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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Around 10 p.m. on a Monday in late February 2022, Pauline Stuart said “goodnight” to her straight-A earning, Eagle Scout-bound son, Ryan Last.
“He was his normal self,” recalled Stuart, who described her son as a “very sweet, loving kid.”
Four hours later, the 17-year-old was dead.
He died by suicide after scammers threatened to post explicit pictures of Last online if he didn’t pay up.
“Parents need to talk to their kids now,” declared Stuart, speaking to Target 8 over Zoom.
The San Jose, California, mom is determined to warn families everywhere, including West Michigan.
“I have to (speak out). I have to honor (Ryan) by doing stuff to help other people because I know that’s what he’d want me to do,” said Stuart. “One of his things was he helped anybody, and I want to make sure that I continue that in his name.”
Stuart told Target 8 someone pretending to be a girl Last’s age contacted him on social media for the first time only eight hours before his death.
“They kind of (said), ‘oh, nice pose,’ just kind of spent time making him feel like they were interested in him. The one thing about my son that is amazing, he trusted everybody. He loved everybody. But it also made him a victim,” explained Stuart.
It wasn’t long before the imposter convinced Last to send “her” an explicit photo of himself and then threatened to post it publicly.
“He did believe he truly was talking to a beautiful young girl, and this girl was interested in him. So, they sent him a picture and asked for one in return. When he did, within seconds of getting it, they demanded $5,000 from him.”
Stuart said her son sent the criminals “the little he could” from his college account, which prompted the scammers to demand even more.
“They had put so much pressure on him that he was so afraid that this was going to ruin his life that he didn’t think he had any choice but to take his life,” Stuart told Target 8, noting she’d had no idea scams like that even existed.
“We had parental controls. We had limits on our things, and they were still able to get to him… These (criminals) know how to make our kids feel important, feel cared for. They gain their trust, and then as soon as they do, they turn it on them.”
Stuart’s urgent message to parents everywhere; Talk to your kids, and not just to say, “don’t send pictures.”
“Let those kids know that, if they make a mistake, you’re there for them no matter what,” said Stuart.
“Me and Ryan were extremely close. We did everything together. But in that point in time, he was too scared, and he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t see any options.”
If there’s a chance your child won’t feel comfortable coming to you, help them identify — right now — a trusted person to whom they could turn for help.
13 TEEN SUICIDES LINKED TO SEXTORTION
Stuart said she’s aware of thirteen suicides nationwide of young people who’d been sextorted.
From California, to Texas, New York, and Michigan, teens feel like there’s no way out.
On March 25, 2022, a Marquette teenager took his own life after being sextorted on Twitter.
17-year-old Jordan DeMay was a football star and homecoming king at Marquette Senior High School.
One year earlier, in Potsdam, New York, 15-year-old Riley Basford died by suicide after a scammer convinced him to send explicit pictures and then blackmailed him.
Twenty-four hours after Riley accepted a friend request from someone named “Megan Miller” on Facebook, he took his life.
“I want everyone to know about Riley, and I never want another parent to feel this horrible immeasurable daily heartache,” Riley’s mom told us via Facebook Messenger.
Target 8 has reported on sextortion before, but a recent, routine inspection of search warrants filed in 63rd District Court made it clear we needed to do more.
Over three months, police in rural and suburban Kent County sought search warrants in at least a dozen sextortion investigations.
The victims included a 15-year-old boy, an 11-year-old girl, and a 14-year-old girl, among others.
Target 8 learned the youngest child targeted in Kent County was a nine-year-old girl.
One victim sent a scammer $850 via Apple Pay. Another sent $600 via Venmo.
PREDATORS ARE TO BLAME, NOT KIDS, PARENTS
Homeland Security Investigations is working to raise awareness of the growing threat, partnering with the FBI and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
“We definitely, especially in the last year, have seen a significant increase in (sextortion) referrals,” Diane Siegel told Target 8 on Zoom.
Siegel, a Victim Assistance Specialist with HSI, stresses, if your child is targeted, remember it’s the predator who’s to blame, not the child nor parents.
“Offenders are to blame, first and foremost,” said Siegel. “I’m hoping that parents can make plans with their young people to know and agree that they’ll seek help.”
HSI also urges parents to help their kids identify a trusted person they can tell, in case they’re not comfortable coming directly to you.
Homeland Security Investigations tells Target 8 criminals are primarily targeting boys ages 14 to 17, though girls are victimized too.
“A large percentage of these sextortion schemes originate outside the United States, primarily in West African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast,” wrote HSI in a recent news release.
Police in San Jose, California arrested Jonathan Kassi, 25, of Reseda, California for allegedly blackmailing Ryan Last.
Investigators say Kassi is tied to a larger West African financial sextortion scheme. Kassi has allegedly sexually exploited children under the username “emillysmith” and “kassijonathan” on various social media platforms.
Pauline Stuart told Target 8 Kassi is awaiting trial.
SUICIDE NOTE: APOLOGY AND LOVE
Ryan Last left a suicide note behind.
“In his note, he apologized for not being smart enough, for falling for what they said. But these people, they’ve got lots of experience and they’ve got lots of practice, and they can spin a story for these poor kids,” said Stuart.
Last also asked his parents to tell his friends how much he loved them.
“That just shows what a loving person he was. He cared about making sure his friends knew how much he loved them,” Stuart said.
She said Last made clear his love, too, for her, his dad, and his brother.
“We meant everything to him, and it was the same for us,” said Stuart, tears welling in her eyes.
TIPS AND RESOURCES
If you or your child falls victim to sextortion, seek help from law enforcement or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
NCMEC cautions that cooperating or paying rarely stops the blackmail.
The organization advises you to “report the predator’s account via the platform’s safety feature.”
“BLOCK the predator, and DO NOT DELETE the profile or messages because that can be helpful to law enforcement in identifying and stopping them,” urged NCMEC, which also helps to get explicit images off the internet.
Ask for help. This can be a very complex problem and may require help from adults or law enforcement.
If you don’t feel that you have adults in your corner, you can reach out to NCMEC for support at firstname.lastname@example.org or call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.