A mug shot of Joseph Meili. (Greene County Sheriff's Office)

In the hours after Joseph Meili picked up a girl he met on his dating app, police sprang into action.

They scoured the nearby woods and knocked on doors in Republic, Mo., trying to find her. After she later turned up back home, she told authorities that Meili removed her clothes and raped her, prosecutors said. Weeks later, she tested positive for chlamydia.

She was not 18, the age she’d listed on her profile for the dating app MeetMe. She was 11.

Meili was charged with child kidnapping, statutory rape and statutory sodomy. He would later admit to committing a sex crime. But the 22-year-old man won’t face jail time for molesting the 11-year-old girl.

Meili was sentenced last week to five years of supervised probation after pleading guilty to one count of third-degree child molestation. He will also register as a sex offender. The sentencing, handed down by Judge Calvin R. Holden on June 14, went against the recommendation of state prosecutors, who asked that Meili serve 120 days in a sex offender treatment program and up to seven years in prison, according to the Springfield News-Leader. The Jefferson City News Tribune reported that the charges of child kidnapping, statutory rape and statutory sodomy were dropped as part of a plea agreement reached in March.

Meili’s attorney, Scott Pierson, argued that Meili was catfished by the girl and had no idea how old she really was.

“I feel horrible for the victim in this case,” Pierson told The Washington Post. Despite the lack of jail time, he insisted Meili’s sentence was fair. “He’s going to be a sex offender for the rest of his life. He’s never going to escape this.”

But prosecutors questioned how Meili could still think the girl was 18 after meeting her in person. It was “willful ignorance,” Elizabeth Fax, the senior assistant prosecuting attorney for Greene County, told HuffPost.

“I think dating apps make it easier to get into these types of situations, to be sure,” she said, “but to actually see her in person . . . he knew and just decided to go along with it anyway.”

The two connected after the girl borrowed her mother’s phone, according to police. In July 2017, the girl, whose name has not been released because she is a minor, used the phone to send messages over MeetMe. Meili then picked her up in Republic before driving to an apartment in Springfield, Mo.

During the sexual encounter, her family reported her as missing, setting off a police search to locate her.

According to a probable cause statement from the Republic Police Department, the girl was found in her bedroom hours after she was reported missing, packing a bag with the intention to leave again. She told police that she had fallen asleep at Meili’s apartment. When she awoke, she said she felt like something sexual had happened to her, police said. Authorities also later discovered semen in her underwear. She later told police she was raped, the News-Leader reported. (Pierson argued that the police statement was “not accurate.”)

When police contacted Meili in 2017 about the girl’s claims, he allegedly told authorities he did not know what they were talking about. “I’m freaking out,” Meili allegedly said, according to the News-Leader.

After first offering to cooperate, police said he refused to talk. After his roommates spoke to authorities, Meili was arrested.

Although age restrictions are in place for dating apps, the companies have long struggled to curb child sex crimes from starting on their platforms. On Tuesday, the Justice Department said that a 37-year-old Alabama man, in addition to trying to molest the 9-year-old daughter of a woman he met online, reached out to a 14-year-old girl for the same request through Kik. In April, police arrested 16 men in a sting in which they were led to believe they were arranging sex with 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls through apps such as MeetMe, Kik and Skout, according to the New York Times. Last year, a 22-year-old Columbia University student admitted to engaging in sexual activity with a 13-year-old boy he met on the dating app Grindr, The Post’s Samantha Schmidt reported.

Meili’s sentence isn’t the first in Missouri to draw a national outcry for the lack of prison time connected to child molestation charges. Since 2016, in at least three similar cases involving victims between the ages of 8 and 16, offenders were sentenced to five years of probation, matching Meili’s sentence. (One of those cases also included a 30-day jail term.) All those cases were also overseen by Holden, the judge who sentenced Meili, according to media reports.

Pierson told The Post that a sex offender assessment on Meili conducted by a retired federal evaluator found that “he was not a pedophile and did not exhibit behavior,” and that the victim’s family did not object to his sentence.

“If both the victim and the victim’s family and the defense counsel think probation is appropriate, then I think that should be taken into account,” Pierson said. “I think justice is best determined by those who have a stake in the case.” He added: “The victim’s family didn’t want the book thrown at him.”

Still, Fax, argued that the severity of a crime like Meili’s is sometimes overshadowed by the details.

“They might wear makeup and be on dating apps and try to hook up with older men,” she said to HuffPost, “but at the end of the day, these are children.”

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