School resource officers from across Alabama and the nation fielded complaints about an Internet extortionist badgering girls for nude pictures. Victims even created a Facebook page warning females not to talk to the person with the username Metascape.
Metascape turned out to be Jonathan Vance, an Alabama man who made lewd cyber requests of 206 girls and young women and attempted to hack into and gain control of their e-mail, Facebook and MySpace accounts, federal authorities say. He was successful in at least 53 cases.
Johnathan Vance will serve 18 years in prison and then the rest of his life on probation as a sex offender.
Those complaints, including several from Birmingham-area high school students, sparked an investigation across state and federal jurisdictions. The groundbreaking case will be used as a template for cyber harassment cases and used to train law enforcement officials and prosecutors, federal authorities said.
This type of cybercrime is relatively new, and federal authorities said they know of no other case that comes close to the size of this one.
"We learned a lot from this case," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Fortune, who prosecuted the case. "We're going to use this case to educate law enforcement, teachers, students and parents."
Vance, 24, of Auburn, was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison last week after pleading guilty to several charges, including attempted production of child pornography and interstate extortion. Upon release Vance will have to report to a federal probation officer for the rest of his life and register as a sex offender.
Only 53 victims agreed to cooperate in the investigation, authorities said. There likely are more victims authorities said they don't know about.
"The embarrassment factor was big in this case," said Dale Miskell, supervisory special agent for the FBI's cybercrimes squad in Birmingham. "How can a girl go to her parents and tell them what happened? Even the adult victim didn't come forward until we contacted her."
Others either denied they were victims -- after being confronted with photographic evidence -- or simply refused to talk to investigators, Fortune said. Miskell said the FBI was able to identify the two minors and one adult who sent Vance nude pictures. There were four others agents were not able to identify. In some of the photos sent to Vance, authorities could not discern if the person was a minor and under what circumstance Vance got the photos.
'A difficult, unique case'
Authorities said from January 2006 to June 2008, Vance targeted girls and women in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Missouri, ranging in age from 14 to 26. Miskell said the FBI got involved in the fall 2007 after a Hoover High School resource officer reported a complaint he received from a student.
Starting with only a screen name, Miskell said, FBI agents were able to track down Vance. Vance eluded authorities for a while by changing screen names -- using as many as 10 -- after word got out about Metascape.
It took the cooperation of law enforcement and victims across several jurisdictions before the FBI pinned Vance as their man. "Tracking him down was complicated . . . This was really a difficult, unique case," Fortune said.
Vance lived with his grandparents in Auburn. He was born to a teenage mother and was adopted by his grandparents as a child, according to court records. He grew up believing that his mother was his sister. He was active in his church -- Vance attended church with some of his victims -- and sang in the choir.
Vance's defense lawyer, Tommy Spina, said in court records and at the sentencing hearing that Vance's austere upbringing might have led to his behavior.
Agents seized his computer in December 2007, but months later, Vance bought a laptop and his conduct escalated. He was arrested in July.
Court records show Vance gained control of his victims' Yahoo, Hotmail, Facebook and MySpace accounts using several means. In interviews with the FBI, Vance said he would contact his victims through instant messaging and pretend to be a friend or a relative. He persuaded some victims to give him their login and password information, saying he was locked out of his own Facebook, MySpace or e-mail account.
In more complicated instances, Vance hacked into his victims' e-mail accounts using information from public Facebook pages, which included information such as birth dates, the names of the victims' schools and their hometowns. Password protection on the e-mail accounts would use standard questions such as ZIP code, date of birth or school mascot. Once Vance had control of an e-mail account, he would go to Facebook, pretend he forgot the password and have Facebook send a link to the victims' compromised e-mail account.
Vance threatened to expose embarrassing details he learned if he didn't get nude photos.
In court last week, Fortune read a letter from a 14-year-old girl who expressed relief that Vance was behind bars. She said she knew that taking the nude photos was wrong, "but I just wanted my Facebook back."
Fortune said authorities passed on what they learned from Vance to programmers for the social networking sites and e-mail services. "I can't say it was as a direct result of this case, but their security questions are more sophisticated," Fortune said. "Facebook and Yahoo said they're going to reference this case for training purposes."
The case illustrates the need for parents to know what their children are doing, Miskell said.
"A lot of these kids have Facebook without their parents knowing it," he said. "Parents really need to talk to their kids about this."