Digital kidnapping is a dark, disturbing trend that’s coming to light
Posting photos, personal info online gives exploiters rich source to create fake profiles, worse
By Bob Sullivan, ThirdCertainty
No matter how many criminal complaints you read, the expression “JV” always sends chills down your spine. But this line, from a complaint filed April 27 in a California federal court, stands out.
“Petersen stated that he recently received via email from JV#1 a video of JV#1’s younger brother…masturbating in a bathroom. Petersen stated that JV#1 told Petersen he had recorded JV#2 without (his) knowledge. Petersen believes JV#2 is approximately ten years old.”
JV stands for juvenile victim, an expression often used in public court documents to protect the identity of a child. Behind it is a life, probably a whole family, in tatters. Rarely do you get a true picture of how deep the damage can be; the anonymity usually prevents a full accounting of evil’s ripple effects. But not this time.
JV#1 and JV#2 are the sons of Jeremy and Sara Thompson. The swirl of sickness that consumed the family in the past several weeks is cruel. They have taken the brave, unusual step of coming forward to help others avoid the crazy nightmare they have lived—and are still living.
Life changed forever for the Thompson family on May 4. It was a normal afternoon, the Thompsons hanging out in their suburban Seattle home, enjoying time with their two seemingly well-adjusted kids, 17 and 11 (I won’t be naming them). A ring at the doorbell roused the couple, who soon found themselves talking to a Snohomish County sheriff’s officer and a social services expert on the front porch.
Their 17-year-old son has been sexually abusing his 11-year-old brother, the officers said. The FBI has pornographic videos, images and chat logs. There is strong evidence, though the parents can’t see it—yet. The officers demand to speak to the older son. He denies everything, insists it must all be a crazy mistake.
Related story: Parents may put kids at risk by oversharing photos online
The Thompson boys caught the FBI’s attention on April 26, when federal agents arrested an alleged pedophile in California, near San Francisco, named Bryan Petersen. He was arrested along with another man in late April, according to local media reports.
The Petersen complaint chillingly cites JV#1 and JV#2. Separately, the Thompsons were told JV#1 and JV#2 are their kids. About a week later, officers were dispatched to the Thompson’s home. That weekend, Jeremy—who works in IT—skipped sleep and spent hours conducting forensics on his kids’ computers and other gadgets, looking for any kind of evidence.
Saved by sleuthing
“Laptops, desktops, phones, email accounts, Facebook, text messages, Snapchat, Instagram, followers, contacts. Years and years of content,” he says. “Nothing was found.”
Five days after the initial contact, the Thompsons get to speak with a detective assigned to the case. They are told about some of the evidence against their older son. They still can’t see the pornographic video, but they are told about years’ worth of family photos. But things aren’t adding up. All the photos described by the detective are harmless; they all match photos that have been posted by the family on their own social media pages. The kids on the beach, at Legoland, posing in the cockpit of an airplane.
The detective also mentions a Facebook page made by the older son that includes “gay” in the title, apparently in an effort by the boy to explore his sexuality online. That night, Thompson redoubled his digital sleuthing effort. He discovered a digital creep had been using his elder boy’s photos to create a “fan” club for him. The creator added titillation by saying the boy was possibly gay, inviting commentary on that.
End game becomes apparent
Three years ago, “digital kidnapping” became the new creepy thing for parents to worry about online. I appeared on the “Today” show warning parents about this weird, but perhaps not illegal, pastime. “Kidnappers” would pilfer photos of babies, then post them on their own social media pages and pretend they were the kids’ moms and dads. They would revel in the cute compliments, create entire narratives around these faux families, and so on. At the time, folks couldn’t quite figure out what the harm was in this game. Now we know.
The man who registered the website had noticed the Thompson child when he was a finalist in a modeling contest for a national brand clothing company. Several years ago, the man had messaged the family, saying he hoped the boy would win. The Thompsons thought it was creepy at the time, but nothing more, and blocked him.
They forgot about it until the sheriff’s officer showed up at the door accusing one of their children of raping the other.
“At this moment we knew 100 percent that our son was not involved,” Thompson said.
Elaborate faux profiles
The perpetrator had created an alternate universe with their son at the center. The efforts were elaborate. There was a fake Facebook profile claiming to be a classmate of their child, and which got 28 other classmates to accept friend requests. That gave him access to even more photos. There were other profile pages, a network of online comments and reviews, possibly even other fake child identities.
Their son had an impostor. The impostor had sent the emails and video to Petersen. The chats about abuse weren’t real. The next morning, the Thompsons visited the detective and unveiled the evidence. The case would be dropped, the investigator said, once she could verify the research. Only then did they get to see still images from the harmful video. There was a reason police couldn’t find a green shower curtain in any bathroom—the Thompson family never had one.
“The boy looked similar to a younger (version of the younger son), but it was absolutely not him. This was a massive relief. Our kids were safe. Our kids were victims,” Thompson said. “Our family members were victims. This poor boy in the video was a victim. His face continues to haunt me.”
Case closed but damage done
After child protective services conducted more interviews with the younger son, and with the parents, the sheriff’s department did indeed drop the case. Shari Ireton, public information officer for the department, confirmed to me that the agency was asked to investigate potential abuse, found none, and closed the case. The FBI said it could not comment on any ongoing investigation.
(At the family’s request, I am not naming the impostor so this story does not interfere with the ongoing investigation.)
Meanwhile, what now? The kids are getting counseling to work through the trauma. The parents are left wondering what they could have done differently. And that’s the reason they’ve decided to come forward with this story.
This is the kind of crime that could only happen online. The toxic mix of twisted minds, anonymity, and social media can turn the innocent act of sharing a happy family moment into a knock on the door from the sheriff’s department. The Thompsons want you to know this can happen. They have locked down every piece of their digital lives, and they’d like you to consider doing that, too.
More stories about online vulnerability:
Ashley Madison, ‘data kidnapping,’ and a new era of hacking
How to talk to your kids about malware
Before summer begins, talk about online security with your kids