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Former youth pastor gets 18 years on child porn charge

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Former Los Alamos youth pastor Matthew Nichols, 62, was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison to be followed by registration as a sex offender and lifetime supervision, according to U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales. The sentence also includes a $10,000 fine.

Nichols was a youth minister at Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church when he was indicted on six charges last June. 

In an agreement with prosecutors, Nichols pleaded guilty to one count of distribution and attempted distribution of child pornography.

The 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 porn.

Federal agents served search warrants on the church and Nichols' home in December 2009 and reported finding 1,465 images and 186 videos of known child pornography identified by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Nichols had a previous conviction of corruption of minors and criminal solicitation in Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The investigation surrounding Nichols began in September 2009, following information from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office about an e-mail address that had been used to transmit child pornography, which was traced to Nichols’ home and church computers.

In December 2009, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agents leading the investigation confiscated Nichols’ home computer and the church computer he used, informing church leaders that it would not be returned if it contained child pornography.

Nichols served as director of youth and family ministry at the church since 2003.

“Part of his job during the last seven years involved accompanying youth on camping trips, to the movies and to other educational activities,” said Congregational Council President Jerry Ethridge 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.”

In early January 2010, the church council placed Nichols on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

“We held a well-attended congregational informational meeting…approaching 100 people,” Ethridge said during a later interview. “We told them part of the reason we were placing Matt on administrative leave was for the safety of the children as well as for his own sake … we did not and still don’t know if he’s guilty or innocent but we told parents to talk to their children and let our pastor or me know if they have any concerns. No one did, in fact it’s been just the opposite with people asking when they can have Matt back, saying the programs are suffering. He was a beloved staff member and member of the church.”

ICE agents arrested Nichols at his White Rock home June 24. He was charged with child pornography, including distributing and attempting to distribute, receiving, and possessing child pornography.

The June indictment (attached at the conclusion of this report) also revealed that Nichols had prior convictions in Pennsylvania for corrupting minors and criminal solicitation (to commit involuntary, deviate sexual intercourse) involving a minor in 1980.

“This is a huge, huge shock to us,” Ethridge commented at the time in reference to Nichols’ prior convictions.

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

“Obviously, if that information had been known or made available, he would not have been hired,” Ethridge said.

The church contracts with a company to conduct background checks and Etheridge stated that he couldn’t understand how Nichols’ convictions didn’t surface during the employee hiring process.

The church ultimately terminated Nichols.

“The (church) council took action at a special meeting in late June or early July based on what we learned in the indictment,” Ethridge said. “We didn’t fire him because of the arrest in June but because the indictment revealed his 1980 prior convictions, and none of that came up in any of the interviews with him…he didn’t say anything about it…we felt our congregation’s confidence in him was probably irrepairable based on that.”

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 also was employed as a teacher in the past.

Several days following Nichols’ June arrest, a federal magistrate judge in Albuquerque denied his bond stating, “Matthew Nichols is a danger to the community and should not be released.”

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

Get more details in Friday's edition of the Los Alamos Monitor.
 

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nicholsindictment.pdf340.59 KB