James S. Allen’s distance from his underage victims in Tonawanda, Depew and Amherst – literally hundreds of miles – didn’t stop him from exploiting them.
With the help of Facebook and Twitter, the Detroit man coerced four local girls – prosecutors say the total number of victims is closer to 18 – into sexually explicit conduct that he recorded two states away.
With his family watching from the gallery Monday, Allen was sentenced to nearly 22 years in prison in what prosecutors are calling one of the biggest local cyberstalking cases ever.
“There was a dark part of me and I recognize that,” Allen told U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara. “There was a double life.”
The case against Allen, 38, began when a series of young women went to the Kenmore police with disturbing stories of a stranger sending them messages, some by text, some through Facebook and Twitter.
The stranger, they said, would demand that they chat or Skype with him and, if they refused, he would threaten to send nude pictures of them to their friends and family.
Fearful that Allen might have obtained nude photos from their computers, some of the girls agreed.
“He hid behind a computer screen,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango. “He terrorized numerous girls. And he got these girls to violate their own bodies.”
Mango singled out a handful of victims and the emotional and psychological trauma they suffered, including one girl who tried to commit suicide.
“She put a belt around her neck,” he told Arcara.
Over time, it became clear to the FBI and other investigators that this was a predator with a sophisticated knowledge of technology.
It also became clear that the number of victims was mounting – 18 at last count – and that about half of them were underage girls.
“I will embarrass you,” Allen allegedly told one victim in a text message. “You do realize that your (computer) and phone store everything you do, right?”
“How would you get my phone?” the girl answered.
“Watch and learn how,” Allen told her, according to court papers. “How about I send to everyone within 200 miles of you?”
“Why would you do that?” the girl responded. “Do u even know me?”
In the end, Allen pleaded guilty to cyberstalking and production of child pornography and, as part of his plea agreement, admitted victimizing four of the 18 young women.
In court Monday, his lawyer suggested there are two different versions of her client. One is a churchgoing family man. The other is a cyberstalker.
“It’s very difficult to reconcile who James Allen is,” said Leslie Scott, an assistant federal public defender.
“He leads a double life,” said Arcara.
“It’s true,” Scott answered. “Mr. Allen took on a different persona when he was online.”
National experts say the Allen case is noteworthy because of the large number of victims and the fact that he was a stranger living hundreds of miles away.
What’s not surprising, they say, was his reliance on technology well beyond the GPS devices and video surveillance cameras that used to be the tools of stalkers.
More and more, cybercriminals are using computer software and other forms of technology to “phish” for important personal information, including email addresses and passwords.
Often, it’s as simple as getting a person to click on an email link or log onto a website. And in most cases, the goal is to steal money from your bank account or access your credit cards.
But in Allen, the FBI says, it discovered a first: the use of phishing technology to stalk women.
“James Allen’s use of phishing technology to intimidate and prey on local girls and women was a unique and terrifying way for him to exploit his victims,” said Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo.
The FBI says 16 percent of all stalking victims are targeted online and, for that reason alone, the agency recommends computer users rely on privacy settings and use secure browsing whenever possible.
Experts also suggest people avoid doing banking and others types of private business in unsecured wireless locations.