A former Nocona banker and rancher who is a person of interest in the 2015 disappearance of a North Texas 18-year-old pleaded guilty on Tuesday to sexually abusing the missing teen.
Ricky Dale Howard, 59, entered a plea of guilty to a federal charge of sexual exploitation just hours after a judge in Fort Worth declared a mistrial because of a medical issue with a juror.
Howard faces a maximum of 30 years in a federal prison.
As of Wednesday, the boy from Nocona is still missing. Nocona is about 90 miles northwest of Fort Worth.
“Although much of what happened to this young boy remains a mystery, we know one thing for sure: Before he went missing, he suffered at the hands of a child sex predator. He was preyed upon by a man his family knew and trusted,” said Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas. Prerak Shah in a news release. “Our fervent hope is that one day, he will be found. In the meantime, we are proud to put the man who abused him behind bars.”
In evidence presented before the mistrial, authorities had seized several of Howard’s computers during an investigation into the disappearance of the high school senior who was reported missing April 1, 2015, just two weeks after this 18th birthday.
On the computers, investigators found sexually explicit images that appeared to show Howard sexually abusing the missing boy.
Howard admitted that he enticed the teen into engaging in sexually explicit conduct to create visual depictions, according to federal authorities.
“We will continue to work with our partners to seek justice for this victim’s family and do all that we can to ensure that vulnerable members of our community are protected from those who seek to do them harm,” said FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew J. DeSarno in the news release. “The defendant will be held accountable for his reprehensible conduct, and we will remain committed to investigating anyone who seeks to exploit children.”
In the trial this week, the boy’s mother testified that she and her children had been close with the Howard family since the boys were children, saying her son had been working for Howard since middle school.
Authorities testified that after the boy disappeared, Howard told police the last time he’d seen the teen was the weekend before he went missing, when they attempted to repair his truck. Several days into the missing boy’s instigation, an officer observed a burn pit with several incinerated computers on Howard’s property.
In 2017, the mother of the missing teen discovered a small tape recorder hidden in the back of a bathroom cabinet which contained audio of Howard asking himself polygraph questions related to his sexual interest in young boys.
Shortly after that, investigators re-examined the missing person case, and asked Howard’s ex-wife and daughter for the incinerated computers which were examined by the FBI”s North Texas Regional Computer Forensic Lab. The mother of the missing teen, Howard’s sons and his his ex-wife all identified the missing teen in redacted versions of the photographs extracted from the computers.
The federal trial was held following Howard’s release from state prison after serving a five-year sentence on 11 counts of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, according to KFDX-TV in Wichita Falls.
Howard also had been convicted of federal bank fraud about 10 years earlier.
The gun sentence came a year after he was charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child in two separate cases after two men came forward and said they had been assaulted multiple times in the ’90s while working for Howard. One was 12-years-old and the other 13-years-old at the time, according to KFDX-TV.