At first, Jared Johns’s death had the contours of an all-too-familiar tragedy.
The 24-year-old Army veteran ended his life on Sept. 11, 2018, leaving his twin brother to discover his body in the apartment they shared in Greenville, S.C. “I’m sorry. I messed up,” he had written on a whiteboard. “I love you all. This is not what I wanted. Tell my sons I was a good man.”
Talking to Johns’s family and friends, investigators learned that the father of two had battled depression since his deployment to Afghanistan. Initially, they assumed that those struggles were the primary motivation for his suicide. But alarming text messages found on his phone told another, more complicated story, as authorities revealed last week.
“We now know that, at the time of his death, Jared was the victim of a blackmail scheme that was created by inmates in a South Carolina prison,” Greenville Police Chief Ken Miller announced at a Friday news conference. The scam, he said, had “created sufficient mental anguish to cause Jared to believe that he was going to be accused of a serious crime with lifelong implications.”
John William Dobbins, 59, and Carl Richard Smith, 43, are now being charged with blackmail in connection with Johns’s death, which police have linked to a massive “sextortion ring” that was uncovered by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service last fall. Nicknamed “Operation Surprise Party,” the investigation found that South Carolina inmates had been using contraband cellphones to join dating sites like POF (formerly known as PlentyOfFish) and pose as attractive young women.
Targeting men whose profiles identified them as military personnel, the “women” would strike up a flirtatious conversation that eventually led to an exchange of nude photographs. After sending or receiving scantily clad photos, investigators said, the victims would be contacted by another individual claiming to be the woman’s father. The outraged man would tell them that his daughter was underage, and threaten to notify law enforcement if he wasn’t paid for his silence.
Between 2015 and 2018, 442 service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps were conned out of more than $560,000 through the scam, the investigators found. Five inmates were indicted in November, with officials warning that more than 250 people were under investigation and additional arrests could be forthcoming.
Though NCIS didn’t speculate about why troops had been singled out in the scheme, Greenville police on Friday suggested that the consequences of a child pornography charge would be particularly catastrophic for military personnel.
“Because service members have so much to lose, they often capitulate even when no wrongdoing has occurred,” Miller said on Friday.
Though he was no longer an active-duty service member, Johns apparently fell victim to the same scheme.
Inspired by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which took place when he was still in elementary school, Johns joined the military immediately after graduating from high school, according to the Greenville News. In 2013, he was deployed to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province as a gunner.
About six months into his stint overseas, Johns injured his back while climbing down from an armored vehicle. He also developed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. While being treated at a military hospital in Germany, his father told the paper, he tried to kill himself by taking too many pills. Eventually, Johns was honorably discharged, and he returned to Greenville in October 2015.
Although he was clearly changed by his time overseas, and small things like fireworks displays would set him off, Johns’s parents would later recall that things had begun looking up for their son after he moved back to South Carolina. He welcomed a newborn son, found a job managing a local AT&T store, bought a new Jeep with his disability payments from Veterans Affairs, and adopted a German shepherd named Tex, which seemed to help with his mental health issues.
“It wasn’t that he was depressed,” his father, Kevin Johns, told the News. “My son was fighting PTSD, and he was really overcoming it.”
But on Sept. 11, 2018, after calling in sick to work, he locked the door to his room and recorded a video message for his two sons, both toddlers at the time. “I hate that I’m not going to get to see you grow up, but it’s better this way, I promise,” he said, according to the News. Then, he shot himself.
Initially, Kevin Johns thought that the date of his son’s suicide wasn’t a coincidence, since 9/11 had motivated him to join the military. “He decided this is where it started, this is where it is going to end,” he told the News in October, just weeks after the tragedy.
Over time, however, Johns’s parents discovered that other factors might have contributed to his untimely death. Text messages that his mother found on his phone and shared with the Greenville News showed that in the hours before he killed himself, he had been communicating with two people who claimed to be the parents of a 17-year-old girl.
Demanding that Johns send them $1,189, the alleged blackmailers accused him of soliciting nude photographs from their underage daughter. Johns, seemingly bewildered, said that he had no memory of talking to the teenager. In the final text message exchange, which took place at 11:59 a.m. on Sept. 11, the man claiming to be the girl’s father informed Johns that “she is going to the police and you are going to jail.”
Data from Johns’s Apple Watch showed that his heart stopped beating just moments later, at 12:03 p.m., his mother told the News.
The grieving parents also received an additional clue from an anonymous tipster, who pointed them in the direction of the prison inmates. Miller, the Greenville police chief, said on Friday that Johns’s mother, Kathy Bowling, had been contacted by an “informant” after her son’s death. That individual, he said, provided “detailed information” about the dating-app scam and the people involved.
Tracing the phone numbers that Johns had been texting before his death led police to Dobbins and Smith, who were both being held in South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution at the time. Dobbins is serving a 25-year sentence for his third methamphetamine possession and distribution charge, while Smith is serving 15 years for assault and aggravated battery.
Both face up to 10 additional years in prison and a $5,000 fine if convicted of blackmail, which is a felony in South Carolina. It wasn’t immediately clear if either had an attorney.
At Friday’s news conference, police and prison officials did not say exactly how the inmates had been able to get their hands on contraband cellphones while incarcerated in the maximum-security facility. “They get them any way you can think of,” South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said. “We put netting up, so that’s stopped the throw-overs, but drones are a problem.”
He added that people visiting the prison for legitimate reasons, such as clergy, correctional officers, and medical staff, have been known to sneak in cellphones. “They have all day to think of ways to do it,” he said of the inmates.
Prosecutors considered charging Dobbins and Smith with murder or manslaughter, the News reported. But they ultimately concluded that they wouldn’t be able to prove that the inmates knew that Johns was at risk of committing suicide.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Johns’s parents said they were just relieved that the two men were facing charges. Their son’s PTSD, they speculated, had made him especially vulnerable and ill-prepared to cope with the escalating threats.
“It didn’t have to happen and it shouldn’t have happened,” Bowling told the News. “Jared was holding the gun, but to us it feels like they might as well have been holding it; they might as well have pulled the trigger.”
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