Robert Pritchett liked to hide behind aliases such as Jason and Jess when he searched for underage girls, federal agents say.
And when he connected with one, it was usually through meetme.com, Kik or another video chat and messaging site popular with teens, they say.
The FBI now believes the 20-year-old Buffalo man used those social media forums and secret identities to lure girls into sending him nude photos of themselves and forcing other girls into prostitution.
“We call it ‘sextortion,’ and the criminals who engage in it are opportunistic. They are cunning. They engage in role playing,” said Jeremy Bell, supervisory special agent of the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force in Buffalo.
Pritchett was arrested earlier this month on child pornography and sex-trafficking charges in what prosecutors are calling the latest warning about the dangerous relationship of teens, social media and sexual predators.
In Virginia, the murder of a 13-year-old girl last month is being linked to Kik, the messaging app used by millions of teens.
“There’s a grooming process. They target. They groom. They get the photos and then they blackmail,” Bell said of the predators patrolling the Web. “When it comes to criminal activity, a smartphone can be as dangerous as a gun.”
Pritchett continued to prey on young girls, even though Erie County prosecutors had a case against him in July 2014, court papers allege. And that prompted a federal judge last week to ask: Why did it take more than 18 months to get him off the streets?
“Unfortunately, this appears to be a case where the DA’s office did not move with the speed that maybe they should have moved with,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango told U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy.
Charged with raping a 15-year-old girl, Pritchett made bail and remained free until his arrest this month on separate federal charges. During the time he was free, he sexually assaulted another girl, a 17-year-old from New Jersey, agents said. He also is charged with forcing the girl into prostitution.
“Someone dropped the ball,” McCarthy said in federal court. “It seems someone should have taken him off the street before now.”
That is when the federal prosecutor explained that the initial charges against Pritchett were state court charges, and the Erie County district attorney was responsible to prosecute once he made bail.
Cheektowaga Police made the initial arrest, and they believe the case was strong enough to prosecute and convict Pritchett.
“All we can do is put together the best possible case,” said Assistant Police Chief James Speyer Jr. “It’s up to the DA’s office to prosecute.”
Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. said he could not comment on Pritchett except to confirm that the felony charges against him were dropped to misdemeanor sexual misconduct and sex abuse charges shortly after his arrest that summer two years ago. Flaherty also claims the defense’s frequent requests for adjournments contributed to the delay in prosecuting him.
“We’re not consenting to any more adjournments, and we’re trying this case as soon as possible,” he said last week.
When asked if the original misdemeanor charges could have led to a sentence that kept Pritchett off the streets, Flaherty said he could not comment.
“There was no guarantee” of jail time, one law enforcement source said.
Kik is a popular teen messaging app used by 40 percent of teens in the United States. Its website touts a community of 275 million users from 230 countries around the world. It was founded in 2009 by a group of University of Waterloo students. Kik allows users to message one another for free via user names.
Technology makes it easier for you to communicate with people you don’t know, and with that comes risks, said one University at Buffalo professor.
“Kik affords anonymity,” said Michael Stefanone, associate professor in UB’s Department of Communication. “Facebook is tied in to your life, so we are more cautious and strategic and careful. When we’re anonymous, we’re more risk-prone. You will often take more chance and engage in more risky behavior.”
The 13-year-old Virginia girl, Nicole Lovell, was kidnapped and killed by an 18-year-old college student she met on Kik. The day before she disappeared, she told a neighbor she was going to meet her boyfriend.
Kate Maleski is a licensed clinical social worker with Explore What’s Next, a psychotherapy group based in Amherst. She works with adolescent girls.
“It’s a very vulnerable age. They need attention. They are trusting. They want to feel loved,” Maleski said. “They also may feel like they’re in an adult relationship, so they feel mature and that they can handle it.”
The FBI says cyberpredators use the application because it allows messages but not texts. In addition, some applications are password-protected, which hinders parents’ ability to monitor their children.
“It’s almost a perfect storm,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. “Our cases and what’s happening around the country should serve as a reminder to parents.”
The Pritchett prosecution and two others are evidence of the dangerous environment facing kids today, Hochul said, an environment created by a combination of unsuspecting teenagers, the ever-growing presence of social media and savvy predators schooled in technology.
He referred specifically to apps that are designed to hide cellphone photos and communications from parents, as well as the new social media language and acronyms used by teens, many of them also designed to keep parents at bay.
P911, for example, means a parent in the room, Hochul said, and GNOC means Get Naked on Camera.
“Manipulators have mastered the art of exploiting children, and we need to catch up,” he said.
Two other Western New York men were arrested this month on child pornography charges similar to those levied against Pritchett.
Joseph Lombardo used the name “Chris Richardson” when he met three girls, ages 13 to 16, on Kik and meet.me, and one of the girls sent him “at least 100” photos of herself, the FBI says.
Agents also say the 24-year-old Lancaster man forced one of the girls, a 10th-grader at the time, to have sex. Lombardo’s string of sextortion occurred between September 2012 and May 2014 when Lancaster Police Department executed a search warrant and recovered a laptop allegedly containing several images of child pornography.
And yet, Lombardo, like Pritchett, remained free for 18 months until he was charged last week on federal child pornography charges.
“This case lingered for a year and a half with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office,” said Joel L. Daniels, one of Lombardo’s potential defense lawyers. “That raises some doubts in our minds.”
When asked if those doubts pertain to the legitimacy of the prosecution, Daniels declined to comment.
A third man, Sherrod Ogletree, 20, was arrested Feb. 5 by federal authorities for allegedly producing child pornography. Authorities said Ogletree contacted two girls on Facebook and threatened to post nude photos of them.
In one case, police said Ogletree demanded $60, a laptop and sex.
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