No matter how many criminal complaints you read, the expression “JV” always sends chills downs your spine. But this line, from a complaint filed April 27 in a California federal court, stands out.
“Petersen stated that he recently received via email from JV#1 a video of JV#1’s younger brother…masturbating in a bathroom. Petersen stated that JV#1 told Petersen he had recorded JV#2 without (his) knowledge. Petersen believes JV#2 is approximately ten years old.”
JV stands for juvenile victim, an expression often used in a public court documents to protect the identity of a child. Behind it is a life, probably a whole family, in tatters. Rarely do you get a true picture of how deep the damage can be; the anonymity usually prevents a full accounting of evil’s ripple effects. But not this time.
JV#1 and JV#2 are the sons of Jeremy and Sara Thompson. The swirl of sickness that consumed the family in the past several weeks is cruel even by pedophilia standards. They have taken the brave, unusual step of coming forward to help you avoid the crazy nightmare they have lived – and are still living.
Life changed forever for the Thompson family on May 4. It was a normal afternoon, the Thompsons hanging out in their fairly idyllic suburban Seattle home, enjoying time with their two seemingly well-adjusted kids, 17 and 11 (I won’t be naming them). A ring at the doorbell roused the couple, who soon found themselves talking to a Snohomish County sheriff’s officer and a social service expert on the front porch.
Their 17-year-old son has been sexually abusing his 11 year old brother, the officers said. The FBI has pornographic videos, images, and chat logs discussing heinous acts. There is strong evidence, though the parents can’t see it – yet. A secretly-filmed video of the youngest masturbating, for example.
The officers demand to speak to the older son. He denies everything, insists it must all be a crazy mistake.
“Over time his story will change. They all do,” Thompson recalls one officer saying.
The kids must be separated, Thompson is told – never left alone together. Soon, there will be more interviews at home, interviews at school. Neighbors can see something is going on; classmates probably do, too.
“What if it was real? Did we fail to protect our children in the worst way possible? We couldn’t sleep. We couldn’t eat. We couldn’t function. We were broken,” Thompson said.
BOYS FOUND ON SUSPECT’S COMPUTER
The Thompson boys caught the FBI’s attention on April 26, when federal agents arrested an alleged pedophile in California, near San Francisco, named Bryan Petersen. He was arrested along with another man in late April, according to local media reports.
The Petersen complaint chillingly cites JV#1 and JV#2. Separately, the Thompsons were told JV#1 and JV#2 are their kids.
Police arrested Petersen with the help of a cooperating witness, also anonymized, who saw things alleged to include exploitation minors.
“CW#1 saw emails exchanged …In the emails, Petersen and JV#1 exchanged photos of their penises,” the complaint says. After describing some hideous videos that agents say they found on Petersen’s Dropbox space, the complaint cities the masturbation video mentioned above.
Believing they had an ongoing case of child abuse, federal agents acted fast to get someone to intercede. About a week later, officers were dispatched to the Thompson’s home.
Standing on the front porch, the law enforcement agents say chat logs seen by the FBI show their older son claims he’s been molested multiple times by various adults, including relatives. The molestation video took place in the family’s bathroom, the officers say. They ask to see every bath in the house, looking for a tell-tale green shower curtain. There isn’t one.
After more questioning, the officers give the parents a business card and a case number. There will be no further information until a detective is assigned. But before they go, they are told the family must follow an “in-home safety plan.” The kids must be in “line of sight” at all times.
“These allegations were like a bomb dropped on our family. We were in shock,” Jeremy Thompson said.
The next day, Jeremy took his older son to the sheriff’s office to get more information. The case wasn’t assigned, they were told. They’d have to wait.
THE RACE TO UNDERSTAND
That weekend, Jeremy – who works in IT – skipped sleep and spent hours conducting forensics on his kids’ computers and other gadgets, looking for any kind of evidence.
“Laptops, desktops, phones, email accounts, Facebook, text messages, Snapchat, Instagram, followers, contacts. Years and years of content,” he says. “Nothing was found.”
On Monday, while the family was still waiting to hear from a detective, a child protection services officer turns up at the kids’ school. She talks to the kids again; she also tells school administrators about the accusations.
Finally, five days after the initial contact, the Thompsons get to speak with a detective assigned to the case. They are told about some of the evidence against their older son. They still can’t see the video, but they are told about years’ worth of family photos. The detective, Jeremy recalls, works hard to convince the couple their son is involved.
But things aren’t adding up. All the photos described by the detective are harmless; they all match photos that have been posted by the family on their own social media pages. The kids on the beach, at Legoland, posing in the cockpit of an airplane.
The detective also mentions a Facebook page made by the older son which includes “gay” in the title, apparently in an effort by the boy to explore his sexuality online.
That was the family’s big break.
That night, Thompson redoubled his digital sleuthing effort. Armed with new knowledge about a page attributed to his older son, he worked to find it. What he discovered simultaneously filled him with relief and disgust, a whipsaw on a scale few parents could ever imagine.
Three years ago, “digital kidnapping” became the new creepy thing for parents to worry about online. I appeared on the TODAY show warning parents about this weird, but perhaps not illegal, pastime. “Kidnappers” would pilfer photos of babies, then post them on their own social media pages and pretend they were the kids’ moms and dads. They would revel in the cute compliments, create entire narratives around these faux families, and so on. At the time, folks couldn’t quite figure out what the harm was in this game.
Now we know.
For years, Thompson discovered, a digital creep had been using his elder boy’s photos to create a “fan” club for him. The creator added titillation by saying the boy was possibly gay, inviting commentary on that. He also invited fans to send gifts. More than 500 people were following a Facebook page devoted to this. The commentary is as skin crawling as you might expect. “You are a beautiful young man,” wrote one. Another middle-aged man posted a picture of himself next to the son’s picture as an answer to a Facebook quiz called “Who is your better half?” The images are surrounded by series of hearts.
The Facebook fan page also points to a website devoted to the same topic, and with the same “gay” title. The site’s owner was easy enough to track down through domain registry records.
It was a familiar name.
The man who registered the website had noticed the Thompson child when he was a finalist in a modeling contest for a national brand clothing company. Several years ago, the man had messaged the family, saying he hoped the boy would win. The Thompsons thought it was creepy at the time, but nothing more, and blocked him. They forgot about it until sheriff’s officer showed up at the door accusing one of their children of raping the other.
“At this moment we knew 100% that our son was not involved,” Thompson said.
For the next 24 hours, Thompson raced down a digital kidnapping-pedophilia rabbit hole. The man had created an alternate universe with their son at the center. The efforts were elaborate. There was a fake Facebook profile claiming to be a classmate of their child, and got 28 other classmates to accept friend requests. That gave him access to even more photos. There were other profile pages, a network of online comments and reviews, possibly even other fake child identities.
Their son had an impostor. The impostor had sent the emails and video to Petersen. The chats about abuse weren’t real.
The next morning, the Thompsons visited the detective and unveiled the evidence. The case would be dropped, the investigator said, once she could verify the research. Only then did they get to see still images from the video. There was a reason police couldn’t find a green shower curtain in any bathroom – the Thompson family never had one.
“The boy looked similar to a younger (version of the younger son), but it was absolutely not him. This was a massive relief. Our kids were safe. Our kids were victims,” Thompson said. “Our family were victims. This poor boy in the video was a victim. His face continues to haunt me.”
After child protective services conducted more interviews with the younger son, and with the parents, the sheriff’s department did indeed drop the case. Shari Ireton, public information officer for the department, confirmed to me that the agency was asked to investigate potential abuse, found none, and closed the case.
Thompson has since spoken with the FBI agent involved in the initial child porn case and passed along his evidence. The FBI said it could not comment on any ongoing investigation.
(At the family’s request, I am not naming the impostor so this story does not interfere with the ongoing investigation.)
Meanwhile, what now? The kids are getting counseling to work through the trauma. The parents are left wondering what they could have done differently. And that’s the reason they’ve decided to come forward with this story.
“While we were living our life online, (this man) and his friends were crafting a bastardized version of our world for all of his fans based on our social media posts, mixing in his own reality and twisting this persona into someone who has been severely bullied, was depressed, and had strict religious parents who didn’t understand him,” he said. “By not locking down our social media accounts, we had let this monster into our world, a monster who became obsessed with our family and spent … years collecting our family pictures, videos and posts and sharing them with his network on fake social media accounts, a custom website and a blog, all assuming the identity of my son to lure in troubled youth and engage in the trade of child pornography. “
This is the kind of crime that could only happen online. The toxic mix of twisted minds, anonymity, and social media can turn the innocent act of sharing a happy family moment into a knock on the door from the sheriff’s department. The Thompsons want you to know this can happen. They have locked down every piece of their digital lives, and they’d like you to consider doing that, too.
There is no way to be 100% safe from sickos, however. Keeping tight control over your kids’ photos on the Internet is a perfectly reasonable step to take. But as the story illustrates, a determined “fan” can use friends of friends to find and steal images. Every family must weigh the risks of an incident like this against the consequence of denying family and friends the happy glimpses into our daily lives that social media is so good at sharing.
Sara feels so strongly about it that I want you to hear from her directly.
“We consider ourselves very involved, strict parents. We are a nice family; we have nice kids. We are home a lot, we talk to our kids, we know where our children are, we restrict their sleepovers, we didn’t let them go into people’s houses we didn’t know, no overnight summer camps, etc. We restrict internet access, turn off wifi at night, teach them about internet safety etc. but GUESS WHAT??!!!!!
“It wasn’t our children! It was OUR fault! We used to have a Flickr account that was public. We had youtube videos under the same user name that were public. We thought it wasn’t a big deal. It allowed faraway family to see our children- and anyway, who cares enough to see our family Christmas and vacations photos, right?!? Wrong. There are MANY people out there who care. Disgusting people who will stalk your children.
“Our son almost went to jail, people. Our family was almost blown apart. CPS visited both our sons’ schools to talk to them. Who knows how many tongues were wagging and what they were thinking about us?? Our youngest had to go talk to a child advocacy therapist. We had a Sherriff’s car in front of our house for over an hour. I had to emergency cancel my classes for the night. We had so many people’s questions to field. ‘Oh, we are fine. No one is hurt. haha<fake smile> <dying inside>’
“I pray that you never know what it feels like to be forced to doubt your child like this. I pray that your mind never has to go to the places mine has this month. I pray that your child never knows what it feels like to have your parents, even for a hot second, think it was remotely possible that you were a monster. How could we not?? We had more than one son to protect. We tried to be loving and supportive of Our oldest son, good or bad as best as we could. But we had to watch out and protect Our youngest. Which included pretending to be happy for weeks while we were gutted.
“My mind is wrecked, body exhausted, can’t sleep, can’t eat, chest pains, panic attacks, heart broken, soul tarnished. Our family might never recover.
“Please, Please, Please. Protect your children’s privacy. You just never know. Those random pictures at the park to show off your good day? They are never worth the chance of all this. They are not worth the innocence of your children. The innocence of your family. ANY of those pictures can be taken and saved by others.
“We were stupid and naïve. But we were also extremely lucky and internet savvy enough to prove our son’s innocence. But not everyone is. Please learn from us.”
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