BURRILLVILLE – It was a jaw-dropping scandal that went viral, making headlines in newspapers as far away as California.
Pornographic pictures of more than 100 teenage girls from town – going back for more than a decade – had been saved and shared among a generation of Burrillville boys, used like trading cards and kept in private Dropbox files.
Two Burrillville police officers worked for months on the case, contacting internet providers and tracking down IP addresses before eventually charging a 16-year-old boy with possession and distribution of child pornography.
But it was their efforts after the case in helping to stop other youth in town from making the same mistake that really stood out with the state Attorney General’s office.
Sgt. Ryan Hughes and Det. Lt. Guy Riendeau have been named recipients of the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Justice Award for Crime Prevention for 2017.
The officers, who worked as partners at the time, were first contacted by a school resource officer from Burrillville High School in May of 2017. Administration had learned of files being shared among students at the school, and passed along the information to police.
Finding the culprit was just the start of the work. Dropbox, a hosting service, allows users to store and share files in privately held internet accounts. There was no way of knowing how many copies of the young girls’ pictures were stored in separate online files, so for the officers, the focus soon became prevention.
“It was a tragic set of circumstances,” Hughes told NRI NOW this week. “These things can come back and haunt you for the rest of your life.”
The officers took on the unfortunate task of notifying the girls, who ranged in age from 13 to 25, that the pictures had been shared.
“A lot of the victims were confused,” said Hughes. “These photos had been circulated for years.”
Many of girls had initially shared the photos with boyfriends in their early teenage years, and had since gone on to professional careers. Some had multiple images in the file, and even pornographic videos. Many had gone on to college, or moved out of state. Some had since landed jobs as teachers or nurses.
And while many of the women were hesitant to come forward, Hughes and Riendeau were persistent.
“My frustration was, I wanted these victims to come in because each image would tell a story,” said Hughes. “We did impact statements from each victim that was willing.”
The officers developed a system, calling the victims, and having them visit the station. Hughes would step out of room so the girls could view the images and give a nod to confirm their identity. Many did not include faces, but others did.
“Some were very taken aback,” Hughes said, noting that some had been wrongly identified in the online files.
In interviews, girls often said they were pressured to send the images, with one middle schooler even telling the detective of her boyfriend, “If I didn’t send them he would have broken up with me.”
“That’s almost kind of a norm right now,” said Hughes. “It’s sad. There’s a lot of pressure placed on girls to comply with these requests. These boys can be very persistent.”
The officers interviewed 47 victims and turned their impact statements into a presentation for Burrillville students. The attorney general’s office also became involved, with Special Assistant Attorney General Malena Lopez Mora developing a second presentation to compliment the efforts of the Burrillville officers.
“This isn’t unique to Burrillville,” Hughes said. “This is a trend unfortunately.”
Male and female students were separated for assemblies at both the high school and middle school.
“The message was clear: relationships change,” said Hughes. “High school relationships are pretty brief sometimes, and sending sexually explicit content can be used against you.”
While it was the girls who were ultimately victimized by the sharing, the outreach crew pointed out an even greater threat: a boy caught with nude pictures of a minor could be charged with possession of child pornography. If found guilty, he could become a convicted sex offender, and required to register as such for the next ten years, even as a juvenile.
“You could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium,” Hughes said. “That resonated big time with the males.”
“Looking back on it, I would say that was the biggest takeaway for the girls too: you’re putting the guy you love in serious jeopardy.”
Hughes and Riendeau received a commendation from the Burrillville Police Department for their work on the case at an awards ceremony last year, and it was Col. Stephen Lynch who nominated them for the state award, along with others involved in the case. It was not the investigation, but the follow-up in working with Burrillville students that was recognized, putting Lopez Mora also in line for the recognition.
“Lopez Mora was instrumental in providing legal guidance during the investigation and through the charging process as well as the subsequent educational process that took place in Burrillville schools in September 2017,” wrote Lynch.
“Detective Hughes, Lieutenant Riendeau and Assistant Attorney General Malena Lopez Mora conducted educational forums through speaking programs to all Burrillville High School and Burrillville Middle school students at the start of the 2017-2018 academic school year to educate on the lifelong impact that this type of activity brings to all involved.”