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Man receives prison sentence for ‘catfishing’ minors into sending explicit images – WSVN 7News | Miami News, Weather, Sports | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

COLUMBUS, North Carolina (WLOS) — A 25-year-old Polk County man was sentenced to 21 years in prison on June 4 for the production of child pornography.

Dena King, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, said Aaron Joseph Wehrstein, of Columbus, was also ordered to pay a $5,000 special assessment, to serve a lifetime of supervised release, to pay restitution to the victims of his offense and to register as a sex offender after he is released from prison. Cardell T. Morant, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in North Carolina and South Carolina, and Polk County Sheriff Timothy Wright joined King in making the announcement.

During the investigation that began in September 2021, detectives discovered Wehrstein had more than 4,197 images and videos of child pornography. They also learned he had induced at least eight male victims between the ages of 12-17 to produce and send him child pornography via Discord and Twitter.

According to court records, law enforcement had first received a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, alerting them that an individual with the screen name JessicaLovesYou#1816 was using Discord to distribute child pornography. Discord is a free application that allows users to communicate with each other via voice, video calls and text messaging, and to share media files through private chats or communities. Detectives determined the Discord user was Wehrstein.

The investigation further revealed that Wehrstein would “catfish” minor males through Discord by posing as a female and would send the unsuspecting minors sexually explicit images of females, claiming to be the person in those images. Wehrstein then induced the minor victims to reciprocate by creating and sending him sexually explicit images and videos of themselves.

“Wehrstein is an online predator who used a catfishing scheme to prey upon innocent victims, causing them significant emotional distress and mental anguish,” said King in a news release. “My office and our law enforcement partners are committed to protecting vulnerable young people from predators like Wehrstein and seeking justice for victims harmed by this deplorable criminal conduct.”

Court records show that on March 29, 2024, Wehrstein pleaded guilty to using a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct. Wehrstein will remain in federal custody until he is transferred to the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons.

“Homeland Security Investigations aggressively pursues child predators, and cases involving child sex abuse material. Now Wehrstein will be held accountable for his predatory and reprehensible behavior,” said Morant in the release. “Today we are once again reminded of the need for constant online vigilance to protect the most vulnerable among us.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexis Solheim of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Asheville prosecuted the case.

This case was brought as part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative launched in 2006 by the Department of Justice, aimed at combating the growing online sexual exploitation of children. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, go to projectsafechildhood.gov.

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