A 16-year-old Chehalis boy is being accused of extorting victims — including classmates at W.F. West High School — with nude and sexually illicit pictures after a lengthy investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local police agencies.
The boy was scheduled to make his first appearance in Lewis County Juvenile Court on charges of first-degree dealing in depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct, first-degree possession of such images, and second-degree extortion on Tuesday morning.
However, Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer on Tuesday filed a notice of the state’s intent to ask for the suspect to be “declined” in Juvenile Court. He would then likely be charged as an adult in Lewis County Superior Court, rather than as a minor in Juvenile Court, which put off his arraignment — a hearing to acknowledge his charges and enter a plea — until a later date.
“We anticipate the charges will number at approximately 40,” Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said Tuesday.
He explained that his office is awaiting the full 92-page report on the FBI’s investigation, which he said would reveal that the suspect admitted to victimizing “hundreds” of people and that he had in his possession 900 explicit images. Meyer said the boy referred to himself as a “predator” and created social media accounts under aliases to commit sexual extortion.
The Chronicle does not name suspects charged in Lewis County Juvenile Court.
A hearing on the prosecutor’s motion is scheduled for Oct. 24.
The 16-year-old suspect has no previous criminal history.
Administrators at the Chehalis School District first became aware of the allegations a year ago, according to a statement from the district, after a parent reported their child was being “victimized online.”
The parent reported the issue to law enforcement and the FBI got involved last year.
In June, the Chehalis School District, the Chehalis Police Department and the FBI confirmed to The Chronicle that the federal agency was investigating reports that a teenage boy in at least one case posed as a female student in order to solicit explicit photos from a male student.
As they investigated, more victims came forward.
Rickie Anders, a probation officer and representative of Lewis County Juvenile Court, joined Meyer Tuesday in asking Superior Court Judge Joely O’Rourke to order the suspect taken into custody at the juvenile detention center in the interest of community safety. The teen appeared out of custody at the hearing with his parents.
“I’m not confident we can properly supervise him,” Anders said.
Meyer added to that sentiment, arguing that internet access is so widely available that the teen could get online even through a smart TV unless constantly monitored.
“We do know he used other people’s WiFi,” he said.
Anders noted that the teen is accused of creating multiple social media accounts to target fellow students. At one point, a victim and the victim’s mother both asked him to stop, but instead he allegedly created more accounts under aliases, she said, referring to the the suspect’s actions as “sextortion.”
“It’s also concerning that, according to reports, he admitted to hundreds of victims,” she said.
Anders told O’Rourke that Lewis County Sheriff’s Office Det. Sgt. Kevin Engelbertson, who worked with the FBI in investigating the case, reported that the teen referred to himself as a “predator.”
However, the teen’s attorney, Jakob McGhie, asked for his client to remain in his parents’ custody, saying they would supervise him adequately.
“Since the allegations were uncovered, about eight months have elapsed,” he said. “There’s been no indication of any additional problems.”
O’Rourke granted Meyer’s request, saying that she believed the teen represents a threat to community safety.
“Whether or not the state waited eight months to charge it … Mr. Meyer’s correct, there’s just no way to supervise this,” she said. “It’s extremely concerning to me he is at the same school as the alleged victim.”
Meyer expressed frustration with the Chehalis School District for not taking action to separate the suspect and at least one alleged victim who he shares a class with. Meyer estimated 10 to 12 possible victims are fellow students.
“I am appalled by the lack of response from the Chehalis School District,” he said.
Chehalis School District Superintendent Ed Rothlin told The Chronicle in an interview after the hearing that the school district was not given any direction regarding separating the suspect from victims.
“Everything you’re telling me is brand new news to me,” he said regarding information about Tuesday’s court hearing. “It’s my understanding we have a phone call in to the prosecutors.”
The school district has policies in place if a student is accused of a crime in which another student is a victim, he said.
“The easy answer is immediately when we find out about it we turn it into the police and we follow their direction,” Rothlin said.
The Chehalis School District issued a statement to The Chronicle Tuesday afternoon. It states the FBI informed the district this spring that the suspect was a W.F. West student.
“The FBI directed the district to take no action, so as not to interfere with the investigation,” the statement reads. “We followed the FBI request.”