The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With children stuck at home during coronavirus shutdowns, online sexual predators can swoop in

California authorities say this surveillance image at the Fresno airport shows Nathan Larson, 40, in December as he prepared to fly home to Virginia with a 12-year-old he’d met weeks earlier online. (Central California Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force)
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In normal times, the 40-year-old living in his parents’ small Virginia home evoked plenty of suspicion.

Nathan Larson ran for Congress in 2018 extolling child pornography and marital incest. Because of his “infatuation with children and sex,” as a federal judge termed it, Larson was once ordered to have limited contact with minors.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and it turned Larson into something even more dangerous, according to investigators.

“Guys like him are preying on kids stuck at home, on computers, and bored,” said Lt. Brandon Pursell of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office in California. “It’s absolutely terrifying.”

Pursell and federal authorities are now building a kidnapping and sexual exploitation case against Larson, whom they accuse of using social media to befriend a 12-year-old girl in California and spending two months manipulating her into agreeing to sneak off with him. On Dec. 13, according to court filings, Larson flew to Fresno and picked up the girl outside her home early the next morning, at 2:30 a.m.

Hours later, after receiving a panicked call from the girl’s mother, investigators raced into action. Police caught up to them during a layover in Denver.

Larson has since been brought back to California, where he remains held in the Fresno County jail. He is due in court on Wednesday and stands charged with five federal counts: online coercion, sexual exploitation of a minor, receiving child pornography, kidnapping, and transporting a minor across state lines with the intent of engaging in sexual activity. Larson faces a possible life sentence.

The case represents an extreme example of what Pursell and investigators around the country say is an alarming byproduct of pandemic-triggered shutdowns: More children are being sexually exploited online.

During the first nine months of 2020, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says it received 30,236 reports of possible “online enticement,” which it defines as someone communicating with a child online with the intent of engaging in a sexual conversation, obtaining sexually explicit images or meeting in person. That’s a pace of about 40,000 reports for the full year, which is more than double the annual average of roughly 16,000 such reports over the previous four years.

“More kids are online. More offenders are online. There is just more opportunity right now,” said Lindsey Olson, executive director of the center’s Exploited Child Division.

Olson cautions that some of the increase is probably tied to heightened awareness of the group’s “CyberTipline” and stepped-up efforts by Internet companies to report possible enticement occurring on their platforms.

But such a dramatic increase in online enticement reports, she said, underscores how vigilant parents need to be as schools nationwide continue to curb in-person instruction during the pandemic.

“Parents can have a false sense of security, especially when they’re around their children all the time,” Olson said.

Also on the rise, police say, are instances of children sharing nude images with one another.

“Do u send?” has become a shorthand question posed by students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, according to social media postings and the PTSA president there. What can start as a bow to peer pressure, police say, can mushroom into images being zapped among more students and continued harassment.

“If parents and adults don’t start talking about this,” said Lyric Winik, president of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School PTSA, “it will continue to be devastating to middle school and high school students.”

Chats target children

Since the pandemic triggered shutdowns early last year, investigators in several states have conducted stings with names such as “Operation COVID Crackdown,” pretending to be children and responding to adults who come their way.

In New Jersey, authorities launched “Operation Screen Capture,” arresting 21 people “in response to a dramatic increase in reports of potential threats to children from online predators during the COVID pandemic.” The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and allied agencies arrested 34 suspects during “Operation COVID Chat Down” in July and August, accusing them of trying to meet for sex targets who they thought were 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls.

In their subsequent case against Larson, Fresno investigators say, they have recently learned of another six alleged victims of Larson’s — all 12- to 14-year-old girls — in South Carolina, New York, Canada, Britain, Ireland and Germany. Larson spent months grooming the girls, according to Pursell, convincing each they were the only special and beautiful person in his life.

“His main tactic — with our victim and all these girls — is to play off to their boredom,” Pursell says. “They were all on the same path as the girl in Fresno.”

After his arrest in Colorado, Larson spent nearly two months in jail in Denver before his recent extradition. While in Denver, he declined an interview request delivered on The Washington Post’s behalf by officials at the Denver Sheriff’s Department. An attorney who represented him in Colorado, Ashley White, also declined to comment. No attorney is listed yet for Larson in online California court records.

The onetime accountant first made contact with the 12-year-old in mid-October over Discord, a gaming and social media application popular with children, according to Fresno officials and a federal criminal complaint in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. At the time, her school was closed for in-person instruction and she was receiving lessons over her computer, according to Pursell.

A Discord spokeswoman said the company is working with law enforcement in the case and takes “the safety of all Discord users, but most importantly our younger users, incredibly seriously.”

Larson manipulated his way into the child’s life, Pursell said, even as others were trying to pay attention. “These are good, engaged parents,” Pursell says.

By mid-November, according to court records, Larson persuaded the girl that they were in love, even as he admitted his age.

“You have the prettiest face,” he wrote at one point, according to federal court records.

Larson pressured her to send compromising photographs to an offshore website he administered, according to the federal criminal complaint. He also allegedly had the girl communicate with him over Kik, a messaging application known for its anonymity. Kik officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The morning of Dec. 14, when the girl’s mother called the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office to report her missing, she also said the girl’s Lenovo laptop and a bag were gone. Investigators spoke with a friend of the girl’s, quickly learned about Larson, and reviewed the girl’s online activity.

They tracked Larson and the girl aboard a flight headed to Denver.

As Fresno officials would later allege, he had made the girl wear a long wig at the Fresno airport, and to act as if she had a disability and was mute so she wouldn’t speak with anyone else.

Investigators searched the Larsons’ home in Fauquier County, seizing five computers and 18 electronic storage devices, according to a law enforcement search warrant filed in Fauquier County Circuit Court.

Be engaged, parents advised

Not all investigators are convinced that pandemic-related shutdowns are driving more online exploitation of children. In Waco, Tex., Detective Joe Scaramucci of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office led a sting operation in May in which he posed online as a child. The sting netted charges against 20 accused of trying to persuade children to send explicit photos or meet for sex. Scaramucci said that such stings in the past — with no pandemic — have also drawn big numbers.

“I don’t think covid has helped, but I think it’s premature to blame covid, until we have post-covid numbers,” Scaramucci said.

Early in the pandemic, investigators addressed the increased vulnerability of children. In Fairfax County, detectives pretended to be kids online as they launched “Operation COVID Crackdown” in late March. Over several weeks, police say, 30 men initiated “explicit conversations” and sought to meet for sex.

“When each of the suspects arrived at agreed upon locations, detectives took them into custody,” Fairfax officials said.

“There is an enormous amount of cases being made around the country,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Matt Vilcek, who works cases in Maryland. “It’s essentially an ocean full of fish, and we’re just throwing out hooks.”

He said restrictions have prompted “significant increase” in online exploitation. “Boredom sets in,” Vilcek said, “and curiosity is just a natural trait of minors.”

Many predators initially pose as a child. They persuade their target to send one inappropriate photo, which they turn into a form of blackmail: Send more, they demand, or the image gets shared on Facebook, or with the child’s friends or parents.

“The goal is to go in perpetuity,” Vilcek said. “It always has to be the next image for these guys.”

Joe Dugan, an Internet safety specialist for the Maryland State Police, said the online access predators have to children during Covid is worsened by a disconnect among many parents who still view strangers out in public as the larger threat. “They’d never let their children just run free in a shopping mall,” Dugan said. “So we shouldn’t let them run free on the Internet.”

At the FBI’s field office in Washington, Supervisory Special Agent Barbara Smith said some predators are in it for money. Often operating out of countries where identification is difficult, like Russia or Nigeria, they pose as children, get a nude image, and threaten to tell the child’s parents unless they come up with several hundred dollars.

Some victims scramble together the money, Smith said, by buying gift cards and sending their tormentors the redemption codes that can be turned into cash. Others are forced to tell their parents.

“Then they call us, horrified,” Smith said.

Winik, the high school PTSA president, said students in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, Md., first learn about the student-to-student dissemination of “nudes” in middle school. The peer pressure of doing so, she said, makes sending the photos seem commonplace.

The pandemic, police say, has exacerbated the practice — and the devastating humiliation that it can carry.

“I’ve been pressured by a boy in my grade to send nudes,” one Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School student wrote on Instagram recently. “It came to the point where he convinced my friends to pressure me too, so I did it. He sent it to all his friends.”

Such photos regularly come to the attention of the Montgomery County Police Department’s Special Victims Investigations Division, where a five-member child exploitation unit looks for any adult involved and tries to build cases when they find one.

But often there is no adult involved, said Capt. Amy Daum, which leaves her investigators addressing many of the cases through education — even if that means knocking on a door and speaking to suddenly alarmed parents.

“We’ve seen an enormous uptick since covid started,” she said. “Kids can’t be around each other. There’s this desperate need for human connection.”

 For guidance on children’s Internet safety, see the FBI’s “Safe Surfing” site and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s “NetSmartz” site.

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