A tearful mom described the shock of discovering that her daughter had been secretly photographed and the sexually suggestive images placed on the internet, after which a judge sentenced a Pulaski County man to 15 years in prison for sexual exploitation of children.

Ethen Thomas Tangtong, 20, also received federal supervision for life in the sentence that followed his rebuke by the child victims’ parents, one of whom called him a “psychopath.” U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski said the pain expressed by family members in his courtroom Thursday was “palpable.”

Laura Rottenborn, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in court papers that Tangtong had secretly shot images of multiple girls inside Pulaski County High School while he was a student there, and that the youngest child he photographed, who was 7 at the time, was still in elementary school. “The defendant violated and stole the innocence of local children by using their images for his own sexual gratification and in an endeavor to make money,” Rottenborn wrote.

Court papers did not explain how he tried to make money, or say how many children he photographed.

Tangtong should have wised up when the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office contacted him in high school about allegations that he had engaged in sexting, though did not seek charges, the judge said. Instead, Tangtong “escalated his behavior rather than reining it in,” Urbanski said.

In 2017, shortly after turning 18, Tangtong advertised on an internet bulletin board for violent, sadistic child pornography by posting one or more of the images that he had made of girls in his community, court papers said. Although the girls he photographed were clothed or mostly clothed in those images, his advertisement said he had “unseen footage” available, court papers said.

Comcast had linked the ad to an IP address associated with the account of Tangtong’s mom, with whom Tangtong lived in Dublin. Authorities visited the home in December 2017 and later found digital devices containing Tangtong’s porn collection of 2,100 pictures and 200 videos, court papers said. Authorities did not prosecute Tangtong for producing or possessing child porn, although they believed they could have. The judge found that Tangtong had degrading sexual images of children involved in bondage and bestiality and sexual images of children under 12. Authorities had no evidence that he engaged in any inappropriate physical contact with children.

Tangtong pleaded guilty to one count of advertising child pornography.

The mother told Urbanski about finding out that her daughter had been photographed by Tangtong at a location other than the high school and about waiting in fear while police interviewed the child. She said she worries that someone who saw the images on the web will contact the child.

“I feel I somehow failed my daughter. I didn’t protect her from the bad in this world,” she said.

Tangtong stood and read an apology to the girls he victimized, family members, the community at large and law enforcement, and a request for forgiveness from victims. Authorities agreed he had had a difficult childhood, though no details were made public. Tangtong said that he never meant harm and that his actions resulted from immaturity while engaging in frequent consumption of liquor and marijuana to try to cope with depression and anxiety. Since going to jail in December 2017, he has matured and welcomes counseling and being in an environment suitable to bettering himself, he said.

“I hate the decisions I made, but I must move past them so I can focus on becoming the person I know I can be. I know I can be rehabilitated because of my desire to want to change. I know I have not made the best choices up to this point in my life, but I have started to find my path. I have matured more in the last 21 months than in my 18 years before then,” he wrote in a version of his statement filed with the court.

The judge agreed to recommend Tangtong receive sex offender and substance abuse counseling while behind bars.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers business, banking, transportation and federal court. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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