Man arrested on Albemarle child porn charges “never in trouble”

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Jonathan Messer. Photo courtesy Albemarle County Police. Jonathan Messer. Photo courtesy Albemarle County Police.

The man arrested on child pornography charges relating to the October 18 disappearance of a Dunlora teen, who was found safe less than 12 hours after she vanished, was denied bond in Albemarle Charlottesville Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court on Monday, October 28. Jonathan Lee Messer was arrested on October 23—his 24th birthday—in an incident that has rattled the community and shocked at least one of his family members.

“He’s never been in trouble,” said Messer’s stepfather, Kingsport, Tennessee, resident David Hicks, who learned of his stepson’s arrest from a reporter’s call on Friday, October 25. “This doesn’t sound like something he would do.”

Shackled, handcuffed and dressed in the striped uniform of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail, Messer appeared in court to request bond with his court appointed attorney, Pam Johnson, who said Messer has the support of his family, no prior record, and does not pose a flight risk. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jon Zug argued that while Messer has claimed he didn’t know the teen’s age, he has admitted to knowing she was a junior in high school and that she had only a learner’s permit. Citing Messer’s status as active military in the Navy and the chance of deployment that could prevent him from appearing in court, Zug argued that bond be denied.

“The Navy can do what it wants,” agreed Judge Claude Worrell when issuing the order.

According to the warrants, Messer is charged with four felonies: use of a communications system to procure or promote child pornography; preparing to produce child pornography; and two counts of possession of child pornography. He allegedly committed the offenses from October 13 to 18, the day the 16-year-old Albemarle High School junior disappeared. She was found walking on Rio Road the following morning by a neighbor.

Hicks, who married Messer’s mother when Messer was 15, said the young man was a typical teen who enjoyed playing Dungeons and Dragons. “He’s more of a  geek than anything else,” said Hicks, who said Messer has a long-time girlfriend in North Carolina and has been in the Navy for four and a half years. Messer’s mother died in September, a month before her son’s arrest, said Hicks.

Hicks last spoke with Messer on October 21, and said the conversation was unremarkable. His efforts to reach Messer on his birthday failed.

“I left a message late in the evening,” said Hicks. “I thought maybe he was at work or something.”

In fact, Messer had already been taken into custody by Naval Criminal Investigative Service officers, who turned him over to Virginia Beach Police, according to Officer Tonya Borman of the Virginia Beach Police Department. He was transferred to Albemarle County late last week and made his first court appearance on Friday, October 25.

While the parents of the alleged teen victim initially described their daughter’s disappearance as an abduction in anxious Facebook posts and news stories, the absence of an abduction charge only deepens the mystery surrounding the incident. Reached at home on Friday, her father declined comment.

In court, Zug revealed that the graphic sexual images were sent through “internet chat” and that Messer and the teen had arranged to meet.

Local attorney Adam Rhea said that Messer could be facing the child pornography charges even if he didn’t initially know the teen was underage.

“That defense has not really worked in sexual charges like statutory rape,” said Rhea, noting the court’s position is typically, “You knew or you should have known.”

The teen, whom C-VILLE Weekly is not naming due to her age and the nature of the charges, told her parents she was going outside to take pictures of the full moon. When she didn’t return, her parents searched for her and discovered her cell phone on the ground nearby. She was discovered walking up Rio Road the next morning by a neighbor.

According to the warrants filed in Juvenile Court, the offenses occurred between October 13 and 18, the day the teen vanished.

If convicted on all the charges, Messer is facing a sentence of between three and 45 years and will be required to register as a sex offender.

“These are really ugly charges,” said Rhea. “Your life is never the same again after being found guilty of them.”

Messer will next appear in Juvenile and Domestic Court on November 25.

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