CRIME

Salt Lake City School Board member faces child pornography accusations; board demands his resignation

Jun 3, 2021, 2:37 PM | Updated: 6:23 pm
salt lake city school district....
The school district is facing staff shortages in their lunchrooms at nearly every school. Photo credit: Salt Lake City School District

SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake City School Board member is in jail as police investigate accusations he possessed child pornography. 

Police arrested and booked Joel-Lehi Organista, 29, into the Salt Lake County Jail Tuesday on eight counts of sexual exploitation of a minor. Organista was elected to the school board in November. 

A tip sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children containing a Dropbox file filled with possible child pornography, linking to the school board member’s address, sparked the investigation, according to a police affidavit

Police stated in the affidavit that during an interview, Organista admitted to “having downloaded, viewed and kept images and videos containing child pornography in his Dropbox account.” 

While searching Organista’s home, investigators found electronic devices that reportedly showed he  had been knowingly sending sexually explicit messages with young boys ages 12-17 over Snapchat.  Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Commander Alan White said they found one conversation between Organista and a 12-year-old boy where he asked the child to commit sex acts over the app.

White said, “There were some text conversations where some illegal images were shared.”

Investigators haven’t found any victims living in Utah, yet, and they don’t believe he used his position of power to find his targets.

Board asks Organista to resign 

The Salt Lake City School Board held a short news conference Thursday afternoon, calling for Organista to resign from the board, effective immediately. 

Board President Melissa Ford says six members of the board were made aware of the child pornography charges Thursday morning. 

“We condemn the crimes of which Mr. Organista has been accused,” said Ford. “To engage in any such conduct, or to exploit or endanger any child, is indefensible.”

The board also stated Organista would not be allowed on school grounds or allowed to attend school events such as graduations. 

“We want to make it clear to parents we will not be tolerating this behavior from anyone,” said SLCSD spokesperson Yándary Chatwin.  

Even though Organista hasn’t been convicted, Chatwin said the alleged confession was enough to convince them to take action.

“For our board, that’s enough.  This is not a ‘grey area.’  This type of activity and anything remotely related to children like this is 100 percent indefensible,” she said.

Despite calling for Organista to resign, the board said they cannot forcibly oust an elected official from the position.  If he doesn’t resign by Friday, the board could decide to censure him.  However, district officials say the may be able to force him out of his position if he’s convicted.

 

Increased reports of child exploitation

Investigators with the Utah Attorney General’s Office say they’re getting a lot more tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.  White said the number of tips jumped about 50 percent in 2020, and 2021 is keeping pace with last year’s numbers.  This might be due to increased illegal activity online during the pandemic, or it could be due to an increased reporting effort from Internet Service Providers monitoring their product.

He said,  “We’re receiving, probably, close to 250 to 300 cyber-tips per month from the national center.”

Organista was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail on eight counts of exploitation of a minor.

“The maximum prison sentence is one to 15 years for a second degree felony,” White said.

Report any child sexual abuse concerns to law enforcement at 801-799-3000 and to the Division of Child and Family Services at 855-323-3237.

 

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Salt Lake City School Board member faces child pornography accusations; board demands his resignation