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Dax Kuehn, left, looks toward his attorney during his sentencing for two misdemeanor counts of obscenity in Missoula County Justice Court on Thursday.

A Missoula portrait photographer who exchanged sexual text messages with an underage client will spend two days in the Missoula County jail and will be prohibited from photographing underage clients without a relative present for the next year.

Dax Cody Kuehn, 33, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of obscenity after a 17-year-old girl reported to authorities that they exchanged sexual text messages for four months after her senior portrait session in August 2012.

The sentence was handed down Thursday by Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech.

Kuehn owns Dax Photography, a popular wedding and portrait photography business based in Missoula. According to his website, he specializes in wedding photography, but also shoots family, senior, maternity and boudoir portraits.

The victim and her grandfather, former Spokane police detective Jerry Keller, both testified Thursday.

The girl, whose name is not being printed because she is the victim of a sex crime, said she was flattered by the man’s attention during her portrait session. He told her she was sexy – something she had never heard before.

A text-message relationship evolved from the portrait session, and Kuehn immediately began to request naked photos of the girl, she said. At first she refused.

“But Dax pushed for more,” she said.

Over the next four months, hundreds of sexual texts, commonly called "sexts," were exchanged between them, she said. Eventually, Dax asked for close-ups of her genitals and explicit videos, she said. Again she refused, but he was adamant, she said.

“All the while, I was going through a roller-coaster of internal conflict. I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to hurt Dax in any way,” the victim said. “I wanted to protect him.”

Keller, who spent a chunk of his career investigating sex crimes against children, also took the stand to testify against Kuehn. After emotionally congratulating his granddaughter for coming forward, he said that Kuehn picked the perfect victim. His granddaughter had low self-esteem and she was naïve when she met Kuehn.

“A lot of criminals use different means to assault their victims,” Keller said. “Some use guns. Some use knives. Dax used a camera.”

A sex crime, he explained, is not about sex, but about the empowerment that a predator seeks. He referenced a Missoulian story in which Kuehn was nominated as volunteer of the year. Kuehn is quoted as saying that he had been “accused of having an ego” in his youth and now that he received the volunteer award, he imagined having “Dax Day” where people would have to bow down to him.

“I would also nominate you, Dax, for predator of the year, and I guarantee you will win,” Keller said.

***

Kuehn’s defense attorney, Matthew Stevenson, objected several times during Keller’s testimony, but was overruled by Orzech.

He asked Orzech to let public opinion decide Kuehn’s fate and not to restrict Kuehn’s business. Stevenson pointed out that the victim was the only individual to accuse Kuehn of such behavior – and that she was old enough to consent to have sex with Kuehn in the state of Montana.

“No one else has come forward since this firestorm occurred and said Dax has done this to me, too,” Stevenson said. “So this idea that he is a systematic victimizer doesn’t comport with everyone’s opportunity in social media to say that Dax has done this to them.”

Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jason Marks took exception to Stevenson’s assertion that because the victim was of the age of consent, this wasn’t a serious crime.

“The reality is this investigation came about because it was a felony investigation. (Law enforcement) was looking for images of her that constituted child pornography because she was under 18,” Marks said. “The fact that he no longer had them on his phone spared him felony consequences.”

Marks asked the court to prohibit Kuehn from photographing people younger than age 18 for two six-month consecutive sentences.

Orzech ordered Kuehn to be transported to the Missoula County jail directly from Justice Court on Thursday and to pay $870 in fines, in addition to imposing the restriction on his business.

Kuehn embraced his parents before being handcuffed and taken away.

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Reporter Kathryn Haake can be reached at 523-5268 or at kate.haake@missoulian.com.

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