The story is familiar to law enforcement and court officials, but one often obscured by the sound and fury of media coverage of sex crimes allegations.
The 20-year-old was a gamer who spent a lot of time online, masterminding battles and conquests. His mother describes him as introverted, sensitive and immature. Uncertain of how to meet women offline, the lonely young man began to pursue casual sexual encounters online.
One day, he checked Craiglist, where users were required to certify that they were at least 18 years old. He checked out a Casual Encounters section, where he found “gamer gurl.”
He wrote a message, asking to watch her play an alien battle game. When she replied, she said she was 13.
He wrote back, asking “why did you post an ad in craigslist if your 13? You mean 23?”
She asked for his phone number and the conversation moved to texts and photos. He didn’t think she looked 13, and she had headphones and a gaming chair that appeared beyond the financial reach of young teens.
And her texts appeared to betray that the sender was in her 20s rather than a mere 13.
When they agreed to meet just hours after their first text exchange, she stood at the door, not looking like 13 at all. When she waved him in, he followed – and was confused when two police officers appeared out of a back room and handcuffed him.
Most of the men arrested in that Washington state operation and similar stings don’t have felony records. Eighty-nine percent possess no child pornography and 92 percent do not have histories of violent crime.
Even though there are no actual victims in these cases – the “children” are all police officers pretending to be underage – the men are sentenced to an average of six years-plus in prison with no possibility of parole.
Once released, they spend at least a decade (sometimes life) on the state’s sex offender registry.
The New York Times reports that most of the men arrested in the stings plead guilty and “can wind up serving more time than men who are convicted of sexually assaulting and raping actual children.”
For police, the stings are low-cost operations that produce headlines and guilty pleas. For the defendants, many of whom are young and made poor decisions (though a few are described as sexual predators), it can mean years in prison, years more on the registry and a nearly impossible task of rebuilding lives.