A 51-year-old former Sleaford Town councillor and senior RAF officer has been jailed after he downloaded and distributed images of children being sexually abused via social media.
Wing Commander Richard Willis, 51, who served at RAF Cranwell, appeared on the surface to be an upstanding man who was a local Conservative councillor and involved in a number of charities.
But in December last year he was arrested as part of a National Crime Agency (NCA) investigation into a messaging service set up to allow users to trade indecent images of children via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
Officers seized computer equipment from the home of Willis and discovered he had exchanged hundreds of messages with another man using the messaging service.
Andrew Scott, prosecuting, told Lincoln Crown Court: “Within the messages a number of indecent images of children were exchanged and the two men expressed their personal sexual preferences.
“Richard Willis said he preferred young boys aged 14 to 16.”
Mr Scott said a number of photographs were found which Willis had himself taken of a teenage boy.
He said: “The boy was naked and in erotic poses. The defendant took these photographs when the boy was 16. These images were found on the defendant’s iPhone. There was some sexual activity between the two of them but there is no suggestion that it was non-consensual.
“He said he met the boy through Grindr.”
The court was told that Willis was ‘a bastion’ of the RAF Charitable Trust and was director of the Cranwellian Association.
He was involved in a number of other organisations including Help for Heroes and was an organiser for the Royal British Legion.
In February 2016 he was elected as a Conservative councillor in a by-election to Sleaford Town Council, but resigned in April this year citing ‘family and personal reasons’.
Willis, 51, of Cuthbert Close, Quarrington, admitted three charges of distributing indecent images of children; two charges of making indecent images of children; and a further charge of taking indecent images of children.
On Friday he was jailed for 16 months and placed on the sex offenders’ register for 10 years. He was also given a 10-year sexual harm prevention order.
Judge Simon Hirst, passing sentence, rejected a defence plea to suspend any jail sentence and told Willis: “Once somebody starts to distribute indecent images of the most serious level involving young boys then immediate custody is the only sentence that can be imposed.”
Sunil Khanna, in mitigation, said: “He was of positive good character before these offences. At the time of these offences he described himself as being in a very dark place.”
He said Willis had been commuting to Cumbria to care for his elderly parents before eventually being given compassionate leave by the RAF to help them.
He said: “He was upset and very distressed. Against that background he began the conversations with another man.
“He tells me it was a diversion to get away from what was going on. What occurred spiralled out of control.”
○ Tony Cook from the NCA’s CEOP Command, said after the hearing: “Every indecent image shared by Richard Willis is a child being sexually abused.
“Tackling child sexual exploitation is a priority for the NCA and we will use every means at our disposal to ensure vulnerable children are protected and those seeking to abuse them are brought to justice.”
An NSPCC spokesman commented after the case: “The children in these horrific images are all victims of evil abuse.
“By downloading and sharing this sickening material, Willis is creating a market for it - leading to more children suffering.
“Authorities and internet providers must work together transparently to tackle this gutter industry and halt the trade of these vile images.
“Anyone can share concerns about a child with the NSPCC’s helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Children can contact Childline on 0800 1111 or via www.childline.org.uk.”