With tears in his eyes, a former youth minister convicted on child pornography charges apologized to his victims and his family Friday before being sentenced to 30 years in prison followed by a lifetime of supervision.
Joe Tapia III, 47, read his apology in front of U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo as his family, including his wife and son, watched from the gallery.
He had pleaded guilty to solicitation of material relating to the sexual exploitation of children in October. During the hearing, Montalvo mentioned that 468 images were discovered in Tapia's possession.
"With my poor decisions in my offense, I lost the values that my wife and I had taught our children," a sobbing Tapia said. "I understand I will have to be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life."
While serving as youth minister at San Jose Catholic Church, Tapia admitted, he recorded video and took photos of two children while they were changing clothes before a church performance. He used those images to solicit other sexually explicit images of children, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
Tapia also had sexually explicit messenger chats with multiple minors at his home and work computers. He was an admissions service representative at Excel Learning Center.
The images were discovered on his work computer by a co-worker and reported to the FBI, which found photos of boys ages 12 and 13 during a scan of the hard drive.
During his apology, Tapia told Montalvo that he discovered child pornography in a spam mail file.
"I was told by the school to look through all emails (including spam) for any validity," Tapia said. "I did not report the email for fear of getting fired. Instead, I forwarded the email to my personal account so it would be taken off of the work servers. I never opened that file after that."
When Tapia's wife, his junior high school sweetheart, was diagnosed with cancer, he became very troubled and began posing as a 16-year-old on the Internet "out of fun," Tapia said.
After that, Tapia's actions spiraled into a "gross obsession," said his lawyer Erik Hanshew.
"He was relieved to be caught (by the FBI), so he could deal with his problems," said Hanshew, who described Tapia's behavior as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like."
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandy Gardes raised issues with Tapia's story.
"Spam is not asking someone, 'How long is your fill in the blank?' " Gardes said. "It might have escalated (when his wife got cancer), but it started in January 2009. This is a man that has preyed upon those that trusted him."
Hanshew requested that Tapia's sentence be set at 20 years with a lifetime of supervision, so Tapia would have time to catch up on his family's milestones.
Tapia told Montalvo that he had given the FBI full access to his computer accounts, so they could track others who shared child pornography images.
But Montalvo denied the request and sent a message to Tapia and his family.
"The issue here is not about vengeance," Montalvo said. "The issue here is that there is a conduct in which individuals forfeit their right to live in a civilized society."
After Montalvo made his ruling, Tapia was led out of the courtroom. Before he exited, he gave one last wave to his family.
Tapia's family and lawyer declined to comment, while Gardes said, "I said what I needed to say in court."
Aaron Bracamontes may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6156. Follow him on Twitter @AaronBrac