Survival as a journalist depends upon a capacity to harden your heart or follow in those Zen masters’ non-attachment footsteps. I’d like to think I fall into the latter category, but despite my best efforts, some news reports still get to me. To wit, two similar stories ripped my heart out and stomped on it last week.
The first involved a 21-year-old University of Utah track standout who’d taken compromising photographs with a boyfriend who turned out to be a 37-year-old sex offender. When they broke up as a result, he used those photos to shake her down for $1,000 and then he killed her after she went to the campus police six separate times.
He committed suicide when the police finally caught up with him and the University will have to explain how they could possibly let this one fall through the cracks.
While that one’s certainly gut wrenching, it’s the second one I’m having a really tough time with.
Through a chatroom, David Cottrell, a former law student who lives in Niles, Illinois, somehow convinced a seventh-grade girl to send him nude photos. Thinking she was anonymous, the girl complied only to be threatened with a child porn charge if she didn’t continue to provide more graphic videos and photographs.
Cottrell, 28, coerced the middle-schooler into providing pictures and videos almost daily, which included making her stay up late to act out pornographic scripts and leave her classes to take nude pictures in the school bathroom. This went on for three long years until her parents finally found some of those transactions on her phone.
Cottrell, who plead not guilty to all charges, was remanded to federal custody where he faces a minimum of 15 years in prison if convicted. Considering the charges, my guess is he’s in isolation.
I may not have daughters, but I can’t comprehend how any human being could torture a 13-year-old girl in this heinous a manner. There’s gotta be a special place in hell for Cottrell, and my fondest wish is his inevitable jail time comes as damn close to one of Dante’s inner circles as possible.
But despite harboring a vast amount of sympathy for the two victims and especially for their parents, we both know that a senseless death and three years of torment might have been avoided if those nude photos didn’t exist.
All I can say is, I’m glad cell phones weren’t available in 1971.
The first problem is, even if you consent to sending graphic photos of yourself, if you’re underage, it may well mean a child porn charge for the sender and the recipient. That’s a quick 4 to 15 years in prison.
The second issue is, blinded by that sense of blissful sense of youthful invulnerability and/or being in love, teenagers quickly forget that nothing ever goes away on the Net – and that includes emails and texts. All it takes is a bad breakup, and most of our early relationships end poorly, and those pictures go up on a revenge porn site or worse.
Not to mention they can simply be passed around by someone who’s a bit more callous than you might like to think.
Third, a good friend just told me, “There’s no such thing as anonymity anymore,” and he’s right. One of the things I’ve learned in 12 years of journalism is that, give me a scant 15 minutes, I can find out virtually anything about anybody. Getting something as simple as an address is child’s play. And we’re not talking any kind of hack either. Most of it’s already out there. It’s simply a matter of knowing how and where to look.
If you do make a mistake and someone does post those kinds of pictures online or attempts to blackmail you, please, please, please, go to a parent, counselor, or law enforcement agency. Of course, your parents won’t be happy about it, but we’ve all made blunders we’d rather forget, and I can tell you that protecting our children from predators is far more important than prosecuting an error in judgement.
Trust me, your parents will support you in this regard.
Though it certainly feels like another case of spitting into the wind, my fondest wish is that every parent, and every middle school and high school teacher, will impart those two terrifying news stories to their young charges. It’s hard to believe that a couple of photographs could spiral out of control like this until the evidence proves that it can.
I understand it’s not easy to entertain certain unpleasant realities. When I think about the “dangers” we faced growing up in the 60s, it’s remarkable to consider that predators can enter your child’s life directly through a device in their back pocket. That’s why it’s so important to talk to them about the dangers of sending nude photos and so many other of our fascinating 2018 parental challenges.
Because to lose a daughter and to have another daughter endure three years of agony over the briefest of lapses is beyond sad and incredibly difficult to comprehend.