What teen wouldn’t respond to a message from Justin Bieber?
They may be caught off guard when he asks them to send him nude photos or perform sexual acts on camera, but still. It’s hard for a star-struck teen to resist the attention of a famous pop idol. Why would they question it?
This was the perfect ruse for a 42-year-old Australian law professor who impersonated Bieber to solicit nude photos and videos from more than 900 teens, including one child victim in Wyoming.
Gordon Douglas Chalmers was charged and arrested on suspicion of 900 child sex offenses in 2016, which was later reduced to 202 charges. He’s now awaiting trial in Queensland, Australia, and has since lost his teaching job.
Wyoming On The Front Lines
Speaking to a roomful of attendees at the Greater Rockies Immersive Training on Exploitation and Trafficking (GRIT) on May 3, Ryan Hieb, DCI special agent and Homeland Security task force officer, and Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Commander Chris McDonald explained the nature of their work while highlighting some of their more notorious busts involving child predators in Wyoming.
The Wyoming ICAC team is part of a national initiative and is one of 61 coordinated task forces throughout the country. The force consists of 11 full- and part-time members throughout the state and works with several affiliate agencies from local law enforcement, homeland security and the FBI.
On average, ICAC receives 66 cyber tips per month from National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and internet and social media companies. The number of tips has grown exponentially over the past five years. In 2018, the agency received 199 tips compared to 793 in 2022.
Of those tips, several led to arrests.
In 2021, ICAC made 32 arrests and an additional 40 in 2022. So far to date, ICAC has arrested 18 Wyoming residents on child pornography charges.
As for hotspots in the state where ICAC receives the majority of cyber tips tends to fall along population lines, with the bulk coming out of Cheyenne, Casper, Rock Springs/Green River, Sheridan and Gillette. However, ICAC also works numerous tips in smaller populations around the state, Hieb said.
Statically speaking, last year ICAC received the most tips from Natrona and Laramie counties.
Arguably, McDonald said, the Wyoming ICAC force is very good at what it does, particularly given its limited manpower, and has even helped nab predators overseas.
Last September, ICAC was pivotal in helping the FBI and other authorities arrest a Bangladeshi man for sextorting hundreds of teens, including at least six in Wyoming.
“WY ICAC was critical to breaking the [Chalmers’] case. So again, here we are, just little ol' Wyoming with one victim breaking cases with 900-plus charges on predators continents away,” McDonald said. “That may have been the first time, but it definitely wasn't the last.”
Some of the more prominent arrests highlighted by Hieb involve Wyoming predators, including 63-year-old Cheyenne resident Richard Person, who was arrested in March 2016 for possession of child pornography.
For a time, Person held the record for the largest child pornography collection in the nation with more than 20 million files. It took ICAC officers three days to access the encrypted drives containing more than 47 terabytes of files. Person was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
Another prominent case involved Casper resident Salvador Salas Jr., who was arrested in July 2021 for drugging and sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl on film. He was convicted of one count of possessing child pornography and six counts of production of child pornography.
Most notably to Hieb was the arrest of 28-year-old James “Lucky” Luce of Casper. Someone had turned in Luce’s phone after finding files of child pornography on the device.
The files appeared to have been newly produced of an unknown child at an unknown location, Hieb said, and ICAC was able to narrow down that location to two potential residences in Fremont County.
Both Hieb and his partner had different ideas of where that house might be, but in the end they typed in both locations to their GPS and chose the one that was closer. When they arrived, Luce wasn’t there but the homeowner let them in.
As they were talking, they heard a popping noise from the back of the place. Then they saw a cloud of smoke. It turned out, the dryer had caught fire.
“Luckily, I was able to put my past experience of being a fireman to use,” Hieb said.
He also managed to save the house and the crime scene, which turned out to be the residence in which the pornography was produced as they later deduced by comparing the cracked linoleum in the photos to the room in which the photos were taken.
“It was very fortunate because this thing would have absolutely burned to the ground,” he said.
Another notable arrest was that of a 33-year-old Casper man who was creating child pornography of his 9-month-old victim at the direction of an Illinois man.
Both Daniel Albert Hendricks and 57-year-old Mark Anthony Billeter of Macomb, Illinois, pleaded guilty to child pornography charges after Hendricks’ wife reported him to police for being part of an online pedophile group. Hendricks was sentenced to 45 years in prison while Billeter received 15 years.
Unfortunately, Hieb noted, ICAC has no shortage of work.
“Where there's demand and supply, there's always going to be people out there creating new material,” he said.
Fake Profiles And Other Tricks
Chalmers isn’t the only Justin Bieber impersonator. An Alabama man also tried to use Bieber and other identities to exploit children.
Christopher Patrick Gunn, then 31, was arrested in 2009 on two counts of child pornography after successfully persuading teenage girls to send him sexually explicit pictures and videos of themselves in exchange for concert tickets, according to a release from the FBI.
It turns out that Bieber is one of the most widely impersonated profiles online, Hieb said.
Fake profiles are particularly effective means of connecting with teens online on social media apps and games.
ICAC warns that the most common sites for predators targeting children are Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, among others. Some of the most popular games for predators are Minecraft, Roblox, AmungUs, Fortnight, Call of Duty and Rocket League, according to ICAC.
The key to protecting children, McDonald said, is monitoring their online use and having honest conversations about the dangers lurking.
Educating parents and guardians on social media safety is also key, according to Colorado human trafficking expert and author, John DiGirolamo, who wrote “It’s Not About the Predator: A Parent’s Guide to Internet & Social Media Safety.”
DiGirolamo points out many warning signs that a young person is being groomed, including receiving unexplained gifts, isolating themselves in their bedrooms and suddenly becoming very secretive, among other behaviors. Other sudden changes such as change in dress, drop in grades or skipping school or activities and drug or alcohol abuse might be signs of exploitation, DiGirolamo said.
Based on his research, DiGirolamo has unearthed some disturbing trends.
According to findings by the Pew Research Center, the most susceptible age group to predators are between 12-15 years old. Of that group, 75% of high school kids and 40% of middle schoolers have reported either sending or receiving some type of nude photo.
Research also shows that one in five minors were blackmailed or bullied for sharing nudes. On average, most teens report having more than 1,000 friends and followers who may have viewed these images in cases where they were sextorted.
In one case based on interviews with law enforcement, DiGirolamo provided an example on how this grooming works.
In this case, police trapped a predator using a fake Facebook profile for a 13-year-old girl. Within five minutes, the girl received a friend request from a stranger. Once connected, she then received a private message from her new ‘friend.”
Within 15 minutes, that friend sent a request for nude photos. Within 12 hours, he invited her on a dinner date. The girl was then pressured to meet the predator at a motel for a sexual encounter, where he was arrested.
The police discovered that this predator had sent friend requests to more than 100 middle school girls. Of those who were sent the request, 90% accepted. Twenty of the girls sent nude photos to the predator while an additional two agreed to meet for a sexual encounter.
Much like McDonald, DiGirolamo advised parents to monitor their children’s online activity, particularly in chat rooms and private messenger services. He further advises parents to be monitor the child’s online ‘friends.’ He suggests limiting it to around 200 friends or followers that the child knows or has met in person.
There’s also a host of parental control software and apps like Bark, Qustodio and FamilyTime, among others.