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Uncovering secret that led to son’s suicide

Utah family shares ‘sextortion’ story hoping to help others see dangers of trend police say is becoming commonplace

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Detective John Peirce, poses for photos in his office at the Davis County Justice Center in Farmington on Monday, April 1, 2019. Detective Peirce worked on the Tevan Tobler case.

Detective John Peirce, poses for photos in his office at the Davis County Justice Center in Farmington on Monday, April 1, 2019. Detective Peirce worked on the Tevan Tobler case.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WEST POINT, Davis County — Tevan Randall Tobler was the 16-year-old all-American, boy-next-door type of son who would make any family proud.

He was an honor student, former president of the National Junior Honor Society, a champion wrestler in high school and was active in his local ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He loved the outdoors and prided himself on his "survival skills," said his mom, Tawra Tobler. Tevan had even made plans to go on a 50-mile backpacking adventure in the near future.

That's why when Tevan took his own life on Sept. 18, 2017, his parents were blindsided.

Tevan Tobler, 16

Tevan Tobler, 16

Family photo

"Everybody was surprised when they heard because they said, ’Not Tevan.’ Because he was an honor student, he was an undefeated wrestler on the wrestling team, he was on the varsity cross-country running team. He had years of his future planned out, college plans, plans of service,” she said.

When police came to the Tobler home that night, Randy and Tawra Tobler said officers initially thought it was another tragic teen suicide, likely influenced by drugs, low self-esteem or a broken home.

"It’s not possible. He’s a health fanatic,” Tawra Tobler said when questioned about whether Tevan did drugs. "They just thought we were parents that were clueless. And we said, ‘We know him better than that. This isn’t a normal case. Something is happening.'"

As Davis County sheriff's detective John Peirce, who took over the case, would discover and document: Tevan "was someone with no mental health history, substance abuse history, and no suicidal ideology. There were no known traumatic events to indicate a reason for death. (He) had good grades in school, was involved in athletics and had many friends. The final toxicology report was negative for all substances. He had a good home life and a wonderful family."

Several weeks after his death, as Tevan's parents continued to struggle over unanswered questions, Randy Tobler went through his son's cellphone records. He immediately noticed an unknown phone number that had texted Tevan more than 1,000 times — sometimes as frequently as every 30 seconds.

Davis County sheriff's detective John Peirce poses for a photo 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 poses for a photo 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

The sheriff's office processed Tevan's phone that was sitting in the Utah State Crime Lab and discovered as they dug deeper into the case, that an app had been downloaded onto his phone. A female or someone posing as a female on the other end of that app had encouraged Tevan to send an explicit video of himself.

That person, now believed to be based in the Ivory Coast, then used that video against Tevan and demanded money from him — or risk having the video shared and his family being harmed.

"As soon as this person from the Ivory Coast knew that he had gotten through, he just started attacking him,” his mother said.

Even after the teen sent money — "all he had," according to Peirce — to the person extorting him, the threats continued. This time, Tevan was told he should kill himself.

"The person who got to him was actually telling him you should do this. … 'You should end your life. You should take your life. You ruined your life. If you don’t, I’m going to ruin your life. You should take your life,’” Tawra Tobler said.

Tevan had made a rare mistake. He didn't know how to fix it. And he feared he was going to lose everything he had spent all his life working for, his parents said.

Now, Randy and Tawra Tobler want other parents to know that so-called "sextortion" cases can happen to any child, no matter where they live, no matter what race or religion they are, no matter their socioeconomic status, and no matter what school clique they fall into.

Monitoring your child's social media activity is important, but it isn't enough, they said. Parents need to specifically talk to their children about not falling victim to extortion attempts, the Toblers say. Children need to know that even though it might be embarrassing, it's better to talk to someone rather than attempting to fix a problem themselves.

"I want to tell all parents that it doesn't matter how close you think you are, you're never as close as you think you are. Because I would have thought — I would have bet money — (Tevan) would have told me. But he didn't," his mother said.

I want to tell all parents that it doesn’t matter how close you think you are, you’re never as close as you think you are. – Tawra Tobler

"You're a 16-year-old boy. You're not going to go to prison for showing your abs or for anything else at this point that's not a true felony,” she continued. “We're really a religious family — it's easy to feel shame, and to feel those things — and these people make you feel that because they know they can tear you down. It's important that our kids don't. We can help them not feel that way."

Tobler said that doesn't mean parents have to relax house rules or lower their expectations of their children's' behaviors. It means helping them understand that they can still ask for help, even if they make a mistake.

‘Huge problem’

There is little that shocks Michelle Upwall anymore after being with the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for so many years.

But when she was called by a woman concerned about her daughter's online activities — and then found a 9-year-old girl crying in a closet because she had been talking to five adult men and sending pornographic pictures of herself — even Upwall was startled.

In 2017, the Deseret News talked to police and school officials about the dangers of sexting, something that has become so commonplace in Utah's schools that some students will argue it's just part of what their generation does. It's harmless fun, many argue.

"I don’t think they think it’s a big deal. Or they think, 'It’s just going to this person I’m sending it to.’ But it never does. And if parents don’t think it’s big deal, that’s the tough part. And unfortunately, a lot of the time parents don’t even know what’s going on until it becomes huge,” Upwall said.

"Parents will say, 'Well, we did things when we were kids. This is what they’re doing now — sexting.' I’m like, ‘What? No. So you’re OK with them sending explicit images and videos of themselves?’ They’re justifying it. Parents just don’t think it’s a big deal and that’s why it’s such a huge problem, not just the predator thing but sexting itself just between kids."

The Davis County Justice Center in Farmington is pictured on Monday, April 1, 2019.

The Davis County Justice Center in Farmington is pictured on Monday, April 1, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Today, there is no shortage of cases currently being investigated by law enforcement officers in Utah involving teens and even pre-teens involved sexual activity online, as well as predators preying on these children.

In the case of the 9-year-old girl, the initial contact started while she was in an online gaming chatroom.

"Online gaming chat rooms are a huge, huge, huge place for predators,” Upwall said.

From there, someone — presumably an adult man — groomed her to move their conversation to Kik — an app that Upwall believes can be particularly dangerous.

"Kik is very dangerous because first of all it’s an anonymous app and it’s really easy to connect with strangers," she said, explaining that it doesn't have as effective safeguards and age verifications as some other apps. "So it’s easy for kids to talk to strangers of all ages in public groups. … We get a lot of cybertips related to Kik because there are many, many predators using this app to target kids."

There are few hard statistics kept on the frequency of sextortion. But based on the caseload of investigators with the Internet Crimes Against Children task force and even local law enforcers, Upwall believes the incidents are on the rise. And the age of children being lured into explicit behavior on social media apps is getting younger.

A sampling of other recent investigations collected in court documents by the Deseret News over the past four months include:

• In Sandy, police began investigating a disturbing case in December involving the HOLLA app. Three girls — ages 12, 12 and 13, who all attend the same middle school — "were sending nude photos and videos to guys they believed to be in their 20s or 30s." The girls admitted to sending nude videos of themselves to multiple men on several occasions.

• In Logan, police say an adult man offered a 14-year-old girl money in exchange for nude photographs. "She sent the male several pornographic images and videos of herself via Instagram and text message," police wrote. But when the girl later cut off communication with the man, he became mad and demanded that she pay him approximately $2,000 or he would upload the pornographic images that she sent him to the Internet and send them to her friends.

• In a separate case in Logan in December, police were investigating reports of a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old exchanging photos on Snapchat and images livestreamed on Facebook.

• In December, police in West Valley City were called to investigate a juvenile girl who was using the app Discord to send nude pictures and videos to an adult male.

• In another Sandy case, police investigated an incident in which several members of a high school girls sports team posed topless in a hot tub for a picture that was distributed to their group via Snapchat. Several months later, one of the girls was informed that a boy at another school had received a copy of it. Police were attempting to discover how the photo was "leaked," and were looking at whether an ex-boyfriend of one of the girls accessed her phone and sent the photo to himself.

• In December, an 18-year-old Utah State University student reported to police that she was contacted by an unknown person who acquired racy pictures of her when she was 16 and 17.

"I have many more pics and vids like these from hacking your phone," the unknown person told the student. "If you want me to delete them, you're gonna have to do something for me. … If you try to ignore these or delete your account, block me, or tell anyone about this, I'll send them around to your family, friends and around campus."

When the woman tried blocking the person on Instagram, she received another message stating, "If you try (to) block me again … I have all your family and friends' social media. I'm not … playing with you. If I don't get a reply, I'm sending these."

So many apps

The problem is parents aren’t talking to their kids. And parents, a lot of times, don’t know how these apps or these phones work. – Michelle Upwall

Upwall said when young girls send explicit photos, "they’re looking for attention from older males. They think that’s cool."

Some girls seeking attention have image issues and are self-conscious about themselves, she said. Other girls are pressured by their boyfriends, or older men who gain their trust, into sending explicit photos and videos.

The ages of the girls sending these photos keeps getting younger, she said. Part of that is because many elementary school-aged children now have smartphones.

"The problem is parents aren’t talking to their kids. And parents, a lot of times, don’t know how these apps or these phones work,” Upwall said. "Snapchat is a big one that we still continue to see as a problem because kids think it (a message or a photo) goes away. We know it doesn’t.

"They just hand them these phones and they go off into the world. And they’re learning from their peers or they’re learning from predators. Because predators are more than willing to answer these questions and pay attention to them."

Another problem is youths who don't make their accounts "private," making their posts available for anyone to see.

"Most kids, and this is the scary thing, most kids keep their accounts open, public, because they value their popularity status on how many likes, how many followers, how many friends. And that’s the scary thing," Upwall said.

In fact, Upwall will randomly check the Instagram accounts of juveniles at the beginning of each school quarter to see how many publicly post their schedules. And about 95 percent do, she said.

"That gives predators so much information."

There are apps nowadays that are created by predators for predators, she added. Sometimes there can be as many as 10 new apps a day that pop up.

The most dangerous apps are the ones that have real-time and livestreaming capability, she said. Those videos are nearly impossible for investigators to recover.

"Those are ones we don’t ever want to see kids go to, because they will be told to do different things, explicit things, and you don’t know who’s on the other end,” she said. "You can have anybody on the other end telling these kids what to do."

One tool for parents is commonsensemedia.org, which can help them become educated about the different apps and how dangerous they are. But because there are so many, Upwall said the best thing parents can do is communicate and educate.

Sexting is huge in Utah, Upwall said, and is often underreported. To many teenagers, they don't see a problem with it.

"They just think in the moment right now. They don’t think about the future,” she said.

But sexting can quickly turn into bullying and sextortion. And that can lead to tragedy.

"Kids don’t feel like they have an out. So they commit suicide."

Relentless harassment

With the exception of "Survivor," Tevan didn't watch a lot of TV and didn't play a lot of video games.

"He wasn’t on social media. He really wasn’t. We don’t even have video games in our house,” Tawra Tobler said.

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 hindsight, the Toblers said while not being on social media or being interested in phone apps was good in one way, it also made Tevan a little more naive about predators.

"It may have been more dangerous, in some sense, because he may have been less prepared because he wasn’t doing it and he wasn’t using those things, and we knew he wasn’t,” she said.

From the time the person responsible for Tevan taking his own life made contact with him, everything happened in less than two weeks.

"People say, ‘Well, weren’t you watching his stuff?’ And we were. There was just a little, tiny window where we weren’t as good at it,” his mother said.

The family says police told them the overseas scammer and his or her ability to "get to" Tevan is among the most manipulative they've seen.

"The suspect was demanding money be sent to him via Western Union. (Tevan) sent money and pleaded for the suspect to delete the video," Peirce said.

Even after collecting all the money he had saved since boyhood and sending it to the scammer, the harassment continued. Peirce called it "relentless." If Tevan blocked one phone number, the suspect would find another way to contact him.

Investigators served search warrants on Yahoo, Snapchat and Western Union to try and find the person who had done this.

"The case was traced back to Africa. The Davis County Sheriff’s Office started working with Homeland Security Investigations for assistance. The embassy in the region was supporting us, and the county attorneys wanted to prosecute the case aggressively," the detective said.

As the investigation progressed, Peirce and others learned that the same scammer is responsible for a second suicide in France during another extortion attempt.

"The investigation concluded when it was determined the suspect resides in an area that is primarily poor, high crime, and little electricity and hut-style homes. Investigators were not able to provide an identification of the suspect and could not isolate a location he uses without an IP address. It was also determined that they would not extradite the suspect even if he were located," he said.

In other words, the case hit a dead end. No one would be prosecuted for Tevan's death.

Peirce said investigators were "emotionally invested" in this case, and he admits it was highly frustrating not being able to give the family closure.

‘Really good, really bad’

In hindsight, the Toblers have "racked their brains" looking back for warning signs they may have missed. But Tevan didn't tell even his closest friends what was happening.

"Tevan didn't dare. He was so scared and so worried and so concerned, he didn't dare tell anybody. He has some pretty close friends. He didn't tell them. He didn’t tell us," Tawra Tobler said. "Everything seemed really normal. I know Tevan, and I don't know how he hid it so well. Because he didn’t hide other things as well. He's really affectionate. He loved to just come lay in our bed and talk to us. You know, we felt like we were pretty open."

On the night of his suicide, the Toblers had several things going on and didn't have a regular family dinner, ordering a pizza instead. Tevan seemed distraught, his father said, but his parents assumed it was due to recent hip surgery he was still recovering from that was causing him frustration due to the pain and the fact that he was sidelined from his beloved sports.

After dinner, Tevan went to his room to do homework and his parents went to the grocery store. A little later, Tevan came out of his room and asked his younger brother if he wanted to go with him to a gathering with friends later that week. It was a type of offer Tevan hadn't made before simply because of their age difference. Tawra Tobler believes, in hindsight, that conversation was "maybe a last-ditch effort to try and not have something happen."

Today, the Toblers check their children's phones on a much more regular basis, and have installed apps that allow them to read their children's texts, even if they delete them.

"My son knows. I decided that I'm going to let them know ahead of time that I am seeing everything, because I still want them to trust me. I want us to trust each other,” she said. "I don't want him to live with this idea that because of this, now I have to live under lock and key. And so there's this delicate balance of trust and talk to us. And we do."

The Toblers also recognize that banning all social media from their house isn't practical.

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

Even Tevan, who didn't use social media much, had Snapchat on his phone because it's the way teenagers today communicate. They use Snapchat like text messaging, his mother said. In order for Tevan to find out about sports practices and other events, he needed to be included on group Snapchat messages.

"The internet is capable of really good, and really bad," Peirce concurred. "It's important for the community to get educated on what's really going on on the internet."

The Toblers would like to see more education about the dangers of phone apps and social media taught in the high schools and middle schools. They say they are surprised by the number of people who hear their story and say they had no clue that those types of predators exist.

They even point to a story last year in which West Valley police pulled over a 22-year-old man for a traffic violation and ended up discovering that the man was on his way to wire money to someone threatening to post an explicit video of him online.

That's why the family wants parents to let their children know they can talk to them — or a trusted adult — about anything.

"Just pick one adult in your life you can trust enough that you will tell them," Tawra Tobler said. "I was really, really surprised he didn’t come to us because it was such a big deal. He gave this person pretty much everything that he had."

Randy Tobler said children need to know that if they are caught in an extortion attempt, they aren't the ones who will be in trouble.

"Whatever you did, it’s nothing you’re going to go to jail for,” he said. "If someone manipulated you, you’re not in trouble. You can go to the cops. You’re not going to be the one that gets in trouble."

Predators are not exclusive to one particular age group or type of person they target, Peirce said. That's why both he and the Toblers say the talk about internet predators is one that every parents should have with their child.

"I think it’s easy to think, ‘Oh it’s the kid who’s not doing good in school, or he’s being bullied, or he doesn’t have friends.’ And I think it’s almost the opposite,” she said. "It's easier to get to the kids who feel like they have so much to lose."