A New Jersey man who left his family and moved across the country for a sexual relationship with a Kennewick teen is a predator whose conduct deserves a lengthy prison term, a federal judge said.
Joshua N. Higgins, 25, knew the girl was only 13 in 2012 when their online chats escalated to exchanges of naked pictures and sex acts performed during video calls.
Judge Wm. Fremming Nielsen sentenced Higgins on Monday to 15 years in a federal facility, followed by court supervision for the rest of his life.
Higgins pleaded guilty Aug. 7 in U.S. District Court in Yakima to production of child pornography.
Never miss a local story.
The plea agreement was part of a global resolution also involving his Benton County Superior Court case.
In that matter, Higgins entered a guilty plea Sept. 4 to third-degree rape of a child. He got one year and two months in prison, which is to be served at the same time as his federal sentence.
One of the girl’s parents discovered the relationship in late June 2013 as she returned home in the early morning. The parent reportedly went through the teen’s cell phone, found explicit pictures and text messages and called Kennewick police.
The girl told a Superior Court judge in a written statement that she’s angry at what Higgins did and has taken that anger out on other people.
“I am disgusted by (Higgins) and never want to see him again,” she wrote. “I did not know him like I thought I did and what I’ve heard I don’t want to see or be near him again.”
Higgins first began interacting with the girl from his home in New Jersey through two electronic messenger applications. By December 2012, they were using Skype and Higgins was asking the girl to take off her clothes and send him pornographic pictures, according to Superior Court and federal court documents.
When the two first met, Higgins claimed he was 16, Benton County Deputy Prosecutor Anita Petra said early in the case.
Higgins acknowledged in an interview with Kennewick Detective Bill Dramis that he knew the girl’s young age at the time he requested and received naked pictures from her, and again when he started asking her to perform sexual acts on camera while they communicated via their computers and cell phones.
Higgins left his wife and children behind in Phillipsburg and rented a Kennewick apartment in May 2013 solely for the purpose of being closer to the girl.
The teen reportedly sneaked out of her home to be with Higgins and the two had sex numerous times before her parents discovered what was going on, documents said. When the girl couldn’t leave the house, Higgins allegedly drove by continually.
Authorities arrested Higgins on Aug. 1, 2013.
He admitted he possessed child porn with images of the girl saved to his email accounts. Detectives got search warrants, and in one account alone found more than 70 pictures and videos of the Kennewick girl, along with images of other females who appeared to be under age 18. The other accounts had similar search results, said the federal criminal complaint written by FBI Special Agent David DiBartolo.
A hard drive seized from Higgins’ Kennewick apartment also turned up child porn, and police found sexually explicit pictures of Higgins and the teen on the girl’s phone.
Higgins’ wife in New Jersey told Dramis that she knew her husband talked with underage girls on the phone when he still lived at home because he would kick her out of their bedroom and she would overhear the conversations, the complaint said.
She also said in the phone interview that she knew Higgins communicated with a girl in Washington, that he would be on Skype into the early morning hours and that she’d seen nude photos of the girl while he was on the video chat and on his phone.
The hard drive from the wife’s laptop was turned over to the FBI and a search found about 113 images of the girl, 100 of which were screenshots from their Skype sessions, documents said. Higgins’ face often could be seen in the picture-in-picture screenshot.
Higgins initially was charged in Benton County Superior Court with sexual exploitation of a minor, first-degree possession of depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct, and third-degree rape of a child.
Petra dismissed the first two counts as part of the plea agreement with her office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She said in court documents that she worked with the victim’s family, and they were satisfied with the resolution.
The girl, in her written statement for Higgins’ sentencing, said she didn’t want to be around anyone because of what happened. She said she didn’t feel truthful because she really couldn’t tell friends what was going on, and missed out on some activities because of all the time she had to spend talking to investigators and attending counseling sessions.
“I’ve had to shift my schedule for some of these things and also shifted my life,” she wrote, adding that it stressed her out wondering when she would have to re-live what happened with further interviews.
Higgins was charged in U.S. District Court in July for enticing the girl to engage in sexual acts and send pictures and videos of those acts to him over the internet. He immediately agreed to plead guilty.
Court records show he had no known felony convictions before these cases. Now, he must register as a sex offender and avoid any contact with the teen.
The federal case was prosecuted as part of Project Safe Childhood. The Department of Justice started the nationwide initiative in 2006 to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse.
“The safety of our children is paramount to safe communities in the Eastern District of Washington,” Michael C. Ormsby, the district’s U.S. Attorney, said in a news release. “Prosecuting criminals who produce, distribute and/or possess child pornography is a priority. ... My office, together with its federal and state law enforcement partners, is and will continue to be committed to investigating, prosecuting and seeking appropriate punishment for child pornography crimes.”