Predators exploit social sites for ‘sextortion’ of minors

The teenage boy named Quan did what many teenage boys do: He spent hours on social media websites befriending young girls.

One morning in February 2012, one of those girls sent Quan a message he’d been waiting for. Sixteen and living in Forest Park, the girl had already sent him photos. Now she was texting that she was home sick from school.

Quan suddenly appeared at her door. But this wasn’t Quan. It was a grown man who ordered the teenager to let him in. Once inside, federal prosecutors say, he raped the girl.

The case of Quan, identified by federal authorities as 27-year-old Tremain Hutchinson, stands out because he allegedly emerged from behind a cyber wall of anonymity and violently assaulted young girls. But in recent years, prosecutors nationwide have brought cases against predators who used social media to gain the trust of unsuspecting teens and then revealed themselves to be monsters who scarred their victims for life.

A Marietta man was convicted here for sexually exploiting two teenage boys in New Jersey, one of whom became so ashamed of his situation he tried to commit suicide. A former University of North Carolina student pleaded guilty last year to preying on boys attending a metro Atlanta school. An Alabama man, at times pretending he was pop star Justin Bieber in online chats, was sentenced in January to 35 years in prison for getting girls to send him nude photos and videos in exchange for free concert tickets or backstage passes.

Sally Yates, the U.S. Attorney in Atlanta, said the case against Hutchinson is “at the outer boundary of all of this.” During a recent court hearing, detectives disclosed in lurid detail the disturbing allegations against him.

Internet-predator crimes have become so prevalent that federal authorities and the GBI have established task forces to combat them.

“It’s sextortion,” Yates said.

Parents need to talk to their children about who they communicate with online, she said. Yates said they need to know that when someone claims to be a friend of one of their friends on a social media site, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

“It used to be that parents could monitor their kids’ Internet access because computers were in common areas in our homes,” she said. “Now kids have their computers or laptops in their rooms, out of sight. And most are walking around with Internet access in their hands, right on their cellphones. It means they have access to other people on the Internet and those people have access to them.”

With so many social media and photo-sharing sites, it’s easy for parents to relax about their children’s Internet usage, Yates said.

“Sadly, these cases point out that we shouldn’t be too relaxed,” she said. “We don’t need to be paranoid about it, but we do need to be vigilant.”

Don Mason, a University of Mississippi professor who has studied cybercrime issues for more than 15 years, said Internet predators condition young people into doing things they wouldn’t consider doing in a face-to-face encounter.

“The tragic truth is that it happens way more than most people could imagine,” he said. “These predators use every form of technology available out there and use it to exploit young people. It can be social media or cellphones with cameras, you name it.”

Hutchinson, who has pleaded not guilty, struck up relationships with teenage girls on the social website Tagged; eventually, he was sending texts to the girls on their cellphones, authorities said.

In February 2012, DeKalb County police launched an investigation that led them to Hutchinson after a woman reported she found images on her 15-year-old daughter’s cellphone of her daughter in a sex act with her 13-year-old brother.

After interviewing the teens, authorities learned the girl had been coerced into doing it, DeKalb police Detective Torrey Kennedy testified recently in federal court.

The girl initially thought she was dealing with a 16-year-old named “Mario,” who Kennedy said was actually Hutchinson.

He persuaded the girl to send him nude photos of herself and then threatened to post them on social media sites or her school’s website if she did not send him more sexually graphic videos, including one with her and her brother, the detective testified.

At about the same time, and unbeknown to Kennedy, Forest Park Detective Jessica Raley was investigating sexual assaults of teenage girls by “Quan,” a supposed 16-year-old boy they had become acquainted with on Tagged.

Quan, who was really Hutchinson, raped the 16-year-old girl when she was home sick from school as well as a 13-year-old girl and an 11-year-old girl from Forest Park, federal prosecutors said.

Because detectives had the cellphone number of the person the girls were texting with, they used subpoenas to find out the phone was owned by Hutchinson’s mother, who lived in an apartment in Mableton.

On the morning of April 5, 2012, Kennedy showed up at the apartment hoping to talk to the woman. But it was Hutchinson who answered the door and invited the detective and other officers inside.

Hutchinson had been sleeping on a sofa in the family room, Kennedy said, noting he saw a computer nearby. Hutchinson agreed to accompany the officers to DeKalb police headquarters so his phone could undergo a forensic analysis, Kennedy said.

After one investigator found child pornography on the phone, Kennedy told Hutchinson he couldn’t have his phone back. A week later, investigators obtained a search warrant and seized computers Hutchinson had been using inside his mother’s apartment.

Investigators found evidence Hutchinson had been extorting minors on one of the computers, Kennedy said. They also found sexually explicit photos of alleged victims, he said.

“It’s a common fact that they save their images like trophies,” Kennedy testified. “They don’t delete them.”

One of the first major “sextortion” prosecutions in Atlanta occurred in 2009 in the case against Michael Macaluso, a Marietta chiropractor and martial arts instructor.

Using the social media site eSpin-the-Bottle, Macaluso, posing as a teenager named Bryce, struck up an online relationship with Jason, a 14-year-old from New Jersey. After friendly online chats, the two exchanged photos of themselves clothed, although Macaluso sent someone else’s photo, prosecutors said.

Eventually, Macaluso persuaded Jason to create and send sexually explicit photos and videos of himself. Jason sent the images to Macaluso over AOL’s instant messaging system.

When Jason later tried to end their communications, Macaluso threatened to “out” Jason to his entire school if he didn’t continue.

“Gonna have fun explaining this to your friends, heh,” Macaluso said in one message.

Instead, Jason went to police, who traced the messages to Macaluso’s apartment in Marietta. Investigators found Jason’s Facebook page bookmarked on Macaluso’s computer as well as hundreds of separate folders that contained hundreds of pornographic images of boys, including Jason.

Macaluso was arrested on state charges and released on bond. But he didn’t stop preying on teenage boys.

Now posing as a 16-year-old girl named Aimee from Virginia, Macaluso became friends on the website MySpace with Zac, another 14-year-old boy from New Jersey. Soon after Zac completed seventh grade and was on summer vacation, he began exchanging sexually explicit photos with Aimee, according to testimony.

Aimee eventually persuaded Zac to send sexually explicit videos of himself, which he did throughout the summer. But after he returned to school, Zac said he wanted to stop. But Aimee persuaded Zac to continue sending explicit images of himself by threatening to send the photos she already had of him to his friends and family.

Even then, Aimee became more demanding, telling him to send a video every day, either right after he arrived home from school or in the middle of the night, Zac would later testify.

Zac began to believe Aimee wasn’t a teenage girl and was instead a pedophile. Even so, he testified, he was too embarrassed to tell his parents or authorities about it. At this point, Zac testified, he’d been communicating with Aimee for about a year.

One day, however, Zac’s mother grounded him for bad behavior and took away his cellphone. When she searched through it, she found a message from Aimee, telling Zac to go meet another boy and take pictures and videos of the two of them engaging in sex, according to testimony. Zac’s parents then took him to police, who once again found a trail that led to Macaluso.

Macaluso was then indicted by a federal grand jury in Atlanta on charges of coercing and extorting minors into producing sexually explicit masochistic images and videos of themselves and sending them to him over the Internet. He was tried and convicted.

At Macaluso’s sentencing hearing, Zac, by then a 19-year-old college student, read from a poem he had written:

“…Every day on the computer I had no life,

I cut myself with a knife,

Being forced to do things that made me cry,

Every day I wanted to say goodbye.

Pictures turned into videos, he told me what to do,

He strung me along like a puppet, I hated my life times two…

Zac said it got so bad that at one point he wrote a suicide note and got his dad’s gun. He put it to his head and pulled the trigger, but the safety was on, he said. He removed the safety and pulled the trigger again, but there was no bullet in the chamber.

Zac said he took that as a sign he should continue living. But it also meant that Macaluso continued his torment several months more, until Zac’s mom looked through his phone.

At sentencing, Zac’s mother said the crime against her son made her feel like she’d failed him.

“We were not able to protect him from the evil monster that violated his innocence at the trusting age of 14,” she said. “…Threatening a child is a crime in itself, but it is a far more heinous crime to demand that a child do things against his own free will, to make him live every day in fear of not knowing where his demon was or when the slow and lonely torture would end.”

Macaluso, now 41, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Yates, the U.S. attorney, said her office more recently worked on a case involving boys who attended a private school in Atlanta.

In the spring of 2011, FBI agents learned students had produced pornographic images of themselves and sent them to a person they believed to be a 14-year-old girl from North Carolina who identified herself as “Swimmerchick.” The girl, who’d befriended the boys on Facebook, had sent what she said was an erotic photo of herself to the boys, ages 12 to 14.

Swimmerchick eventually persuaded one 12-year-old boy and his classmate to produce sexually explicit images on a webcam and share them with her, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit.

Swimmerchick had told one of the boys if he didn’t produce and deliver more pornographic images, Swimmerchick would send the previously sent images to the boy’s friends at school, the agent said.

When the boy refused, Swimmerchick followed through on the threat and sent a copy of a video to one of the boy’s classmates, the agent said.

Agents traced Swimmerchick’s IP address to a private dormitory in Chapel Hill near the University of North Carolina campus. When they arrived at that dorm, agents found 20-year-old UNC student Corey Gallisdorfer. When they looked through Gallisdorfer’s computer they found sexually explicit images of young boys, including one of the students from Atlanta.

Gallisdorfer pleaded guilty in November to charges of child pornography and enticing a minor to engage in sexual activity. He was sentenced to 15 years and 8 months in federal prison.

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