KANOSH, Utah—Jake Darren Curtis believed his life was over. If he didn’t continue making payments, his online blackmailer promised to destroy everything he loved. His career. His job. His family.
The cruelty of the blackmailer’s bullying came loud and clear in instant messages on Kik.
JAKE: I don’t have any more [money].
BLACKMAILER: You better find some.
JAKE: You won’t get any money if I’m not around.
BLACKMAILER: Oh, you’re going to kill yourself? Like the five other guys did? I don’t care, go ahead. You better find a way to get the money or you find a way to kill yourself.
The next day, on Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, Jake got a Benelli shotgun from his family vacation-home garage, then shot and killed himself.
He left behind eight letters, three wire transfer receipts, his smartphone with all Kik messages preserved, even as the blackmailer demanded he erase them, and a car full of clues.
“My son left me anything he could possibly leave me to help me understand because he knew this would be something I didn’t understand,” Cindy Butler George told The Daily Beast. “I think I put together what happened to Jake more than the authorities.”
The leads were there. The Millard County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated Jake’s death, could have followed up with Kik and Facebook for information on the suspect. But it didn’t. It could have followed up on the discovery of more victims by Jake’s blackmailer in the U.S. But it didn’t. It could have reached out to state or federal law enforcement for help when the case took it overseas. But it didn’t. The Utah Department of Public Safety said the department could have acted on it, or at least tried. Instead, the Millard County Sheriff’s Office investigation kept it local and repeatedly cut corners.
Just five days earlier, Jake, who had just begun dating and experienced his first kiss, had met someone online. For a big part of his life, the 21-year-old Jake sacrificed a social life in favor of his work and studies. With just a teaching internship left to complete his double major in history and health at Utah Valley University, Jake was ready to start a new chapter in his life.
The pretty woman he had been chatting with online asked for a nude photo. So, he sent her one. “Where’s mine?” he messaged.
“Just added and saved all your Facebook friends on my laptop,” the woman responded.
Then she—or maybe he—threatened to share Jake’s nude photo with his Facebook friends and with Facebook UPS, where he worked the early-morning shifts as a truck loader. “But I will not do that if you send me money right now, okay?” the blackmailer wrote.
It was a textbook example of sextortion, defined by the FBI as a “situation in which someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.”
While no U.S. government agency tracks reports of sexual extortion, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received over 17,000 extortion-related complaints, according to a 2016 report.
Scam baiter Wayne May, which is the pseudonym he uses on Scam Survivors, an online community offering support to victims, said sextortion cases involving male victims are the biggest rising threats Scam Survivors has seen. It’s also the reason victims threaten to kill themselves.
Little doubt is left of the desperation Jake endured during his last five days of life. For the son, brother, cousin, and friend described as mentally sound, the blackmailer’s continual harassment and cruel lies proved unbearable.
In the Kik messages, the blackmailer repeatedly taunted Jake, promising to delete the nude photo, then changed her/his mind and asked for more money. In two days, Jake was instructed to wire three payments, a total of $680. Even after he sent a snapshot to prove how depleted his account was, he or she demanded he take out a deposit on his student loan.
BLACKMAILER: You don’t want your nude photo to go on your school Facebook page, do you?
JAKE: Please, I’m just a college kid.
At one point, Jake wrote to his blackmailer, “You’re never going to let me go, are you?”
“That’s when I could tell he was giving up,” Cindy said.
“They hit every soft point Jake had,” said his stepmother, Janalee Curtis. “They made him believe that they could destroy all of it. I believe he felt that if he took himself out of the equation that they would leave everyone and everything else alone.”
A year ago, Jake’s mother went public in Utah after she heard about sextortion on the news.
“I know my son would have wanted me to stop this from happening to other people,” Cindy said.
She and Jake’s father, Darren Curtis, maintain that local law enforcement didn’t do enough to try to find Jake’s perpetrator. “I feel like it wasn’t a priority for them,” Cindy said. “I feel like if it was their own kid, you bet they would have done more. Did my son not mean anything?”
Law Enforcement Shrugs
When The Daily Beast reached out to Millard County Sheriff’s Office, the lead detective on Jake’s case, Sgt. Tony Pedersen, said there was little they could do once they discovered the perpetrator was in the Philippines, even with a name, phone numbers, usernames, and a specific location.
He even had names of an additional 24 U.S. victims of Jake’s blackmailer.
But following up on any of the leads “would have led back to the same source,” he said. “It would have been out of country and we wouldn’t have been able to do anything with it anyway,” Pedersen claimed.
Pedersen said he saw no reason to check Jake’s Facebook page, even though one of Jake’s suicide letters said that his blackmailers would be “using Facebook to ruin my life.” He didn’t contact Kik, a Canadian company, even though its website states it works with law enforcement all over the world.
“They’re untraceable,” the family said Pedersen told them.
Kik said that’s not true, though.
“We can track IP addresses along with other data, similar to other apps, so saying Kik is untraceable is incorrect,” said Rod McLeod, Kik’s senior director of communications. Kik, who holds on to data for 30 to 90 days, assists law enforcement as long as a legal order containing the person’s Kik username is available, he added.
“I mean, you can get information,” said Pedersen. “It’s just hoops you have to jump through. Sometimes, you have to judge whether to jump through that hoop or not.”
Pedersen did send a subpoena to MoneyGram asking for information attached to the name “Mariz Abril,” which appeared in Jake’s Kik messages and on MoneyGram receipts. The information revealed that the money was being sent to a place in the Philippines called Paniqui Tarlac. The subpoena also revealed “Mariz Abril” was wired more than $29,000 from 24 different men in 18 different U.S. states between 2010 and 2015.
When asked whether Pedersen contacted the apparent other victims, he said, “No, they weren’t in our jurisdiction.”
As for asking the FBI, he said, “We didn’t feel like they would have helped us on this case,” adding that past experiences with the feds have left him jaded.
Instead, Pedersen contacted their District Attorney Pat Finlinson, who knew a law-enforcement agent with the Philippines National Police. The attorney “pretty much said nothing [could be done overseas] because the victim was in the U.S,” said Pedersen.
Finlinson had worked in the Philippines and offered to give Pedersen a hand. But he said “no help was offered” when he called the Philippines. Instead, his contact told him they wouldn’t get any help from the local law enforcement. When asked why Pedersen didn’t reach out to the feds, Finlinson said: “I would have assumed they at least reached out to the FBI or somebody. I don’t know.”
“And we’re like, why can’t they?” said Darren. “They blackmailed my son... I don’t understand why some of these countries can go in there and do these raids but the U.S. is like, ‘Well, our hands are tied.’”
Darren is referring to a 2014 raid by the Philippine and British police that dismantled and arrested sextortion gangs in the Philippines following the 2013 suicide of 17-year-old Daniel Perry in Scotland, a victim of sextortion.
Clues From Beyond the Grave
During the four agonizing months that Cindy said she did not hear from the sheriff’s office, she began to seek answers herself. At the time, the only thing she and her family knew from seven of Jake’s eight suicide letters was that he was deeply regretful.
“All I keep thinking is, what did he do?” said Cindy.
Cindy combed through Jake’s blue 1997 Saturn, looking for clues.
“I had started piecing things together,” she said.
She found store and MoneyGram receipts. She also found an unopened bag of balloons, an empty jumbo helium tank, and a 5/8-inch, 15-foot hose. At one end of the hose, she found exhaust soot.
On the Thursday morning before he took his life, time and date stamps on the receipts show Jake bought the hose at a Home Depot near his father’s house, where he had spent the night. He then drove two hours away, where he bought a ream of paper and a box of envelopes from Walmart in Richfield. Just before midnight, he bought the balloons and helium tank.
Cindy concluded that he tried to kill himself more than once during those early-morning hours on Friday.
“I don’t know if it just didn’t work or it was too long waiting or he freaked and backed out,” she said.
Cindy would later be told that Jake booked a motel room in Richfield the day before his suicide but didn’t sleep in the bed. He left a note detailing where his body would be found—an hour away in Kanosh.
When Cindy finally met with authorities, she received her son’s last suicide letter and his phone.
In the suicide letter to both sets of parents, he wrote: “My life has been a living hell and roller coaster of emotion.” He went on to share his fear that the blackmailer would hurt his friends and family on Facebook. “This person claims they will copy some of your profiles and attack your friends also.”
Cindy and Darren were crushed when Pedersen told them the case was closed. Cindy believed that Jake left instructions behind to help law enforcement catch his blackmailer.
“He could have erased his phone because he was embarrassed,” said Cindy. “He could have thrown away his phone. That would have been all the evidence right there. He could have even said someone is blackmailing me and I have nothing to live for. But he gave names of who was attacking him.”
But Pedersen thought otherwise. “I think it was mostly for his family,” he said.
“I didn’t know where to take [Jake’s case], or go with it, at all,” said Darren.
Perhaps the sheriff’s office should have known where to take it.
What Could’ve Been Done
In 2013, the Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) partnered with the FBI’s Salt Lake City field office to create a platform for investigating local, state, and national cybercrimes in a program called Operation Wellspring, an initiative that has expanded to 13 U.S. field offices.
Sgt. Jeff Plank of DPS (who is also on the FBI’s Cyber Task Force) said sometimes local law enforcement doesn’t want to involve the FBI in their cases because a financial-crime investigation may not be big enough for their established threshold. The FBI generally limits its investigations to high-dollar matters.
“But in our case, we work with much lower thresholds, related to cases that have some kind of nexus to Utah... Sometimes we are successful and sometimes we are not. But nobody should feel like nobody will help them. I would definitely entertain any and all complaints that are sent our way... The sooner we know is always the better.”
DPS Commissioner Keith D. Squires said Jake’s case was enough of a need for criminal investigation. Although on its own sextortion is not a crime and states like California and Utah are leading the way to make it a felony, Jake’s case would probably fall under traditional extortion statutes.
He said Operation Wellspring was designed to help identify and seek prosecution of suspects outside of the U.S. or those crossing U.S. jurisdictions.
“I wish that we had had the information [about Jake’s case] and an opportunity to see if there was enough there to investigate and pursue,” he said. “Sometimes, if people report to us, it may not result in a prosecution but to be able to stop the activity and mitigate the damages is a success also.”
Although information about the program is offered in cybertraining to all law enforcement, promoted at various DPS conferences, in law-enforcement bulletins, and in the media, Pedersen said he never heard of Operation Wellspring. “I wish I had known about that,” he said.
But even if Pedersen hadn’t heard of Operation Wellspring, reaching out to the FBI, the Homeland Security-funded Fusion Center, or DPS’ Statewide Information and Analysis Center (SIAC) meant Plank would have been alerted to Jake’s case. When asked why he didn’t reach out to SIAC, Pedersen said, “SIAC was probably available to us, but I did not think to get them involved.”
The Last Days
Jake kept silent about his torment among his circle of family and friends. Two days before he took his life, he met his father for lunch.
“I saw no difference with him,” said Darren, who described his son as talkative once he opened up, generous, especially during Christmas, and family-oriented.
The next morning, Darren said he looked “exhausted” but Jake responded he hadn’t slept well. “You don’t pick up on him not getting enough sleep over something like this.”
Later that evening, his father texted Jake about dinner, but he had other plans. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Not even to his best friend, Sariah Gridley, who spoke to him that Thursday. Jake was making plans to meet her for Halloween. “That’s all he talked about,” she said.
“I don’t think Jake was in his right mind,” said Darren.
“If he had just told one person,” said Cindy. “We could have showed him, they can’t destroy his life. You didn’t do anything illegal.”
Jake didn’t know it, but he could have stopped communicating. May, the sextortion expert, said the blackmailer would have most likely moved on.
“In fact, I’d go as far as to say ‘almost definitely,’ but only if Jake had done the steps we outline. Ignoring or blocking them isn’t enough.”
May has one piece of advice: “Google everything.”
If Jake had Googled “Mariz Abril,” May’s site would have provided more information on this blackmailer.
In mid-2014 and 2015, prior to Jake’s sextortion, Scam Survivors posted warnings about “Mariz Abril.” Three sextortion victims had completed forms detailing their experiences.
Scam Survivors does one thing law enforcement does not: Share information with the public. And it works, said May.
“With authorities, they’re not posting these details up. So the information is just going into their database and that’s it.”
For Jake’s family, this is all bittersweet. Starting a conversation about such scams or paying for the crime helps, but Darren said, “We try to do things in Jake’s remembrance too, like paying it forward.”
If you’re a victim of sextortion, stop all communication with the blackmailer, don’t pay, and report it. Visit Scam Survivors for more information.
For more information on privatizing your Facebook account, go here.
For those who lost money to scams, file a claim for reimbursement with the Federal Trade Commission.