HOPKINTON — It took months of work, multiple warrants and an interstate partnership to bring down a 23-year-old New Jersey man accused of duping three local teenagers into sending him nude photographs and threatening to share them with friends and family, according to Hopkinton Detective John Forbes.
Pritkumar Tarunkumar Patel, of Closter, N.J., was charged last week with production of child pornography, receipt of child pornography, transferring obscene material and cyberstalking. The victims in that case included three Rhode Island residents, including two Chariho students and a Westerly girl.
Unfortunately, as that case eventually came to a resolution that allowed for Patel's arrest, Forbes said the door was slamming shut on a second case involving a different minor tricked into sharing compromising photographs.
Forbes, who served as the lead detective on the Patel case, said Wednesday that while police will do everything they can to try and catch those who would prey on children, such cases are extremely challenging to work and the success rate just isn't very high, no matter what effort goes in.
"Unfortunately the truth is that in most instances, these cases lead to dead ends and simply end up unsolved," Forbes said. "These perpetrators are often able to cover their tracks quickly, and in many cases the information we need is removed long before we are able to find it."
The vast majority of cases involving threats to those who shared compromising personal photographs go unsolved for a variety of reasons. In many instances, the perpetrator will move quickly, using multiple screen names across a number of platforms, both Forbes and Hopkinton Police Chief David Palmer said. The result is a tricky digital trail that is difficult if not impossible to trace.
"Many of these guys are true Internet trolls who don't provide much, if any, identifiable information. They send out thousands of messages at a time and know what they are seeking, and if they don't get what they want quickly then they'll move on," Palmer said.
A rare success
Forbes said that in the Patel case, a number of circumstances came together to help make the investigative effort a success. He said the victim provided early notification, thanks in part to alert and active parents, and the willingness of the victim to tell her story and work with police helped give investigators a jump on the case.
"We were able to put out a warning with the help of (Hopkinton) Capt. Mark Carrier, and that identified the suspect's screen name and helped lead to a second victim coming forward," he said.
In one of those instances, Forbes said the victim had convinced Patel to use Instagram instead of Snapchat. The result was a set of messages that were not instantly deleted, and with the guidance of computer crimes expert Cpl. Brian Macera of the Rhode Island State Police, Forbes was able to obtain the right warrants to find the messages and information.
Over the course of several months, information was shared between state and local police and the New Jersey State Police that led Forbes, through a partnership with the police, to be able to obtain several different warrants, including one that revealed the contents of Patel's Instagram messages.
The case remains active and Forbes could not comment on anything more specific, but at least 6 different high school students were identified in the conversations Patel had, in which he claimed to be a 17-year-old.
"What made this case so successful was good parenting, and a good open line of communication with the victim, other agencies and the public," Forbes said. "If they had never come in, we may only now be finding out about a wide variety of additional victims."
Whether you are a teenager just seeking a connection or thrill, or an adult who has known your partner forever, Forbes and Palmer each said this week that the best protection is to never share compromising pictures in digital form.
From sexting — an act that, while not often prosecuted, is illegal for those underage to take part in under both Rhode Island and Connecticut laws — to sharing pictures via email and social media, both said a shared picture will last forever.
Even with apps like Snapchat, which is designed to delete photographs after a very limited time, Forbes warns that other programs can allow for sexual predators to copy the information and save it separately so that the picture remains.
"There's a saying, 'Take a picture, it will last longer.' In this regard, my advice is that maybe you shouldn't because it will last forever," Forbes said. "I have always told those who ask that no matter what you are doing, take 30 seconds and think about it. If any part of seems like a bad idea, then don't do it."
Forbes and Palmer each said that even in cases where you know someone personally, there are concerns that an ugly breakup or even theft could lead to dissemination of photographs that were never intended for the public.
And if you do fall victim, the two said said don't be afraid to come forward and to do so quickly.
"We understand these situations are embarrassing, but we aren't here to judge. We are here to help," Forbes said. "The earlier and more accurately you report the problem, the better chance we have to try and find those responsible and secure that information."