SALT LAKE CITY — Every morning reporter Pat Reavy hits the phones and scans the computer, reading search warrants and court documents, and reaching out to sources for information as he tries to understand both the good and bad of society.
He's worked the crime beat for the Deseret News since 2000. But it's a mistake to think he's reporting on crime. He's reporting on people, many of whom are in the throes of life-altering situations. What is remarkable is the willingness of good people to help others, even when they themselves are grieving as victims of someone else's bad (criminal) behavior.
The ubiquitousness of technology has pushed the impact of criminal activity toward younger and younger victims, and it's having a devastating impact on our youth and their families.
"Every day I read search warrants and sadly, you notice that there are a lot these cases," Reavy said last week, as the newsroom discussion turned to the victimization of children and teenagers. Teens are getting ensnared in what they think is playful behavior, but wind up being victimized by fraudsters or others who convince them to send a compromising photo — "send a nude selfie just between us friends," comes the lie — and then they try to extort money from the inexperienced teens who feel backed into a corner.
"What's sad is that there are so many of these that I can't write about all the cases. So I look for trends. What got me was just how overwhelming the number of cases were," Reavy said.
That included a group of middle school girls sending explicit pictures to grown men. He worked with the Internet Crimes Against Children task force and discovered the pervasiveness of the problem. But conversations with task force officers about that case led to an even more disturbing reality: this crime is becoming fatal.
Both adults and teens are taking their own lives because they think they will be humiliated or face other consequences if a compromising photo or video gets out, and they don't know what to do about it.
As Pat wrote last week, in "Uncovering the secret that led to son's suicide":
"The person who got to him was actually telling him you should do this. … 'You should end your life. You should take your life. You ruined your life. If you don’t, I’m going to ruin your life. You should take your life,’” said the mother of a 16-year-old Utah boy who died by suicide after being extorted by a person later traced to the Ivory Coast.
Every teenager makes mistakes of one kind or another. The brave story the Tobler family told Reavy will save lives because educating parents and teens about this problem is crucial to preventing it. Whether from the Ivory Coast or just around the corner, people with evil intentions are exploiting minors. They're also exploiting adults, preying on their weaknesses.
It's why the story went viral, with more than half a million readers in just days. It's why the Pennsylvania National Guard Association is linking to it, and the Maine National Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program took note.
Many agencies across the country are reaching out to Utah's Internet Crimes Against Children team for help. Reavy will have more on the impact of the story thanks to the unselfishness of the family to reach beyond their pain to help others.
Here is some of the Facebook reaction to this story and the personal impact it is having on families:
• "My heart goes out to the family with prayers of healing. I hope they know with opening up their lives to share this may save many lives!"
• One adult to another: "The boys need to read this."
• "My daughter was involved in a similar situation at her middle school. If you wanted to be part of 'the squad' which was a group of the more popular kids, you must confide your deepest secret to the 'leader' many kids joined 50+ and then were manipulated and threatened to bully others or their secret would be exposed to the school. It was horrific. My heart and prayers go out to this poor boy's family."
• "This family is remarkable to share their story in order to help others."
• "This is very sad, but worth reading, as it may help you protect your families from this kind of exploitation."1 comment on this story
The Internet Crimes Against Children task force is a national network. Its website notes that 61 coordinated task forces represent more than 4,500 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The more people are willing to come forward to tell their stories to the task force, the greater chance we have to inform our children of the risks and catch those who are perpetrating such a horrible crime against children.
There are no words to truly comfort a family grieving from such a loss. But this family's willingness to tell their story will save lives. God bless them.