A 16-year-old Chehalis boy is being accused of extorting victims — including classmates at W.F. West High School — with nude and sexually explicit pictures after a lengthy investigation by the FBI and local police agencies.
The boy was scheduled to make his first appearance in Lewis County Juvenile Court Tuesday 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.
However, Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer 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.
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He said 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.
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 were investigating reports that a teenage boy in at least one case posed as a female student 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, asked Superior Court Judge Joely O'Rourke to order the suspect taken into custody in the interest of community safety. The teen appeared at the hearing with his parents.
“I’m not confident we can properly supervise him,” Anders said.
Meyer agreed, arguing that internet access is so widely available that the teen could get online unless constantly monitored.
“We do know he used other people’s Wi-Fi,” he said.
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.
“It’s also concerning that, according to reports, he admitted to hundreds of victims,” she said.
However, the teen’s attorney, Jacob 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 ruled that he be taken into custoday, saying she believed the teen represents a threat to community safety.
“Whether or not the state waited eight months to charge it. … 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 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. “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 Tuesday saying the FBI informed the district in the 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.”