A Nocona man named a person of interest in the 2015 disappearance of a local 18-year-old was sentenced today to 30 years in federal prison for preying on the boy when he was a minor, announced Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Chad E. Meacham.
In July, just hours after the court declared a mistrial due to juror injury, Ricky Dale Howard, 59, pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of a child. He was sentenced Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Reed C. O’Connor.
“The vast majority of sexually exploited children were victimized by an adult they know and trust – and the young man in this case was no different. While we may never know what happened to him in the moments before his disappearance, we know he spent many months enduring the unthinkable,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Chad Meacham. “We continue to pray that one day, he will be found. In the meantime, we hope today’s sentence brings a measure of solace to the family and friends who loved him. We are proud to put this sexual predator behind bars.”
“Mr. Howard exploited his position of trust with the victim’s family and will now be held accountable for his actions,” said Dallas FBI Special Agent in Charge Matthew J. DeSarno. “We will continue to use our combined law enforcement resources to seek justice for victims, their families and other vulnerable members of our community.”
According to evidence presented in court before the mistrial was declared, law enforcement obtained several of Mr. Howard’s computers during an investigation into the disappearance of a high school senior who was reported missing on April 1, 2015, just two weeks after his 18th birthday.
On the computers, investigators found sexually explicit images that appeared to show Mr. Howard sexually abusing the missing boy. In pleading guilty, Mr. Howard admitted that he enticed the minor into engaging in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of creating a visual depiction.
At trial, the boy’s mother testified she and her children had been close with the Howard family since the boys were children. Tami Diehl said her son began performing odd jobs for Mr. Howard during middle school.
Law enforcement officers testified that following the boy’s disappearance, Mr. Howard told police the last time he’d seen the victim was the weekend before he went missing, when the pair attempted to repair his broken-down truck. Several days into the missing person investigation, an officer observed a burn pit with several incinerated computers on Mr. Howard’s property.
Two years after the disappearance, Ms. Diehl discovered a small handheld tape recorder hidden in the back of a bathroom cabinet. The tape recorder contained audio of Mr. Howard asking himself polygraph questions pertaining to his sexual interest in young boys.
Shortly thereafter, investigators re-examined the missing persons case. Recalling the incinerated computers, officers asked Mr. Howard’s ex-wife and later his daughter for the computers, which were examined by analysts at the FBI’s North Texas Regional Computer Forensic Lab. Ms. Diehl, one of Mr. Howard’s sons, and Mr. Howard’s ex-wife all identified the missing victim in redacted versions of photographs extracted from the computers.
“My family is broken, I know we will never have a gathering where there isn’t a sense of wrongness and of a huge, important part being missing,” Ms. Diehl testified at Mr. Howard’s sentencing hearing. “It has now been almost seven years since [my son] disappeared. Years of searching, waiting, and praying for answers to get to this day – and still to not truly have the answer our hearts require. But I am so thankful to the investigators and prosecutors for not giving up and at least making sure that Ricky Howard can hurt no one else.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Dallas Field Office, Wichita Falls Resident Agency, the Montague County Sheriff’s Office, and the Nocona Police Department conducted the investigation with the assistance of the Montague County District Attorney’s Office and the Texas Rangers. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brandie Wade and Nancy Larson prosecuted the case.