TAMPA — David Wendel Thompson says he led a double life.
There was “Big Dave,” the free-spending American who wove tales with impoverished girls in Belize about the riches his country had to offer: the air conditioning, the cars and a magical restaurant called Golden Corral, where they had fountains of chocolate for dipping marshmallows and strawberries.
And there’s David, scared David begging for mercy, petrified about going to prison, worried about never seeing his mother again.
“I’m scared of jail,” Thompson told a federal judge. “I’m scared I’ll never see freedom again.”
A former sixth-grade teacher at Centennial Middle School in Dade City, Thompson was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for trying to persuade two Belizean girls, ages 13 and 15, to have sex with him through Facebook chats in which he said he wanted to take their virginity and promised them gifts and help toward a better life.
Thompson, 49, swore Wednesday that he never acted inappropriately toward any child when he was a teacher. And he claimed he never would have acted on his chats with the girls in Belize.
“I thought everybody lied on Facebook,” Thompson said. “I didn’t believe it was real.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Peresie said Thompson was interviewed three times by Homeland Security agents — once at the airport in Miami on his way to Belize, once in Belize and upon his return to Miami — and never before claimed this was only fantasy. Instead, she said, he justified his plans. He told agents it was legal in Belize to have sex with girls as young as 16, but that he planned only to have sex with 18-year-olds.
Peresie also noted Thompson’s elaborate ruse in which he created the persona of Iris Levy, another impoverished Belizean girl. Posing as Iris, Thompson told the girls about “Big Dave,” who came from the United States and spent a lot of money. Iris introduced the girls to Thompson on Facebook.
Thompson’s lawyer, Matthew Farmer, said the chats were late at night and were fueled by alcohol and drugs. They happened over a three-month period, beginning in December 2013, and were an aberration in his otherwise stellar life, Farmer said.
“Other than those three months, he has expressed no interest in sex with minors. None,” Farmer said. “He just went off the rails. There’s no other way to put it.”
Although it was not discussed in court, Pasco County school district records include a letter Thompson sent to his former principal in September in which he described himself as a “political prisoner,” and signed it ‘Big Dave.’ ”
He said he was reading a biography of former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega. “He was officially classified as a prisoner of war by the U.S. government,” Thompson wrote. “I can relate to his plight.
“As for me, I’m caught between two countries based on some fantasy/weak accusations which are not true.”
A month later, Thompson pleaded guilty to online enticement of a minor, a charge that carries up to life in prison. Sentencing guidelines called for Thompson to receive a term of between 24 and 30 years, but District Judge Susan Bucklew imposed a lesser sentence, saying it was more appropriate. After he is released from prison, he will serve 10 years of probation.
Peresie said the conversations Thompson had with the two victims were graphic. He also tried to persuade one of them to send him photographs of her genital area.
Homeland Security Agent Terri Botterbusch testified an acquaintance of Thompson’s in Belize told agents that Thompson told her he was interested in girls 15 and younger.
When Homeland Security agents searched Thompson’s bags during his layover in Miami, they found condoms and Cialis, a drug used to treat erectile dysfunction, according to a criminal complaint affidavit.
They also found two computer tablets, which Peresie suggested were gifts for the two girls.
Belize is a “source destination” for sex trafficking and forced labor, according to the U.S. State Department.
Authorities say destitute children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation for money their families desperately need.