Border Patrol Agent Who Molested Children For Years Gets Maximum Sentence


Dana Ray Thornhill. [Photo courtesy Cochise County Sheriff's Office]

A longtime U.S. Border Patrol agent who was first arrested at age 13 for the sexual assault of a young girl was sentenced this week to 40 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to repeatedly molesting two other children between 1995 to 2007.

Dana Ray Thornhill stood before Judge Timothy Dickerson at the Cochise County Superior Court on Tuesday to learn his sentence for four felony sex crimes against children he pleaded guilty to in June. He faced 34 to 40 years in prison as part of a plea deal that ensured his victims would not have to testify about abuse they suffered at ages 8 to 12.

Thornhill, now 49, claimed in at least one court filing that he too was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. However, his effort to mitigate his sentence to something less than 40 years was easily offset by the aggravating factor of emotional harm to his victims, Dickerson ruled.

The judge noted Thornhill is not eligible for any early release credits toward his sentence, and once released must register as a Level 3 sex offender, the highest level. The victims, who are now adults, have 60 days to file a request with Dickerson for restitution.

Court records show Thornhill came to the attention of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) earlier this year when someone shared five videos of children under age 10 engaging in sexual activities with adult males. The child pornography was sent to an undercover HSI special agent via a chat platform that could not be traced.

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The HSI investigator convinced the sender to switch to a different chat platform which allows for Internet Protocol (IP) address tracking. On April 1, investigators learned the IP address was registered to an account matching Thornhill’s residential address in Sierra Vista, which got the Sierra Vista Police Department involved.

Thornhill worked for USBP for 19 years and 11 months, often serving as an agency chaplain. He was still an agent on April 9 when he was scheduled to meet with detectives at the Sierra Vista police station about the child pornography.

But instead of going to the meeting, Thornhill drove north out of Sierra Vista, causing officers who were surveilling him to lose sight of his vehicle. A short time later the vehicle was seen driving back toward Sierra Vista, minus Thornhill.

Investigators learned from Thornhill’s wife that he was at their church in Whetstone and that he expected to be arrested for child pornography. That led to the SVPD Tactical Unit being called out to the church after it was determined Thornhill was barricaded and in possession of a firearm.

Thornhill surrendered several hours later. He was booked into the Cochise County jail where he remained pending resolution of the case.

It was during the stand-off that detectives learned of the abuse allegations. Both victims described multiple acts of molestation. They also advised investigators that they told a family member of the sexual abuse several years ago.

SVPD Det. Tom Ransford previously told Arizona Daily Independent there was no record of authorities being notified of the abuse prior to April.

The victims approved Thornhill’s plea deal, which called for him to plead guilty to two counts of sexual contact with a minor and two counts of luring a minor for sexual exploitation. At sentencing, they appeared before Dickerson to express their thoughts on the length of sentence.

One told the judge that Thornhill should “go away for life,” while the other said “the longer he is in jail the safer children will be.”

Thornhill also spoke during the hearing, telling Dickerson he was “very guilty” and had “no excuse” for his actions. He also said he hoped the victims “can thrive and have a good life despite what I did to them.”

The plea deal negotiated by Lori Zucco, Cochise County’s chief deputy county attorney, allows for Thornhill to be prosecuted again if investigators identify other victims. In addition, Zucco said the U.S. Attorney’s Office could still pursue federal child pornography charges against Thornhill.

One of the charges Thornhill pleaded guilty to involved his effort to have one of the victims engage in sexual contact with an adult friend. That friend is identified in court records as former Sierra Vista teacher and convicted pedophile Robert Kelsey.

Earlier this year a New Mexico judge sentenced Kelsey to six years in prison for sexual contact with a four-year-old girl during a September 2017 incident. Ransford is planning to interview Kelsey in the near future, he said after Thornhill’s sentencing.

It is unclear how Thornhill was able to be hired by USBP given the fact he served time with the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections for the sexual assault he committed as a teenager.