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US military veteran accused of having explicit images of a child apparently joined Russian army

BOSTON (AP) — A U.S. Air Force veteran who fled a charge of possessing sexually explicit images of a child told his lawyer he joined the Russian military, and a video appears to show him signing documents at a military enlistment office in Siberia.

Wilmer Puello-Mota, a former elected official from a small town in Massachusetts, was scheduled to plead guilty in Rhode Island in early January, but did not appear in court, according to prosecutors. Last week, a video surfaced that appears to show the 28-year-old in Russia and expressing support for the country’s war against Ukraine – footage that could be used to promote Moscow’s narrative of the conflict .

His attorney, John M. Cicilline, told the Boston Globe that he called Puello-Mota on Jan. 8, the day before his guilty plea. According to prosecutors, he took a flight from Washington, D.C., to Istanbul, Turkey, a day earlier.

“He said, ‘I joined the Russian army,’ or something like that,” Cicilline told the Globe. “I thought he was joking.”

Cicilline said Puello-Mota wanted a career in politics and believed the criminal case had ruined his life.

“I’m sure he joined the Russian army because he didn’t want to be registered as a sex offender,” Cicilline said.

The Associated Press made several calls to Cicilline. A person answering the phone at his office said they would have no further comment.

Puello-Mota served in the U.S. Air Force and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2015, when he was 19, according to press releases. He then served in the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard as a Security Forces Airman.

Puello-Mota was arrested in 2020 in Warwick, Rhode Island, after he called to report a stolen gun and police said they found nude images of a 17-year-old girl on his phone. He was accused of having sexually explicit images of a child. He was later also accused of trying to mislead prosecutors and his commanders about the case. Cicilline told the Globe he reached an agreement to plead guilty to all charges in exchange for an 18-month prison sentence.

Videos surfaced on Russian social media and local television in March showing a blurred image of a man in uniform in what appears to be a war zone flying the American flag.

In a video posted online last week, a man who resembles Puello-Mota speaks directly to the camera, speaking in English over background music and with Russian subtitles, and discussing a military operation. His face is not blurry. He doesn’t say his name and the videos don’t mention the Rhode Island criminal case.

President Vladimir Putin has eliminated almost all independent media in Russia – and aligned state media regularly tout Russian victories in Ukraine, denounce the West and amplify the good news while ignoring the bad.

The Rhode Island attorney general’s office said in a court document last month that it had received images purporting to show Puello-Mota in Ukraine and Russia.

“Although the State cannot verify the authenticity of the videos and photographs, if they are accurate, the accused is well beyond the jurisdiction of this court and, if they are false, the accused is engaged in a ruse designed to hide his whereabouts,” Rhode Island prosecutors said. said.

U.S. State Department officials said they were aware of media reports of Puello-Mota fleeing to Russia, but had had no contact with him and had no way to confirm this information.

The most recent video appears to show Puello-Mota entering a building in Khanty-Mansiysk and shaking hands with a man in uniform. At the end of the video, we see him signing a document.

The AP verified the location after reviewing satellite images and historical photos of the area. According to a plaque on the door, it is a military recruitment center run by the Russian Defense Ministry.

“It’s obviously a difficult situation. It’s the war. It’s a special military operation,” Puello-Mota explains in the video, adding that he had the chance to be with “people from the international brigade.”

“We did our job. We did our job. We did what we had to do,” he said. “I was very fortunate and fortunate to serve with these guys. I would definitely do it again.

Ian Garner, an assistant professor of politics at Queen’s University in Canada, called it a “tremendous propaganda opportunity” for Russia.

“Being able to show an American citizen who chose to reinvent himself, reform himself and become part of the Russian war machine seems to provide evidence that Russia is winning a much larger spiritual war,” he said. he declares.

Puello-Mota held the rank of technical sergeant when he was forced to leave the Guard in October 2022 because of a criminal case, said Don Veitch, a spokesman for the Massachusetts National Guard. His security clearance was also revoked.

Holyoke City Councilman David Bartley, who worked with Puello-Mota on the City Council, said he considered him a good friend. He said the person in the video looked and sounded like him.

“For me, it’s him,” he said.

He knew of no connection between Puello-Mota and Russia and called the images “shocking.”

“The Wil I know was a good, decent person,” Bartley said.

A Facebook page attributed to Puello-Mota includes a photo of the Kremlin and an updated profile photo of a man in uniform piloting a drone. He is said to be from Holyoke, currently living in Moscow and working in the Russian Ministry of Defense, which is written in Russian.

Under Rhode Island law, Puello-Mota’s trial cannot begin without her presence.


Perry reported from Meredith that NH Associated Press reporters Beatrice Dupuy and Rhonda Shafner in New York also contributed.

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