Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

TOP STORY >>Dad fights predators who prey on teens

By ALIYA FELDMAN
Leader staff writer

For many teenagers, MySpace pages are necessary for fitting in with their tech-savvy friends, but anything posted on social networking sites like Xanga and Facebook can be viewed by sexual predators, said Rick Woody, a Greenbrier police officer, who told an audience of parents and students at North Pulaski High School Monday night about how his 13-year-old daughter was psychologically entrapped and then murdered five years ago by a 47-year-old sexual predator she met on the Internet.

Woody asked the audience of nearly 50 people if they had MySpace, Xanga or Facebook Web pages. Almost all of the young people in the audience raised their hands. He asked one teenage girl what she posted on her MySpace page. She said her picture was posted along with where she goes to school. Woody asked her who she thought looked at her page.

“My friends and family mostly,” the girl said.

“Do your friends and family know what you look like?”

She nodded in agreement.

“Then why do you need your picture there?” he asked her. “These sites make it Christmastime for predators.”

“The Internet is a wonderful, powerful tool, but the way we use it to communicate now, we should use it to talk to people we personally know. You never know who’s on the other end of that computer,” Woody said.

Woody’s daughter Kacie was a seventh-grader at Greenbrier Middle School when she met a person in a Christian chat room from California who posed as a 17-year-old boy.

Kacie’s best friend, Jessica Tanner, now a student at Greenbrier High School, also spent hours a day chatting with him online.

The predator manipulated Kacie, whose mother died in a car accident six years before, by telling her his aunt had also died. They spoke online and over the phone for nearly a year, time that he used to gather information on where Kacie lived.

One December night in 2002, David Fuller sneaked into Kacie’s house while her father was working, put a chloroform-soaked towel over her mouth and abducted her. He raped her, shot her in the head and then killed himself. He had been to Greenbrier twice before to survey Kacie’s home in what Woody said was a “well thought- out” plan.

“Never blame your children,” Woody said. “The offender is always at fault.”

Woody recommends parents use a keystroke logger to record what their children do while online. He also suggests openly talking about sexual victimization with them.

Parents should never let their children have a computer in their bedrooms, he said. A predator will not speak to a child who is known to be in a common room of the house, he said. Children should never reveal their names, addresses, schools or Social Security numbers and should never send pictures of themselves to people they do not know personally.

Woody also recommended that parents check their children’s email accounts and know their passwords at all times. In one Connecticut sex crime case, police were unable to get an email password from America Online for eight hours. The 13-year-old victim was found floating face-up in a stream after being murdered by a 24-year-old man.

“All predators will abduct if they get information,” Woody said.

Girls ages 12 to 15 are most at risk since they cannot drive, are less independent and spend a lot of time at home, he said.

“Everything seemed normal at school. We had a great relationship,” Woody said of his daughter, describing their relationship before she was murdered. “I couldn’t ask for a better child.”

He said Kacie was fooled into thinking she had a friendship with a teenage boy.

“They got on the phone and cried together,” Woody said.

When the police questioned Tanner after Kacie’s murder, she said the boy in California could never have been involved.

Tracey Winters, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at NPHS, said she won’t let her teenage daughter have a MySpace or other social networking site page as her daughter rolled her eyes and shot her mother a disgruntled look. Winters said she checks her daughter’s email, too.

“I want parents and kids to be educated. A lot of people don’t know what’s out there,” Winters said about why she asked Woody to speak at the school.

NPHS has a Kacie Woody Internet Predator Awareness Team, which helped bring Kacie’s father to the school.

Sex predators prowling the Internet may be more common than assumed. Tanner said 25 percent of tenth-graders said they are willing to meet someone in person who they met online and 15 percent of eighth-graders said they had met an online friend in person.

School board member Danny Gilliland’s now 20-year-old daughter was 12 when a man emailed her asking for photographs of herself. Gilliland, who was at the meeting, said he knew about it only because he checked his daughter’s email account.
“Predators look for kids with more technology smarts than their parents,” Woody said.

Signs your child might be at risk of becoming an online predator’s victim include the child spending large amounts of time online; finding pornography on the child’s computer; if unknown adults call the child at home and the child turns off the computer or clicks a window off when a parent comes into the room. Parents and children can report predatorial behavior at www.cybertipline.com, run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“Kacie was a little angel, and she loved to help other people,” Woody said. Her father now helps other people in his beloved daughter’s memory.