BURRILLVILLE – Predators no longer need to lurk near playgrounds to stalk their victims.
Thanks to modern technology, those who would harm children often have full access to a family’s home, schedule and more, and they’re grooming their next victim with the information, Burrillville Police Lt. Guy Riendeau warned.
“They don’t have to go to a park anymore,” Riendeau said. “By sharing photos and videos, they’re inviting them into your house. It scares us to know these people are out there.”
The warning from local law enforcement came at a forum for parents on internet safety at Burrillville Middle School on Tuesday, Feb. 15. It followed similar outreach sessions to students at the school – in large part a reaction to a frightening incident in which a 12-year-old student from BMS went missing, and detectives learned she was in the company of a 27-year-old Level 3 sex offender.
“She was groomed for three months by this guy,” Riendeau said. “He posed as a 17-year-old.”
In more shocking news this week, an affidavit showed the suspect recently tried to hire a hitman to murder his young victim from jail.
“That is the worst nightmare. That is the extreme,” the lieutenant said. “That hit small town USA – in Burrillville. It does happen here.”
“These guys are good,” warned School Resource Officer Jason Nault.
The officers shared tips on how to avoid the dangers technology can pose to today’s youth.
“Common sense will help you know what your child is doing,” Riendeau said, noting that thanks to the internet, most kids are now finding trouble from inside their own homes. “They’re in the bedroom, or they’re in the bathroom.”
Riendeau noted that photos posted online often include “meta data,” such as the layout of the house and the family’s location.
“It’s made for stalking,” he said of applications such as Facebook.
But texting can also pose a threat, even when pictures or information are shared with someone the child thinks they can trust.
“What is sent from your phone or over the internet is no longer your property,” Riendeau warned. “There is nothing we can say or do to get it back.”
It was a timely message for parents in a community that has more than once faced dangers related to youth behavior online. Just last year, two students from Burrillville High School were charged with child pornography after allegedly sharing an obscene video of a female victim both on social media, and with other students at the school.
In 2017, police discovered pornographic pictures of more than 100 teenage girls from town – going back for more than a decade – that had been saved and shared among a generation of Burrillville boys, used like trading cards and kept in private Dropbox files.
“We couldn’t get them taken down until the feds got involved,” Riendeau said. “One generation after another were handing it to each other. It was insane, but it was an accepted thing.”
“The kids who were maintaining drop boxes were calling them ‘wins,'” he said, noting that once shared, the images are never fully gone. “This is permanent. It’s never going to go away.”
The lieutenant noted it is Illegal for minors to exchange explicit images for both the sender and the receiver, who is in possession of child pornography. If a minor receives an explicit image unsolicited, he said they should tell a trusted adult immediately, and the image should be saved and reported to police immediately.
“We’ll delete it, give you back your phone, and you can be on your way,” Riendeau said.
In cases of bullying, the Burrillville Police Department maintains a reporting page, where residents can submit information.
“It comes to myself and SRO Nault, and it’s investigated,” Riendeau said.
The officers recommended parents seek help from websites that aim to help them navigate online dangers, such as commonsensemedia.org.
“It’s a great wealth of information,” Riendeau said. “It’s a great tool to have.”
He noted that parents should also keep track of who their child befriends on social media, noting that many students at the middle school confessed to having more than 500 Facebook friends.
“There’s not 500 kids in this building,” he said.
“There’s just a lot of things you want to stay up on, and most importantly, the communication with your child.”
A few dozen parents attended the brief presentation, and officers asked them to share the important message. Some in attendance asked if they could bring a presentation to the town’s elementary schools, noting that the problems are affecting students starting at a very young age.
“We will work together to try to bring similar presentations at the high school and the elementary as well,” said Supt. Michael Sollitto, who has worked with law enforcement officials to organize the talks.
Sollitto shared his own tip for parents, noting it’s a good idea to take a child’s phone and computer at night.
“There’s no reason you need a cell phone when you’re going to bed,” he said.
“You need to set boundaries,” he said. “You’re giving them a phone. You’re giving them access to the world. You need to monitor that.”
Other ideas for parents included utilizing a family charging station, and shutting off the “air drop,” feature on the child’s phone.
Nault, who was hired this year to replace retiring former longtime SRO Dave Beauchemin, noted that for parents, there can be a learning curve.
“This is their world,” Nault said. “We didn’t grow up in this world.”
“We all need to work together to make sure bad things don’t happen, period,” Riendeau said.
A complete video of the presentation can be viewed below.