On a night in October, a young Glendale girl said she was engaged in the usual social media scroll when she noticed something disturbing, enough for her to hesitantly broach it with her parents and contact the police about it.
While using Snapchat — an image- and video-sharing app — the girl told Glendale police later that night that a number of accounts she followed were reposting another user’s content of explicit images and videos involving other underage girls. The posts were sometimes listed with the names of their Glendale middle or high school.
Not long after a police detective began working on this investigation on Oct. 18, another officer reached out about a separate report regarding these same posts. Two days later, the Glendale Police Department was granted a search warrant on Snapchat’s databases based on at least 15 underage girls — ages 13 to 17 — whose nude or partially nude photos were shared by at least one account.
Police arrested a 16-year-old Glendale boy in February, at the time for disorderly conduct relating to revenge porn. This investigation continues, however, which leaves open the possibility for additional charges — and potential suspects, GPD department officials said.
“We’re still working on it, on how these images were accumulated,” said Sgt. Ernesto Gaxiola, who supervises the assaults unit in GPD’s violent crimes bureau. “I think we will get there, but we still haven’t yet. I think the bottom line is that someone is sharing these that shouldn’t be.”
These sorts of crimes are complex to investigate, Gaxiola explained. Although the internet has a certain ability to immortalize posts, tracking down specific data can be a tricky art, and very often that can only begin once a specific search warrant is granted — in this case, versus Snapchat. The app’s gimmick is that direct posts and messages disappear, while story posts last 24 hours. These timelines are all thrown to the wind, however, when “followers” take photos of the posts and republish them.
More shrewd criminals will use ways of masking their digital footprints, often by repeatedly changing IP addresses, officials emphasize.
“Our biggest restraint, when it comes to time, is getting a response from the tech companies. Unfortunately, we’re kind of beholden to them when it comes to getting information for a search warrant,” Gaxiola said. “You can have multiple IP addresses. These are very difficult and complex cases, but we won’t stop until we’ve either hit what we want to find or if we’ve hit a dead end that we can’t overcome at the time.”
Gaxiola credited Detective Christina Kepenekian, who also serves on the department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, with bringing this case to an arrest.
“Christina’s relentless,” he said. “She gets to the bottom of it and we love her tenacity. These are not easy cases.”
Another factor that can often hamper these investigations is the reluctance of victims to report the crimes against them, a daunting task that can invite the scrutiny of peers and adults and amplify the trauma they have gone through.
Heather Masterton, the chief strategic engagement officer at YWCA Glendale, said these kinds of acts represent a branch of teen dating violence, which is something the YWCA helps fight against as part of its core mission. The local organization dedicated a lot of social media currency to the cause in February, which was Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
“There’s definitely a spectrum of violence. Our biggest violence-prevention initiative at the Y is definitely working with young teens and girls,” Masterton said.
Just as important, Masterton said, is educating would-be perpetrators to not take abusive actions against their peers or significant others, or helping them understand why something can have harsher ramifications than they perceive.
“We know domestic and sexual violence has been occurring for centuries, and this is just another element of it,” she explained. “This is a human being and this is violating somebody’s bodily autonomy. That means something. Nobody should go through the pain and the shame of this type of violation.
“We need to change the culture,” Masterton added, “and there are a lot of players involved in that.”
The YWCA Glendale is certainly one of those players. Through its Safe Dates program, the YWCA addresses dating and technology, consent and coercion, and dynamics of healthy and unhealthy relationships. Masterton said more than 100 girls went through their workshop last year — 40% could not identify two red flags of dating abuse beforehand, but after, 94% could. Additionally, 78% of participants were able to identify that emotional abuse can be just as serious as physical abuse.
“We teach the girls how to identify this and how to find support, if they’re going through this or know someone who is,” she said. “Young boys are also victim to this type of revenge porn and online coercion.”
An important step to change the culture for the better, Masterton said, is to face the reality of how rapidly advancing internet access and social media can interact with young people, who are neither as wise nor have the impulse control of their elders.
“Their impulse control is very different than adults in making decisions where they’re not really able to think about the long-term ramifications,” she explained. “Images can live forever on the internet, and I don’t think they think about that.
“We’re in this very different moment with kids and youth growing up with social media and it’s all about immediacy and validation,” Masterton added. “It’s about getting that immediate approval and the thumbs up and followers and all of that. They’re living in a different world and they have a very different online experience as well.”
Gaxiola noted he was particularly impressed that it was another girl, who was not among the victims, who reported the crime when she witnessed it happening.
“This kid did the right thing and immediately reported this so we could get these accounts shut down and stop the spread of this,” he said. “I would love to give this kid an award. I truly believe she prevented this from being much bigger than it could have been.”
Counselors and other support workers with Glendale Unified School District help train teachers to be able to present lessons on internet safety. They are also trained on how to be available to students who are victimized by bullying, harassment or more severe crimes involving social media and sexual violations.
“We also have psychologists who come in and help,” said Hagop Eulmessekian, the director of student support services for GUSD. “We have therapists who have the ability to talk with victims. We always support the victim and don’t play the blame game. It’s the worst thing you can do to someone going through that.
“We have to make sure they have the right person talking to them, and often that’s a therapist or a parent or someone they trust,” he added. “One thing we have to keep in mind is that we can’t push them to say things, so we have to be very methodical.”
Eulmessekian said his department also recently hosted a webinar for parents, where he and others explained that there is a balance to having trust with children and knowing when to step in and review phone or social media usage. A parent himself, Eulmessekian said he was able to relate how difficult and awkward it can be to have these conversations with children.
“When it comes to student safety, yes we have to respect their privacy and have to have that trust,” he said, “but at the same time, there has to be some verification process and conversation with our kids.”
As students return back to their school sites after a year of the coronavirus, Eulmessekian said they will find posters throughout schools meant to reach students who are experiencing some sort of violence from peers or dating partners. Those posters will have QR codes that will link students to where they can find help.
According to Masterton, one in three young people — ages 12 through 18 — will experience an abusive or unhealthy relationship, and only a third of those people will confide the situation with another person. When presented with the information, Masterton said the YWCA will help a victim navigate what their situation is.
“We really work with girls and adult women that have experienced this, just to help them understand what their rights are and in filing a police report,” she said.
Gaxiola said his unit is not so much inundated with incidents that rise to a criminal investigation as they are wrapped up in the sheer amount of time that goes into conducting even one case.
“Do we get a lot? No,” he said. “Does it generate a lot of work? Yes, and justifiably so.”
Although GPD’s principal involvement is to explore criminal charges in these cases, Gaxiola said detectives do try to help comfort victims and will refer them to the YWCA, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Victim’s Services Bureau or to an appropriate GUSD counselor.
“We are going to be honest and direct, but we would never try to persuade a victim to do something that they’re not ready to handle yet,” he said. “It’s terrible for them, but we will answer any questions they have and do anything we can to assist them as well.
“Confidentiality is paramount and I understand not wanting to disclose certain information,” Gaxiola added, “but whatever assistance they need, we will put them on the path to get it if it’s not through us.”