Wednesday, March 26, 2014

California pastor arrested for having sexually explicit images of underage girls

An Oakdale youth pastor facing a local charge of possessing child pornography was arrested on federal charges Wednesday afternoon in Stanislaus Superior Court.

Tyler David Bliss, 27, was arrested on suspicion of receiving or distributing images of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, according to criminal complaint filed in federal court Friday.

It’s likely Bliss will appear in federal court today because he was taken into federal custody Wednesday afternoon, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento.

Bliss was a youth minister at Bethel Church when he was arrested Feb. 17. The Oakdale church on G Street is affiliated with the Assemblies of God. Wednesday, Bliss was taken away in handcuffs by two officials who served a federal arrest warrant for him in the downtown Modesto courtroom.

Bliss was questioned by investigators at the Ceres Police Department shortly after his arrest last month. He told the investigators he downloaded child porn images from a website, according to an affidavit filed by federal authorities March 14 in support of the criminal complaint.

As the investigation into Bliss continued, investigators found sexually explicit images of an underage girl with whom Bliss has had a relationship, according to the affidavit. The images were sent by cellphone from the girl to Bliss. “Bliss developed the relationship with the minor female through his work as a youth pastor,” the FBI agent wrote in the affidavit. Bliss had served in youth ministry at the church since 2009 and oversaw junior high, high school and college programs while pursuing a preaching license with the Assemblies of God.

A few days after Bliss’ arrest last month, Ted King, vice chairman of the church’s board, said the church was extremely shocked and would continue to cooperate with authorities in the investigation. King also said the church would not comment further until the case concludes, because of the nature of the charges.

Bliss told investigators he paid $12.95 per month for a website subscription and sent the child porn images to four other email accounts, where he stored the images, according to the affidavit.

“I know from training and experience that subjects who participate in the illegal trading of child pornography will often have numerous email accounts,” FBI agent Mark Lucas wrote in the affidavit. “This is because email service providers will often close down accounts that participate in illegal activity, thus forcing the suspects to resort to using alternate email accounts.”

Lucas said investigators found child porn images on Bliss’ laptop computer in his bedroom, his cellphone and a laptop computer found at the Oakdale church. Bliss told the investigators he has used the church computer to view child porn. The FBI agent wrote in the affidavit that Bliss said “he thought he was getting more adept at hiding his child pornography so that no one else would discover it.” After the police interview, Bliss was booked at the Stanislaus County Jail and later released on bail.

The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office initially charged Bliss with one felony count of possessing child porn. The defendant was scheduled to appear in court Wednesday for the first time since his initial arrest.

Bliss appeared before the judge with defense attorney Kirk McAllister, who told the judge his client was going to plead not guilty to the local charge. They were about to discuss scheduling a pretrial hearing when the prosecutor spoke up.

Deputy District Attorney Rob Taro told the judge that the local prosecutors were dropping the child porn charge “in the interest of justice.”

Superior Court Judge John Whiteside then pulled up a document from the case file, telling the attorneys it was a federal arrest warrant for Bliss. Two officials standing in the courtroom aisle during the hearing approached Bliss from behind.

One of them told Bliss he was under arrest and read him his rights as the other placed handcuffs on him. As they were ushering him out of the courtroom, Bliss mouthed, “I love you,” to his family and supporters sitting in the audience.

Bliss ducked his head as he was walked out of the courthouse to avoid news photographers waiting to catch a glimpse of him. His family and supporters did not comment after the brief court hearing. McAllister also declined to comment about Bliss’ federal arrest. Ceres police officers searched Bliss’ Oakdale home, in the 600 block of Hudson Avenue, and the church, in the 100 block of East G Street, and confiscated the computers.

The Ceres Police Department’s High Tech Crimes task force initially investigated Bliss’ suspected activities. The investigation was launched after Google Inc. discovered a child porn image on Bliss’ email account and sent a tip to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The center then sent the information from Google to the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force. Ceres police Detective Britton Moore is assigned to the federally funded task force.

The initial image that alarmed Google and later investigators was of two girls who appeared to be 5 to 8 years old in a sexual act with an unidentified man, according to the affidavit.

Moore determined that Bliss’ email account had been used extensively for the purpose of trading in child pornography because investigators found on the account 286 images associated with the sexual exploitation of children and other child erotica, including bondage, according to the affidavit.

Google had disabled Bliss’ email account as soon as the original child porn files were discovered Dec. 2. Moore discovered that Bliss’ email account was used to send some child porn images to another email address registered to Bliss – at least 17 times from Oct. 11 through Dec. 1, according to the affidavit.

Bliss admitted to investigators that he was sexually attracted to girls ages 12 to 14 and viewed pornographic images of children as young as 4 years old, according to the affidavit.

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