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Utah family sharing sextortion suicide story 'likely saved some lives,' police say

FARMINGTON — When Randy and Tawra Tobler publicly shared the story of their son's suicide for the first time due to what police say is a growing crime of "sextortion," it was very difficult for them.

But because they shared their story with the Deseret News, Davis County sheriff's detective John Peirce believes others will be saved.

"The willingness of the Toblers to tell their story about what happened to Tevan has likely saved some lives. The victims that I’ve talked to that we’ve opened up cases on, they are very emotional and they really want help. And they specifically reference this article as the reason they made a phone call," Peirce said.

Tevan Tobler, 16
Tevan Tobler, 16
Family photo

"Some of (the victims) were already sending money overseas. And in one case someone already lost their life and the family is still emotional over it. And that was within a couple of months of Tevan. The awareness alone is helping. It’s helping nationally.”

READ MORE: Uncovering secret that led to son's suicide

On Sept. 18, 2017, Tevan Tobler, 16, took his own life after he was tricked into sending an explicit video of himself. A female or someone posing as a female had encouraged Tevan to send a video. That person, now believed to be based in the Ivory Coast, used that video against the teenager and demanded money from him — or risk having the video shared and his family being harmed.

But even after sending money, the person or people extorting him wanted more until they finally encouraged Tevan to kill himself.

Investigators served search warrants on Yahoo, Snapchat and Western Union to try and find the person responsible. The case was traced back to Africa and the Ivory Coast. Peirce, the lead investigator, even learned that the same scammer is responsible for a second suicide in France during another extortion attempt.

But because authorities cannot extradite people from the Ivory Coast to America to face criminal charges, the investigation ended with no arrests, highly frustrating Peirce and other investigators.

Davis County sheriff's detective John Peirce is pictured in his office at the Davis County Justice Center in Farmington on Monday, April 1, 2019. Peirce worked on the Tevan Tobler case.
Davis County sheriff's detective John Peirce is pictured in his office at the Davis County Justice Center in Farmington on Monday, April 1, 2019. Peirce worked on the Tevan Tobler case.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Since then, members of the Internet Crimes Against Children task force had been using Tevan's story — without using his name — during school assemblies to warn other teens about sextortion and the dangers of certain apps.

The Tobler family agreed to talk for the first time about what happened with the Deseret News. The story that was posted on April 1 immediately went viral across the nation. As of Wednesday, the story had nearly 460,000 views at deseretnews.com and had been shared on social media by such organizations as the Utah Attorney General's Office, Pennsylvania National Guard Association, and the Maine National Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program.

Peirce said his phone has been ringing off the hook since then.

And because of Tevan's story, two new sextortion investigations — suspected of being committed by the same person or group — have been opened. Furthermore, he said a family in Texas called him to share their story about their loved one — a 22-year-old police officer who fell victim to sextortion and committed suicide.

"We knew it was a bigger problem. We didn’t know it was that bigger of a problem and we were surprised,” Peirce admitted.

Tevan Randall Tobler, 16, pictured in this photo provided by his family, was a champion wrestler in high school and loved the outdoors.
Tevan Randall Tobler, 16, pictured in this photo provided by his family, was a champion wrestler in high school and loved the outdoors.
Family photo

In addition to opening new investigations, the detective said his office has since been able to learn a lot more about how these extortion groups operate.

In many cases, they send a friend request on Facebook to the victim. Typically, the extorter uses a profile picture of an attractive female to catch the victim's attention. After accepting a friend request, the scammer begins working on the potential victim to gain their trust through a series of conversations using Facebook messenger, Peirce said. Eventually, the person asks the victims to move the conversation to their cellphone or a different app, and that's when they encourage the person to exchange explicit videos.

The extorter also sends a video, but it's typically a file.

"It is a real video, but it’s not what you think it is," Peirce explained.

Once the victim sends a video, the demand for money and the attacks begin immediately.

"That includes threats against family, threats against you, threats of fines, incarcerations, sharing the video with your loved ones. And by this point they already have your social media, in many cases your cellphone number. They have every single means and measures to try and extort you," Peirce said.

"They are relentless. They don’t stop. They use sophisticated methods to cover their identities. Even if you block the number, they’ll get another and contact you."

Many have asked what apps parents can use to help protect their children. Michelle Busch-Upwall, with the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, said there are many.

"I always tell parents to research to find what will best fit their needs. There are many that are free but there are also many that charge a monthly fee to use so it just depends on the kind of monitoring a parent wants," she said.

One resource for parents is commonsensemedia.org, she said. Busch-Upwall recommends that parents check with their phone provider to find out which services they offer.

"I have Verizon and I use the Verizon Smart Family which enables me to track the location of my daughter's phone, and I also use it for limits and controls, like data usage, time restrictions, limiting texts and calls as well as keeping track of her contacts and who is contacting her," she said.

As for whether the new information that Peirce has received will allow him to reopen Tevan's case, he's not yet sure. And even then, there's the issue of extradition. One possibility is pressuring the government in the Ivory Coast and Africa to do more to crack down on sextortion cases. But Peirce said he has to be realistic.

"We’re at the mercy of what they want to do. And historically, that might be nothing. They might not want to do anything and that’s why there’s so much extortion coming out of those kinds of areas,” he said.

"Ultimately, we have no extradition treaty with the Ivory Coast, and our hands are going to be tied to the mercy of them. So realistically, the outcome might not change," Peirce said.

"But because of the Toblers coming forward, we can at least raise awareness, and they really deserve a lot of credit for doing that."