,” saying he spent most of the case accusing law enforcement and government officials of misconduct.
“Instead of accepting responsibility and saving his victims further humiliation, he elected to proceed to trial and force their testimony,” the government said. “The defendant has learned nothing from his mistakes.”