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Child porn nets local man 18 years in federal prison

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Former Los Alamos youth pastor was convicted of possessing child porn

By Carol A. Clark

Fifteen months after federal agents reported finding 1,465 child pornography images and 186 videos on the computers of youth pastor Matthew Nichols; a judge sentenced the married father of three to 18 years in federal prison.

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Nichols also was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine Thursday and to register as a sex offender and endure lifetime supervision upon his release from prison.

“The great thing is that FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agents aggressively pursued this case, which is a significant benefit to law enforcement,” Los Alamos Police Chief Wayne Torpy said. “I am certainly pleased that this case resulted in a conviction and a harsh sentence, which I hope sends a clear message to others that these types of crimes will not be tolerated – they will be dealt with in absolutely the severest manner possible.”

Nichols, who will turn 59 on Sunday, was a youth minister at Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Los Alamos when he was indicted on six charges in June – child pornography, including distributing and attempting to distribute, receiving and possessing child pornography. In an agreement with prosecutors, Nichols pleaded guilty to one count of distribution and attempted distribution of child pornography, according to U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales.

“We anticipated this and while he is no longer a church employee, he has not asked to have his membership in the congregation canceled, so he is still a member of our church family,” said Congregational Council President Jerry Ethridge Thursday. “We will pray for both him and his wife Paula – especially Paula – this is going to be especially difficult for her. It is up to Matt to decide what he wants to do about his membership but we want to make this as tolerable as possible for her.”

Ethridge wanted to know where Nichols would be incarcerated so members of the congregation could send cards and letters.

Public Information Officer Elizabeth Martinez of the U.S. Attorney’s Office said this morning that the Bureau of Prisons typically does not begin the process to determine which facility an inmate will be sent until sentencing, which just occurred Thursday. She also mentioned that unlike the state system in which a prisoner may reduce one-third to one-half of his time by good behavior, the federal system allows only about one month per year, so at best, Nichols would potentially serve 16.5 years of his 18 year sentence.

The Nichols case began with a tip to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office that an Internet address, later traced to Nichols, was being used to distribute child pornography.

Federal agents served search warrants on the local church and Nichols’ home Dec. 29, 2009 and reported finding the images and videos of known child pornography identified by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Nichols’ indictment also revealed that he had a previous conviction for corruption of minors and criminal solicitation, to commit involuntary, deviate sexual intercourse, involving a minor in 1980 in Pennsylvania.

Ethridge explained that investigators made no mention of Nichols’ prior record when they originally presented the church with a subpoena, saying only that the youth minister was the subject of a child pornography investigation.

“This is a huge, huge shock to us,” Ethridge commented at the time. “Obviously, if that information had been known or made available, he would not have been hired.”

The church had contracted with a company to conduct background checks and Etheridge stated that he couldn’t understand why Nichols’ conviction didn’t surface during the employee hiring process.

Nichols also managed to pass background checks at McCurdy Middle School in Española where he was previously employed as a science teacher and coach and at Steele Valley High School in Munhall, Pa, where he was employed as a teacher in the past.

Nichols’ seven-year employment with the Los Alamos church began in 2003 and involved serving as director of youth and family ministry at the church. Part of his job was accompanying youth on camping trips, to the movies and to other educational activities, Ethridge said at the time.

“Most of the time a parent or staff member went along, but there were rare occasions when Nichols was alone with young people.”

Multiple times the church has invited parents to talk to their children and let the pastor or Ethridge know if they are aware of any inappropriate behavior and to date no one has expressed any problems, Ethridge said Thursday.

“Also, Pastor Bruce Kuenzel looked at some of the evidence on the confiscated computers with ICE agents and found no one familiar,” Ethridge said. “Pastor Kuenzel is also pretty familiar with many of the kids in the community so we’re quite comfortable no local children were involved.

“While we are saddened, justice does need to be served,” Ethridge said. “There is certainly no ill will toward anyone in the justice system, they did what needed to be done.”

Acting Los Alamos County Administrator Randy Autio addressed Nichols’ case in an interview late Thursday.

“I’m saddened because things like this occur and I believe there should be a stiff penalty when someone breaches the public’s trust like this,” Autio said.

Nichols’ wife, Paula Nichols, is the church organist and music director and has continued in that capacity. She also works as choir director at Los Alamos High School.