FLORENCE — Christopher Thomas, 33, has been given the harshest sentence possible for sex crimes against minors that involved a blackmailing scheme.

Thomas was sentenced Friday by Pinal County Superior Court Judge Christopher O’Neil to serve a flat 25-year sentence for the sexual assault and manipulation of two teenage girls over several years. He was also ordered to spend the rest of his life on probation, when released, and to register as a sex offender.

He will have to serve the entire term of 25 years before being released, with credit for 877 days already served in jail.

Thomas maintained that he had video-recorded sex with the girls to prevent the Mexican Mafia prison gang from killing him, according to testimony in court.

Thomas was arrested in April 2018 after a 22-year-old woman reported to the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office that she had been abused by him since she was 13.

At that age, the woman told authorities, she started receiving messages on her computer that contained nude pictures of herself. The messages instructed the girl to send more nude portraits or the existing pictures would be posted online, according to a probable-cause statement filed by PCSO.

The woman said she complied with the demand but continued to receive messages asking for more pictures.

At some point, Thomas told the victim he had been contacted by “the blackmailers” and was instructed by them to take more nude pictures of the girl.

The victim told authorities this escalated to Thomas telling her the blackmailers wanted videos of them having sex. She complied and the sexual abuse allegedly continued for years, sometimes taking place at a San Tan Valley business owned by the defendant.

During the sentencing hearing on Friday, Judge O’Neil had to decide if factors in the case should be considered as aggravating, thus leading to a harsher sentence.

Thomas was originally charged with 18 felony counts and he pleaded guilty to just three in a plea arrangement: sex with a minor, endangerment of a minor and attempted sexual assault.

“I know these words don’t go very far, but I do apologize,” Thomas told the court at the sentencing hearing Friday. “I apologize to my family … I am sorry and I have been working on myself. It is all I have done since I’ve been in here … I know nothing can change this but I do ask for help.”

As five armed guards stood in the courtroom, including two sheriff’s deputies, several witness testified against Thomas, including two of his victims.

One of the witnesses said Thomas was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing. He fooled all of us.” One of the young girls he assaulted told the judge, “I’m dead inside and Christopher Thomas is the one who killed me. I won’t live a day of my life when it won’t cross my mind.”

O’Neil said, “There is no escaping that the crimes that are before the court were harmful. More than that they were reprehensible. The court’s duty is to impose what is a just sentence under the law.”

O’Neil said the presumptive sentence to sex with a minor is 20 years imprisonment. He said the aggravated term of 25 years was valid in this case.

“In doing so, the court does not act in cruelty or vindictiveness. The court does not act out of anger … It is impossible for this court to find any significant reason to find that this defendant is remorseful for his actions,” O’Neil said.

He said that Thomas violated the trust of his many victims and the case involved multiple abuses of these young women over many years.

“Mr. Thomas engaged in an extreme and egregious course of manipulation and deception in order to serve his own pleasure to conceal criminal and evil behavior,” O’Neil said.

He then handed down a flat 25-year sentence to Thomas and placed him on probation for the rest of his life.

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