Joe Tapia III appears stern but healthy in a mugshot from May 2012 when the 46 year old was arrested on child pornography charges. Today, however, Tapia appeared before a judge looking extremely thin and frail, almost unrecognizable. He had deep, dark circles under his eyes, and appeared to be unshaven. The room was mostly empty, with only a small cluster of family and friends, who sat in the back corner, praying silently, for Tapia.
His son was also present at the plea hearing. He appeared to be very calm and collected, even at times laughing and quietly exchanging jokes with family sitting next to him.
The former Lower Valley youth minister and employee at Excel Learning Center changed his plea from not guilty to guilty this morning in Judge Frank Montalvo's court room at the El Paso Federal Courthouse.
The prosecution summarized the list of allegations against Tapia, including distribution and possession of child pornography, and engaging in sexually explicit Internet chats with a minor.
In October of 2011, as we've reported, a tip from a coworker led federal investigators to search Tapia's work computer and home for child porn. The FBI discovered numerous images featuring boys between the ages of 12 and 13 with exposed genitalia. There were also many email exchanges and chat records from Tapia's Yahoo account, in which he solicited nude pictures of young boys. Tapia admitted to investigators that he had taken photos of two 16 year old boys at a church play back in 2009 when they were changing for a performance.
We got video of Tapia's attorney, Erik Hanshew, followed by family members and friends, leaving the courthouse this morning. They declined to comment.
Joe Tapia faces between 15 to 30 years in federal prison for these crimes. His sentencing is scheduled to take place on January 16th, 2013.