BLACKSBURG, Va. — A friend of the 13-year-old girl who was abducted and killed here last week said she found out that the girl was having an inappropriate relationship with an adult man and reported it to a school official in the weeks before Nicole Lovell disappeared.
Kari Cook, 13, said Nicole posted a photo to Facebook of a man who appeared to be older than 18. She said Nicole also posted screenshots of Facebook messages she was exchanging with a man who was over the age of 18, according to his Facebook profile. The messages suggested that they were dating. Kari said she did not know if the man in the photo was the same man her classmate was exchanging messages with. When Kari learned that the man was over 18, she became deeply worried about the situation and contacted a school resource officer at Blacksburg Middle School, she said.
“She was talking to him about how they were a cute couple,” Kari said, recalling the text conversations that Nicole shared on Facebook. “I was really scared.”
The online name she passed along to the officer was not that of David Eisenhauer, 18, of Columbia, Md., a Virginia Tech freshman who has been charged with first-degree murder in Nicole’s death. And it is unclear whether the man in the photos and conversations was Eisenhauer.
Nicole disappeared from her home the night of Jan. 27 — her bedroom window was left partially open after she apparently sneaked out — and her body was found in North Carolina days later. Authorities have said she was fatally stabbed.
Two law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation said that Eisenhauer and Nicole had sexual contact before her disappearance and that he lured her out of her home to kill her. An attorney for Eisenhauer has declined to comment on the case, and Eisenhauer told police “I believe the truth can set me free,” according to court documents.
Lt. Mike Albert, a spokesman for Blacksburg police, said School Resource Officer Mark Haynie had no information about Nicole’s disappearance when she went missing and added that if her classmate had relayed concerns about her, “he would have acted on it through the appropriate channels.” Albert said no student expressed concern to Haynie about Nicole having a relationship with an older man.
Officials with the Montgomery County School District in Virginia declined to comment on Kari’s account, but spokeswoman Brenda Drake said “all of our schools are very mindful of the need to focus on Internet safety.” Police declined to discuss the nature of the relationship between Eisenhauer and Nicole, and they have not indicated a possible motive for the slaying.
Police arrested Eisenhauer and a second Virginia Tech freshman, Natalie Keepers, 19, over the weekend in connection with Nicole’s death. Authorities allege that Keepers helped Eisenhauer before and after the killing, aiding in the disposal of Nicole’s body, which was discovered Saturday about two hours from Blacksburg in Surry County, N.C.
Reports that Nicole might have met Eisenhauer online raised concerns that young people could be lured into dangerous situations well beyond their age and control. An official with the popular instant messaging service Kik revealed Wednesday that information gleaned from the app helped lead law enforcement officers to Eisenhauer and Keepers in connection with the slaying.
FBI officials made “multiple emergency requests” for Kik account information as authorities mounted a massive search for the middle-school student, according to the company.
Company officials declined to disclose what information was released but said it makes such disclosures when there is an imminent threat of death, loss of security or physical harm to a person.
A neighbor of Nicole’s in Blacksburg told the Associated Press that on the day the girl disappeared, Nicole showed the neighbor’s daughters a picture of someone named “David” along with threads of conversations with him on Kik. Nicole reportedly told the girls that she was going to sneak out of her house that night to meet him.
Authorities have declined to comment on the veracity of that account.
Kari, Nicole’s friend, said there were signs that Nicole was troubled before she disappeared. Kari had attended school with Nicole since kindergarten, but the two drifted apart at Blacksburg Middle School because they no longer had class together. Kari said Nicole was bubbly in elementary school but had become more subdued in middle school because she was being bullied.
Kari said she noticed posts about the older teen on Nicole’s Facebook page in mid-December. Kari said she commented on one, writing that the teen Nicole was dating looked suspiciously older.
She said she left seventh period, her reading class, to talk to Haynie in January. She said she found him in a hallway and told him that she believed Nicole was dating a man in his 20s and that there was evidence of it on Facebook. She then wrote the man’s name on a piece of paper and gave it to the officer. She said the man’s name was not Eisenhauer. Kari said the officer told her that he would talk with Nicole. Albert said no one made such a warning to the officer about Nicole dating an adult.
Blacksburg police released no new information about the case Wednesday, and a bond hearing for Keepers in the Montgomery County, Va., courts was delayed until Thursday morning.
Kik disclosed its role in the case as it and other social media sites have come under scrutiny since the Blacksburg teen’s death. Kik says it has more than 275 million users and that 40 percent of U.S. teens use the app. But its popularity has also led to one of its main criticisms, as law enforcement and child advocates decry cases involving child predators who found victims through the app.
Users, who can chat one-on-one or in groups, don’t have to provide verified personal information and don’t have to be friends with another user to strike up a conversation, which experts say make children using Kik vulnerable to predators posing as young people.
“It is the dark web of social networking — it’s where anybody can be anything,” said Bob Lotter, the founder and chief executive of My Mobile Watchdog, which offers a service that lets parents track what their children are doing on mobile devices.
Kik strives to provide a safe environment, said a spokesman, Rod McLeod.“User safety is extremely important to Kik,” McLeod wrote in an email. “We’ve built unique safety features right into the app, allowing people to block, filter, or report inappropriate behavior. We are also actively involved in a broader societal effort to educate parents, kids, and law enforcement about online trust and safety.”
Ju’Riese Colon, executive director of outreach for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said her group has seen an increase of cases involving child predators on messaging apps.
Overall, she said, the group received 4.4 million tips about child pornography, luring, molestation, trafficking and other types of abuse online in 2015 — a vast increase from the 1.1 million reports the year before.
T. Rees Shapiro in Blacksburg and Laura Vozzella in Richmond contributed to this report. Jouvenal reported from Washington.