Tucson man sentenced to 10 years in prison for possessing and distributing child pornography

A Pima County man was sentenced Wednesday to 340 years in prison for the sexual exploitation of a minor under 15 years of age thanks, in part, to an investigation by HSI.

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TUCSON – A former caregiver for troubled juveniles was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in federal prison for possessing and distributing child pornography, following a probe by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Joshua Lee Merritt, 25, of Tucson, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins, who also ordered the defendant to register as sex offender and be subject to a lifetime of supervised probation. Merritt was convicted in October 2016 of three counts of possessing and distributing child pornography.

This investigation leading to the charges was initiated in November 2014 when undercover HSI special agents received four child pornography videos. The investigators subsequently traced the videos to Merritt and obtained federal search warrants to seize his laptop computer and external hard drive. A forensic examination of those items resulted in the discovery of more than 600 child pornography images and videos, many depicting pre-pubescent children.

“This defendant learned firsthand the fate that awaits sexual predators seeking to exploit our most vulnerable population,” said Scott Brown, special agent in charge for HSI Phoenix. “HSI special agents are committed to identifying individuals who’re engaged in this reprehensible practice and ensure they’re held accountable for their actions.”

According to documents obtained during the investigation, Merritt previously worked as a childcare provider at several facilities dating back to 2007. At the time of his arrest, he was employed at a group home for at-risk boys. HSI special agents ultimately determined Merritt had not victimized any youths at that transitional home.

This investigation is a product of Project Safe Childhood, a Department of Justice initiative launched in 2006 to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse, and HSI’s Operation Predator, an international initiative to protect children from sexual predators.

Since the launch of Operation Predator in 2003, HSI has arrested more than 14,000 individuals for crimes against children, including the production and distribution of online child pornography, traveling overseas for sex with minors, and sex trafficking of children. In fiscal year 2015, nearly 2,400 individuals were arrested by HSI special agents under this initiative and more than 1,000 victims identified or rescued.

HSI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock by investigators. From outside the U.S. and Canada, callers should dial 802-872-6199. Hearing impaired users can call TTY 802-872-6196.

Suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children may be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, an Operation Predator partner, via its toll-free 24-hour hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST.

This case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Carin Duryee.