A MYSPACE NIGHTMARE: How cops found teen and her adult Internet pal
May 11, 2006
BY JOHN MASSON and JOE SWICKARD
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
On a darkened shoulder of westbound I-94 in Kalamazoo County early Wednesday, a sheriff's deputy stopped a car driven by a 25-year-old Indiana man, preventing what could have been a nightmare for a 13-year-old girl's family.
Inside the car stopped by Sgt. Richard Fuller was a Harrison Township girl who had met the driver on MySpace.com, a social networking Web site. Her mother had tried to keep her off MySpace, a site sexual predators have reportedly used to find targets.
On MySpace, the girl said she was 18. She posted pages splashed with Playboy symbols, provocative pictures of herself and obscene phrases.
The incident was a stark reminder to law enforcement of how technology like the Internet can create problems.
But technology also played a big role in bringing the girl home safely -- with police finding key information on her computer and sending a signal to the man's cell phone to find which cell tower he was near, even when he wasn't using the phone.
The man, from Hammond, Ind., was not charged Wednesday but was being held in the Macomb County Jail. Sheriff Mark Hackel said he expects to know today whether charges will be filed. The Free Press typically does not name suspects who have not been charged.
The girl appeared in juvenile court Wednesday afternoon, but Hackel did not say what came out of the hearing. In general, the Free Press does not name people under 16 involved in what could be a criminal case.
A few years ago, Fuller, the Kalamazoo County sergeant working midnight patrol, would have had just a fraction of a chance of spotting the man's car. But with the information from the girl's computer, the man's cellular phone and witnesses, authorities were able to find them within hours.
The case started about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Hackel said, when the girl got in the man's Ford Focus at Mariners Point, at 16 Mile and Crocker. The man had driven from Hammond with a 14-year-old boy police say they believe is his stepbrother.
The boy was sent back to Indiana after being questioned Wednesday. The meeting between the man and girl was set up on MySpace.
The girl's mother didn't return calls from the Free Press, but spoke to WDIV Local 4 reporter Marc Santia. She said the girl became so adept at abusing her computer privileges that the mother had to get rid of Internet access in their home, which no longer has even cable television.
A MySpace representative said that the Web site doesn't comment on individual cases, but added that safeguards are in place to make sure children are old enough to use the site.
MySpace members are required to be 14 or older, according to the Web site.
Nevertheless, the Indiana man found the girl's page. It was not immediately known how he did so or when they first made contact.
The two remained in touch even after the plug was pulled on the girl's home computer.
Before the girl got into the car, Hackel said, she gave her friends the man's cell phone number. That was vital information in helping police track the man.
Some of her friends became uncomfortable about her getting in the car, Hackel said.
One friend got a description of the car -- including that it had an out-of-state plate. They called the girl's parents, who called deputies.
Using statements from the witnesses and clues from the girl's family computer, detectives discovered that the man -- who has arrests for disorderly conduct and a drug offense -- was from Hammond.
An Amber Alert was issued about 11:25 p.m. Tuesday.
And the cell phone number, Hackel said, let deputies know for sure which way the man was headed. Detectives contacted the man's cell phone provider, who pinged his phone -- determining the handset was in range of a cell tower near Jackson off I-94.
Detectives assumed that the man was heading back to Hammond along the interstate.
As the car barreled down the road, the girl's mother called her on the man's cell phone and tried to alert him to her age.
"I screamed through the phone ... 'You're 13. You're 13. You're 13 years old,' " she recalled, saying she hoped the man would hear.
Fuller parked his cruiser on I-94 along the westbound lanes at mile marker 85 near the Galesburg exit about 12:55 a.m.
Once the cell phone was identified and tracked moving west, word went out to the Kalamazoo County Sheriff's Office. Soon after the office got the Amber Alert, it was notified of the phone's expected location, said sheriff's detective Lt. Terry VanStreain.
At 1:04 a.m. Wednesday, the Focus came into view. Fuller pulled out, hit the flashing lights and stopped the Focus.
"She could have possibly passed for 18," VanStreain said, but Fuller tripped her up.
"She gave a fictitious name, but when he asked, she couldn't spell it," VanStreain said. "She had to give up the truth then."
The driver said he believed the girl was 18. He said they'd struck up a relationship on MySpace.
With about 54 million users, MySpace is one of the largest of dozens of social networking sites where members can swap information, pictures, videos and chat.
But some law enforcement and school officials are uneasy about the MySpace, fearing that it is too easily exploited by predators or that immature youngsters can create alternative personae that walk on the Web's wild side.
Beer, liquor bottles, cigarettes and push-up bras are frequent elements of many young women's pages.
Therese Tobin, the chief trial attorney in the Macomb County Prosecutor's Office, said an adult's "belief is no defense" because a physically mature 13-year-old who looks 18 or 20 years old is still a minor.
She said parents also must monitor their kids' time and activities on computers.
"Television used to be thought of as a baby-sitter," Tobin said. "Now it's computers, and with computers it can be a free-for-all with what's out there."
Raunchy behavior is not the only concern. In April, five teenage boys in Kansas were arrested after posting messages about a Columbine-style attack on a high school.
In March, two teenagers in Farmington talked about burning down a school in the name of MySpace to prove a point.
Now, a Harrison Township mother with a harrowing tale has just one piece of advice for other parents:
"Just don't let them on MySpace at all," she said. "I thought she was just contacting her school friends. I never thought she was going to take off to Indiana."
Contact JOHN MASSON at 586-469-4904 or [email protected]
Local 4 reporter Marc Santia contributed to this report.
Put the computer in a place where an sdult can see the screen.....
This 'dude' should get some time too!!He knew better than this.
Her parents need some "court time" too --- they need to be alert