Local law enforcement warns of increased online harassment and extortion in the post-pandemic era. | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Local law enforcement warns of increased online harassment and extortion in the post-pandemic era.

Trust No One


“His threats would scare an adult, let alone a kid who can’t see past her phone.” - —Special Agent - Sarah Lundquist - COVER DESIGN BY DEREK CARLISLE
  • Cover design by Derek Carlisle
  • “His threats would scare an adult, let alone a kid who can’t see past her phone.”—Special Agent Sarah Lundquist

Editor's note: This article describes incidents of self-harm, extortion and abuse. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

"Ethan Parker" was only one of his fake names. He looked like a kid who might mow your neighbor's lawn or take your little sister to the prom. You likely wouldn't feel the slightest bit anxious if Parker stood in line behind you at the bank.

Nothing about his blond, good-guy looks reveals the terror he brought to an estimated 50 victims. He didn't break into anyone's home using lock picks or a crowbar. Instead, his particular evil invaded their safety via Snapchat and other online platforms.

Parker knew his victims' home addresses; he threatened them with public exposure and embarrassment; he threatened to hurt them, rape them or abduct them into human trafficking. He did it all while living in his parent's South Jordan home and without asking for money, as many "sextortionists" do.

"He was a shock to the Utah system," said Sarah Lundquist, a special agent with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, or ICAC, who investigated Parker.

ICAC special agent Sarah Lundquist - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • ICAC special agent Sarah Lundquist

Lundquist discovered Parker's multiple online accounts and preserved his data in preparation for writing search warrants. She said the nature of apps like Snapchat allows perpetrators to hide, to be secretive and disappear instantly. Most Snapchat users don't save much of their online information—but Parker did.

"He saved so much content that I couldn't read it all," she said. "It was good for us—bad for him."

Parker would also use his victims' Snapchat data against them, Lundquist said. Depending on a user's location settings, their home or business can be pinpointed with precision by others. In some cases, Parker would ask for nude and compromising photos and, if refused, he would respond by sharing increasingly zoomed-in images of his victim's real-time locations, threatening to hurt them himself or to send their information to "all the creeps [he] can find online," Lundquist said.

"His threats would scare an adult," she said, "let alone a kid who can't see past her phone."

On the other side of this deadly coin are the victims, like Matt Morgan, whose youthful, fair-haired appearance is not so dissimilar from Parker's.

In high school, Morgan (whose name has been changed for this article) played two varsity sports, sang in choirs and was an honor student with college plans. In an out-of-character move, he sent a sexually explicit video to someone he met online. That's when the threats and terror started.

A single phone number texted him more than 1,000 times—sometimes every 30 seconds. Morgan sent all the money he had ever saved or earned to the entity that tormented him.

His final message begged, "Please don't do this. You just killed a 16-year-old kid." Moments later, Morgan took his own life.

"He was a good kid—one I won't forget," said Detective John Peirce of the Davis County Sheriff's Office, who investigated Morgan's case.

Within Peirce's investigative work, he's looked into at least six other suicides that appear related to sextortion.

Deception and Threats
All of the individuals interviewed for this article noted that sextortion perpetrated against male victims appears to have increased dramatically during the last two to three years

"Boys are the big ones when it comes to [demands for] money. Someone online will kind of catfish the victim, showing interest and pretending to be someone his age," said ICAC Assistant Commander Matt Thompson. "They submit images they find online and try to get the child to be comfortable and submit similar images back."

Thompson said it's common for perpetrators to look through a victim's online contacts and social media friends. They might approach posing as someone with a shared acquaintance and while some groomers target vulnerable, marginalized children, Thompson said, others will pursue outgoing, socially popular kids who might feel they have too much to lose.

Many such cases follow a typical scenario, where seemingly unstoppable money demands begin as soon as the online friend receives the illicit photo. And sometimes perpetrators will post the compromising photos they collect even after being paid.

"Our cyber tips started coming in exponentially during COVID," Thompson said. "Everybody was at home online."

Unified Police Sgt. Bob Scott - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Unified Police Sgt. Bob Scott

Sgt. Bob Scott of the Unified Police Department Special Victims Unit explained that the victim and perpetrator stories described above are examples of the most common sextortion scenarios he sees. In one type, the victim is male, maybe 13 to 18 years old. He chats with someone he meets online but doesn't know personally. The perpetrator assumes the persona of an attractive girl.

"The conversation goes in a sexual direction. 'She' asks him to go to another type of app—Instant Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat or Discord, and he's given a link," Scott said. "As soon as the individual gets what they need, the calls become threatening with statements such as, 'We have your naked photos. We will send them to all of your family and friends and the authorities unless you pay us.'"

Thompson, of ICAC, recalls a sextortion case that progressed virtually overnight with a teenage victim in Silicon Valley who was considered popular, a typical "good kid" with a college scholarship. He complied with a demand to send illicit images, then he took his phone to bed with him at 10 p.m.

After the sextortionist emailed him a threat to release his photos, the victim thought his life was over and hanged himself at 4 a.m.

While perpetrators will seek money in this type of sextortion case, often involving young men, in another common scenario, the victims tend to be female and perpetrators are seeking images and leverage in and of itself. Before reaching out, the perpetrator might compile a sort of dossier—where the victim lives, works, her likes and dislikes.

And while this type of case isn't financially motivated, typically, Scott said it can escalate to greater levels of online abuse and real-world acts of violence like kidnapping and rape.

"The grooming can take months before they ask for nude photos," Scott said. "Once they receive the first nude photos, they ask for more—possibly videos and all kinds of illicit things."

Finding Justice
Lundquist says one of her biggest takeaways from investigating Ethan Parker's case was: "On the Internet, you never know what tiny amount of information will help someone find you—you go to this high school; you went to this funeral."

Parker found girls' photos through their accounts on various platforms. In some cases, he convinced his victims to supply him with their online user names. When he later threatened to post the compromising pictures he collected, some would fight back or say, "Go ahead and do it," Lundquist said, while others tried to sound tough while being scared to death.

She shared the anecdote of one woman targeted by Parker who was the daughter of a New York Police officer. When Parker threatened to release doctored photos with her likeness if she failed to supply him with legitimate photos, she replied with a photo of a Bible. "Good luck with that on Photoshop," she said, as recalled by Lundquist.

Lundquist's investigation into Ethan Parker ultimately led her to an unassuming, middle-class South Jordan home. Rather than seeking a warrant, she decided to do a "knock and talk" and simply approach the home and ask to speak with the suspect.

A woman answered the door and Lundquist asked to speak to her son but was told he wasn't home. When Lundquist asked when he would return, the woman responded that it would take some time—he was serving a Latter-day Saint mission in Mexico.

Was this missionary her suspect? Lundquist was still determining but, continuing to search, she discovered that the innocent-looking former Bingham High School student and current missionary was, indeed, Ethan Parker. Only his real name was Gabe Gilbert.

An attorney for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke with Lundquist, telling her Gilbert's mother had contacted the mission president. After the president interviewed Gilbert, the church quickly sent him home. Lundquist commends the LDS Church for their handling of the situation.

"They didn't know [about his online activities] until they knew, then they sent him home right away," she said.

While Gilbert's missionary status may have shocked Utah, Lundquist explains that she has arrested people from all walks of life.

"With any suspect, there is a sense of disappointment, frustration and anger, but no more so than when we find newly identified victims, such as in this case," she said. "While we need to maintain control of our emotions to do this work, I have sometimes absolutely cried for the victims."

City Weekly approached two victims' families to seek their insights: Morgan's family and that of another of Gilbert's victims who declined to be interviewed. In responding to City Weekly's request, the victim's father expressed pride in his daughter for standing up to Gilbert and refusing his demands.

"I'd tell the reporter that this stuff has lasting effects on the victims whether they send pictures or not," he said. "I'm glad this guy is in prison. I have no sympathy for him."

A Texas Snapchat user initially reported Gilbert to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC. Center staff studied the evidence—IP addresses, phone numbers, geolocation—and then submitted the case to Utah's ICAC, which is overseen by the Utah Attorney General's Office.

In 3rd District Court, Gilbert was charged with five counts of aggravated sexual extortion of a child, a first-degree felony, and four counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, a second-degree felony. Court records state that in exchange for guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed to recommend a five-year sentence.

Lundquist never heard Gilbert speak, not even in the car on the way to jail. "He pleaded guilty to all nine charges," Lundquist said. "His attorney arranged for him to surrender himself at our office."

Staying Alert
While there are similarities and types among sextortion cases, there is also considerable variety. Some cases might involve former romantic partners who have possession of intimate photos during the relationship, while others devolve into forms of human trafficking.

Thompson described one man—who ICAC investigated and police later arrested—who appeared to be a decent, well-to-do local businessman. But it was discovered that he had solicited and paid for illicit material from dozens of children in Utah and other states.

"He didn't sell or share any of it," Thompson said. "It was all content for his personal use."

The person who sextorted Morgan was believed to live on the African Ivory Coast, one of several cases appearing to originate from that area, Nigeria and the Philippines. Do sextortionists work together in call centers there?

"I don't have firsthand knowledge of [any call centers], but the volume of cases originating from that part of the world suggests some sort of organized criminal effort," Lundquist said.

In foreign cases, law enforcement often works with Homeland Security. Although the county attorney planned to prosecute Morgan's perpetrator, and the regional embassy offered support, but with no IP address, investigators couldn't determine the suspect's identity or location. Peirce, with the Davis County Sheriff's Office, said it was also determined that extradition of a suspect to the United States was unlikely.

This incomplete ending is a typical result following sextortion from overseas. "It's not like they don't try," Thompson said. "The case gets out of our hands here."

Like the stories of Morgan, Gilbert/Parker and others, future victims will likely appear to be ordinary kids walking home from school or playing video games. Because that's who they'll be—everyday kids spending time online.

How can they avoid becoming sextortion victims? Scott said they need to realize and remember that social media is full of predatory individuals.

"Don't allow friend requests from people you don't know," he said. "Don't share intimate photos even if you know the other person."

Scott stressed that victims of sextortion should never send money to a perpetrator. "If you send $100, they will ask for $200," he said.

And, he noted, victims should know they're not alone, and it isn't their fault. "It doesn't matter what happened. If you have been a victim, please tell someone—a parent, coach, mentor or religious leader who can help guide you."

Thompson advises parents to know their kids well enough for age-appropriate online safety conversations. He and other law enforcement officials interviewed for this article said they hope to increase awareness of the topic by making presentations statewide and investigating more cases.

"Anyone who wants to exploit a kid—we will go after," Thompson said. "If they go after a child, they will hurt anybody."