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‘The numbers are astronomical’

Detective dedicated to exploitation cases discusses online extortion

Sgt. Peirce (Provided photo)

WATERTOWN — Detective Sgt. John Peirce says he wishes he wasn’t so familiar with it, but the last five years of his career have been dedicated solely to the exploitation of children.

This has resulted in a depth of insight he can provide on recent local north country cases of online extortion and suicide.

Sgt. Peirce, a detective with the Davis County Sheriff’s Office in Farmington, Utah, is a sergeant overseeing the investigative division. He’s also been assigned to the FBI Child Exploitation Task Force and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Sgt. Peirce said two recent cases in Potsdam and Lisbon are consistent with the sophisticated and organized crime organizations he’s been investigating routinely over the last half-decade.

Now he can’t count how many cases of sextortion he’s worked on, which involves a child or adult sharing photos or videos with a Facebook user posing as someone else. The extorter will then threaten to share the photos if demands of money or other requests are not met. He said the number of victims stack up to thousands — from adults to children.

“The numbers are astronomical for how many victims there are,” he said. “It’s opportunistic and it’s money.”

Sgt. Peirce can share the daunting barriers investigators will likely face along the way, highlighting the importance of parents being vigilant and communicative with their children from the outset. He doesn’t want to tell people how to parent or law enforcement how they should do their jobs, but he’s researched countless cases and has developed an understanding of how these organizations work, where they work, how they’re successful and what it takes to find them.

“They are relentless,” he said. “It’s very sophisticated. They know what they’re doing and they know they’re not being touched for it.”

On March 3, 18-year-old Shylynn M. Dixon died by suicide from a gunshot wound in her home in Lisbon. Three weeks later, Riley K. Basford, a 15-year-old living in Potsdam, also died by suicide.

The teenagers didn’t know each other but were experiencing acutely similar manipulation that was aggressive, leading to apparent extortion and then their untimely deaths.

Shylynn told her family she loved them in a note before she died, adding that she was sorry for sending personal photographs to someone on Facebook, who then turned around and threatened to share them publicly if she didn’t comply with demands, according to messages on social media.

Riley also sent personal photographs to someone on Facebook, who then said they would share the photos if he didn’t send $3,500.

Both families said the relentless manipulation drove their loved ones to a breaking point.

Sgt. Peirce got his start in sextortion somewhat by happenstance. He was on duty some years ago when he got a call to investigate the death of Tevan Tobler, a 16-year-old in Utah who died by suicide in circumstances mirroring those of Shylynn and Riley.

“You have to have an emotional detachment in your cases,” he said, “but sometimes, no matter what you do, they seep in, and that was one of them where they seeped in.”

He and his colleagues spent months investigating. Prosecutors were pretty aggressive on finding a suspect, he said, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security got involved. They thought they were making actual progress.

“We were on board with being very aggressive in tracking the person,” he said.

Sgt. Peirce was all about tracking the digital trail of Tevan’s social media activity. He served subpoenas and warrants to several online sites, eventually tracing the case to Africa.

That’s when the investigation came to an end. It was in the Ivory Coast, of which the United States doesn’t have an extradition treaty. Such treaties help governments bring criminals who have fled their country to justice. There was no way to bring the suspect back home for prosecution. The local police there have shown no signs of cooperating either, Sgt. Peirce said.

This is what it’s been over the years. Sgt. Peirce gets a sextortion case, tracks and digs, but then the majority trace back to the Ivory Coast in Africa. Some have traced back to the Middle East, but the one thing that’s consistent between them all is the lack of extradition treaties.

“With Tevan’s case, it was anger and frustration and feeling empathy with the family,” he said. “It’s progressed now with the general frustration with the lack of the educational awareness on the whole circumstance and the lack of progress on those international relations and how we could hold people like this accountable.”

He’s learned a lot about how these organizations operate over the years. Extortion is their livelihood. It’s run like a business — there’s payroll and even bonuses for employees who do the best. He’s tracked the way they speak to victims, mostly in broken English, which still would be difficult for a teenager to pick up on.

Riley, of course, didn’t have $3,500 to pay off the extorter posing as an attractive woman, but it likely wouldn’t have mattered if he did. The extortion will persist even if victims send thousands of dollars, like Sgt. Peirce has seen.

“There is no amount of money that you’re going to be able to give them to make them go away,” he said. “In fact, if you give them any money, they will just be more aggressive.”

He’s seen victims tell the extorter they were considering harming themselves, and the extorter will sometimes encourage it.

“They’re not sympathetic,” he said. “They will move on to the next target.”

Sgt. Peirce said another consistency is that extorters are targeting young people who might not yet understand the consequences of sharing intimate photographs. They coerce the teenagers and prey on how the way teenagers communicate has evolved.

“There was a time when you would start off a conversation with, ‘Hello, how are you?'” Sgt. Peirce said, “and now it’s almost like, ‘Hey, here’s my nudes.'”

He said he’s seen kids younger than 10 who have Instagram and Facebook accounts. The potential repercussions on sexual education and emotional growth is huge, being that young, he said.

“We didn’t have these social media accounts and these means of communicating,” he said. “We didn’t have the immediate exposure to sexual content or the peer pressure that exists now.”

Shortly before Shylynn and Riley died, Facebook users they were speaking with reached out to friends and loved ones. In Riley’s case, it was the day he died. It’s somewhat unclear why they do this, but it could indicate that the manipulators reach out to loved ones as an intimidation move once their victims lose trust in them entirely. It isn’t a warning that they might harm themselves, but rather a move to indicate to the victims that their threats aren’t a bluff.

It’s actually unlikely they ever make the photos public, Sgt. Peirce said, but he always tells families it’s possible.

“It’s not beyond them to strong-arm or make it worse by talking to somebody they know,” he said. “The only way you are going to be able to separate from them is to remove every single account that has a connection to them.”

If he could meet with investigators in St. Lawrence County, Sgt. Peirce said he would ask them to execute their best legal practices. Don’t hesitate to ask task forces or federal agencies for assistance. Follow the digital footprint, the IP addresses. Follow the money, and treat every sextortion case like it’s new.

“Don’t assume it’s going to be overseas,” he said. “Don’t assume it’s going to be the same scam. If we start doing that, then we are going to miss the one we can catch or we are going to miss the exception.”

The reason he’s been continuously stonewalled in his cases is the lack of extradition treaties, local law enforcement cooperation and the lack of sextortion laws at the federal level.

“I would advocate for sextortion being its own federal crime with minimum mandatory sentences and it being treated very aggressively,” he said. “People are dying for this.”

State police are investigating the deaths of Shylynn and Riley, and at this point, the FBI could not confirm or deny whether they are involved as well. Still, it comes down to extradition treaties and hoping the cases don’t trace back to countries without them, Sgt. Peirce said.

“That’s a really big animal and it’s a big pill to swallow,” Sgt. Peirce said, “and we’re far from making progress on our international relations.”

If the cases aren’t traced back to Africa or other places like it, there’s a possibility to make an arrest.

“I hope law enforcement there has the tools they need to work through it,” he said. “I’m really sorry for the families and the victims.”

Without more treaties, a blanket federal law or local cooperation from other countries, the best way to combat sextortion is knowledge, awareness and communication, Sgt. Peirce said.

“I would encourage parents to talk to them once their kids are mature enough to understand it,” he said. “Let them know this kind of thing can happen. Make them aware. Hopefully, after that, somebody doesn’t make the choice to send those images to someone they don’t personally know, but if they do, they know they’re going to be OK. They don’t need to give in to those demands.”

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