Polk County man sentenced to 21 years for child pornography scheme

Published 2:59 pm Wednesday, June 5, 2024

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Aaron Joseph Wehrstein used popular free applications to “catfish” minors


POLK COUNTY—On Monday, June 3, a Columbus man was sentenced to 21 years in prison for the production of child pornography. 

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The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, Dena J. King, announced the sentencing on Tuesday afternoon, along with Homeland Security Special Agent Cardell T. Morant and Polk County Sheriff Timothy Wright.

According to court documents, law enforcement received a tip that an individual with the screen name JessicaLovesYou#1816 was using Discord to distribute child pornography. Discord is a popular free application that allows users to communicate privately through text messages, voice chat, and video chat.

Investigators found that Aaron Joseph Wehrstein, 25, of Columbus, was luring minor males using the fictional online persona, in which he posed as a female and sent them sexually explicit materials claiming to be the person in the images. Wehrstein would then persuade the victims to send him explicit images and videos of themselves in return.

In September of 2021, law enforcement executed a search warrant at Wehrstein’s residence and seized several electronic devices. A forensic analysis revealed that Wehrstein also used Twitter (now known as X) to communicate with minors and receive child pornography. 

In total, Wehrstein possessed more than 4,197 images and videos of child pornography. The investigation further determined that at least eight of the victims were between the ages of 12 and 17. 

On March 29, 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 be transferred to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“Wehrstein is an online predator who used a catfishing scheme to prey upon innocent victims, causing them significant emotional distress and mental anguish,” said U.S. Attorney King. “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.”

In addition to the 21-year prison sentence, Wehrstein was ordered to pay a $5,000 special assessment, serve a lifetime of supervised release, pay restitution to the victims of his offense, and register as a sex offender after he is released from prison.

U.S. Attorney King thanked the Polk County Sheriff’s Office for their investigation of this case.