Another Facebook message from Brian Kil popped on her screen. Under duress, a teenage girl had been sending the stranger sexually explicit images of herself for 16 months. When her mother stepped in to stop the abuse, “Brian” threatened to kill the teen, her mom, younger sister and boyfriend. In the court filing, this teenager would be known as “Victim 1.”
This was a case of sextortion, which the FBI defines as someone threatening to distribute sexual images and similar sensitive material if a victim doesn’t comply with their demands.
Many sextortionists are after money. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) says there were more than 18,000 sextortion complaints made in 2021, with losses of over $13.6 million. But some criminals are after something else: the sense of power that comes from inflicting psychological torture or acquiring pornography (often child pornography) for personal use and/or distribution.
“I think technology has really transformed sexual violence,” Dr. Karen Holt, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, tells A&E True Crime.
Buster Hernandez, the Child Predator Behind the Screen
Ultimately, Buster Hernandez, the 29-year-old man hiding behind “Brian Kil,” “The Purge of Maine” and more than 150 other screen names that he used to terrorize “Victim 1” and others, including children, was charged with several crimes.
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The Southern District of Indiana’s District Attorney’s Office reported that Hernandez’s offenses “included the actual or attempted sextortion of at least 375 victims, including those from two foreign countries” and “threats to kill, rape and kidnap hundreds.”
Dr. Roberta O’Malley, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, along with Holt, wrote a paper for the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, analyzing the various types of sextortion perpetrators. They found that a perpetrator might be a pedophile, or a victim’s former or current intimate partner, or a stranger thousands of miles away who knows, or claims to know, how to use malware to hack into a phone or cloud.
While financial sextortionists tend to interact with victims for around 48 hours, Holt and O’Malley found those with more personal motives can do so for months.
Regardless of how long their attack lasts, all these offenders have a “very malicious understanding” of how to quickly groom and coerce a victim, says O’Malley. Violent threats are not uncommon, especially when the victim is a child.
What Do Sextortionists Do?
Many of the sextortionists O’Malley studied “threatened [a victim’s] life, their family; they threatened to break into their homes and sexually assault them. They’d send them Google images of their home, screenshots of their school. And they would threaten to do the same things to [the victim’s] close friends.”
Criminals targeting minors also use threats to “recruit” their victims into soliciting images from friends.
“It’s brutal,” says Holt. “They’ll then tell them ‘Now you’re involved in child pornography, so you can go to prison if you say anything.'”
O’Malley adds that threats to minors’ safety or lives can also lead to the creation of more graphic child pornography. There have been cases where a sextortionist has demanded that a minor engage in a sexual act with a younger sibling. “This becomes this horrible cycle of just emotional turmoil for these young people,” says O’Malley.
The Effects of Sextortion on Young People
A 2020 study published in Current Opinion in Pediatrics found that minors “fear both punishment by their guardians and social consequences that follow the release of their explicit pictures. This cycle of victimization endangers minors and may lead to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.”
There have also been cases of sextortion that have led to suicide in teenage boys and young men, who are frequently targeted through social media and dating apps.
In January 2022, 17-year-old Ryan Last died by suicide just hours after exchanging flirtatious messages and nude photos with someone he “met” virtually on Facebook, who he thought was a young woman. To prevent this person from posting his nude photos online and sending them to family members, he promised to pay them from his college fund. But when their demands increased, panicked and ashamed, he took his own life.
“There’s been a couple of cases where [offenders] have shown some level of remorse when a victim [dies by suicide],” says O’Malley. Such perpetrators typically have traumatic pasts that led to their wanting to exert control over their victims.
O’Malley is currently researching male victims of financial sextortion, whose offenders, he says, tend to be colder.
“One case that sticks out in my head was this gentleman who told his abuser, ‘My life is over; I’m just going to kill myself,'” says O’Malley. “The abuser responded, ‘I don’t care what you do; you probably should. Just pay me first.’ That’s their mentality. They don’t care at all.”
When the Demands of a Sextortionist Aren’t Met
But sextortionists may not have the power they claim.
When it comes to financial offenders, if their demands are unmet, they’ll typically fade away, focusing their efforts on more productive targets, and not risking their ability to run the scam on others, says O’Malley.
And O’Malley says that it’s the criminals who have targeted kids who, so far, have been charged most often in sextortion cases.
Updated legislation regarding sextortion and training for law enforcement officers on how to handle it could decrease instances of this crime, says O’Malley.
What might make the greatest impact on quelling sextortion is a victim’s willingness to come forward. But some say, that’s only going to happen if we can remove stigma and victim-blaming associated with this crime.
FBI Supervising Special Agent Dan Costin says that cases involving young males are almost certainly underreported. “The embarrassment piece of this is probably one of the biggest hurdles that victims have to overcome,” Costin told CNN.
Ashley Reynolds, who, at 14, was one of nearly 350 teenage girls targeted by sextortionist Lucas Chasler, was instrumental in his being sentenced to 105 years in a federal prison in 2015.
Regarding her experience, Reynolds told the FBI that’s she’s not ashamed and is “stronger than I ever could have been…had I not come forward. I feel like I’m the dominant one; the ball is in my court.”
If you or your child are the victims of sextortion, contact your local FBI field office, call 1-800-CALL-FBI or report it online at tips.fbi.gov.