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Navy veteran gets 19 years in Brandon sex case

Thomas Hill, 41, pleaded guilty in January to federal charges related to a sexual relationship he had with a 17-year-old girl.
The Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse in downtown Tampa, where a judge on Tuesday ordered Thomas Hill to serve 19 years in prison.
The Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse in downtown Tampa, where a judge on Tuesday ordered Thomas Hill to serve 19 years in prison. [ Times ]
Published Aug. 18, 2020

TAMPA — A former Navy sailor and college math tutor who kept a teenage girl in his Brandon home for sex was sentenced Tuesday to 19 years in prison, ending a lurid case that raised uncomfortable questions of consent.

Thomas Richard Hill, 41, pleaded guilty early this year to charges of enticement of a minor and production of child pornography. U.S. District Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington also ordered 15 years of supervised release upon completion of his prison sentence. Hill will have to register as a sex offender for life.

The case, which presented tricky questions of law, included details that the judge called “disgusting” and “repulsive.”

In court, there was considerable discussion about the age of consent for sexual activity. The girl lived in Georgia, where the legal age is 16. She was brought to Florida, where it is 18.

Thomas Hill, 41, was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison for a sexual relationship he had with an underage girl.
Thomas Hill, 41, was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison for a sexual relationship he had with an underage girl. [ Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ]

Hill was 39 when he met the girl on an adult-oriented website. She was 17, but close to turning 18.

They first started talking on video calls through Skype. Between November and December 2018, they exchanged more than 3,000 messages. The chats focused on sexual fantasy and captured Hill ordering the girl to take pictures of herself engaging in lewd acts.

She addressed him as “master.”

A defense attorney’s sentencing memo included a lengthy description of sexual role-play practices like dominance and submission and their prevalence in society. It explained that one subset of these practices is a “master-slave” relationship. Hill sought such a relationship with the girl.

“There are strange fetishes here,” Assistant Federal Public Defender Paul Downing said. “But none of that is criminal.”

Downing argued that Hill’s relationship with the girl was consensual and became illegal only when he brought her to Florida. He said Hill was hesitant to bring the girl to Florida. He did so only after she falsely told him that her parents planned to sell her into sexual slavery, the attorney said.

She stayed in Hill’s home for a few weeks and endured what federal prosecutors described as a sexually abusive relationship.

Authorities were alerted in February 2019 when a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy spotted the girl running east along W Sadie Street in Brandon. She was crying, seemed scared and told the deputy she wanted to go home.

Investigators learned the girl was listed as a missing person in Georgia.

The girl’s father appeared in court to read a statement from her. In it, she wrote of flashbacks, bouts of panic, and the ever-present fear that Hill would return to hurt her.

“This man has done a lot of damage that can never be repaired,” she wrote. “My mind is my torture because no matter how hard I try, I can’t forget completely.”

Portions of their chats were quoted in a plea agreement Hill signed in January.

“When I finish with you, you will tell me you’re sorry,” Hill wrote in one exchange. “Whether you did anything or not, because it will always be your fault ... And after you tell me that you’re sorry, you will come to me and cry in my arms and tell me that you love me.”

Later, he spoke of fear.

“A little fear is an important part of respecting me as your master. I expect the kind of respect that you give to electricity or fire.”

The chats focused on sexual fantasies centered around bondage and discipline, and captured Hill ordering the girl to take pictures of herself engaging in lewd and grotesque acts.

Hill went out of his way to prey upon her, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Candace Rich.

“Whether she’s 14, 15 or 16, she’s no less a victim,” Rich said.

A California native, Hill served six years in the U.S. Navy. He trained as an electrician and spent the bulk of his service aboard the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Jefferson City. He later obtained a degree in computer science from the University of South Florida and worked for Hillsborough Community College as a math tutor and laboratory technician.

Hill, thin-framed, bespectacled and donning an orange jail uniform Tuesday, stood straight before the judge and apologized to the victim. But he said he never knew he had done her harm.

“She gave me every indication she was happy where she was,” he said.

He recalled the last time he saw her, she kissed him. He said he loved her.

“Somehow, there must have been a disconnect,” Judge Covington told him. “Because this is someone who took off and looked for an officer to get help. You’re paying a price for this. And I think rightfully so.”