A Payson teen faces child molestation charges after sleeping with a 13-year-old he reportedly met in the park July 4. Investigators made their case using sexually charged messages on the girl’s cell phone after a counselor reported the girl’s fear she was pregnant.
The 19-year-old met the girl at Green Valley Park and struck up a conversation. The relationship went from friendly flirting to sexual intercourse within days.
Police learned of the relationship after the girl told a counselor she thought she was pregnant.
On Wednesday, police arrested the teen on sexual assault charges. He is the second man to face child molestation accusations this month.
The Roundup does not publish the names of suspects in sexual assault cases until there is a conviction.
The Gila County Attorney’s Office says it has seen an increase in adults, mainly between 20 and 40 years old, sexually victimizing young girls.
Most suspects have had regular social contact and often use cell phones to lure and groom the victim.
“In our communities, texting is the most prevalent form of communication between offenders and victims as many pre-teens/ teenagers have personal cell phones, which they keep with them at all times,” said Daisy Flores, county attorney.
Arizona law makes it a felony to have almost any sexual contact or intercourse with a person less than 18 years old. The penalties are greater if the victim is younger than 15 or if one party is older than 18. Molestation involves a victim younger than 15. Sexual assault can apply to even consensual sex involving a victim between 15 and 18, with more severe penalties for parents, guardians, teachers and other authority figures.
While cell phones and computers offer assailants easy access to their victim, they also keep parents in the dark since most teens guard their cell phones closely.
“Texting, e-mailing, instant messaging and social media sites allow offenders access to victims without the victim’s parents’ knowledge,” she said. “Offenders then have the opportunity to discuss sexual issues without concern that a parent will hear or read their advances. Offenders desensitize the minor to sexual matters and even make outright requests for sexual contact.”
In the most recent case, after the 19-year-old met the girl, they reportedly fooled around at the park, according to police reports. Sexually explicit cell phone messages followed and on July 5 and July 8, the pair met and had sex.
The girl’s parents told police they suspected something was going on and that their daughter may have slept with the man, according to the officer’s report.
Officers arrested the teen Wednesday, said Police Chief Don Engler.
He refused to talk to officers and immediately requested an attorney, Engler said.
While he would not talk, cell phones had a lot to say. Detectives used a new tool to extract data from phones used by the pair.
The department landed a $12,000 federal grant from the U.S. Justice Department to buy a Universal Mobile Extraction Device last year and can now scan and copy data from cell phones. Before, the department had to work through cell phone companies to get the information, often a complicated and arduous task.
The device has played a crucial role in several investigations, Engler said.
Without DNA evidence, sexual assault cases come down to a victim’s word against their assailant.
Engler said even if the sexual activity was consensual, “we conduct the investigation no matter what due to the age.”
Flores said most child sexual assaults start innocently enough with the suspect slowly “grooming” his victim. Hugs and kisses on the cheek progresses to casual sexual references and then requests for minor physical touches in return.
“The offender then advances to outright sexual contact with the minor,” she said.
The victim, most often young girls, rarely disclose the contact for a variety of reasons, including fear of the offender, fear of not being believed, embarrassment and even infatuation with the offender, she said.
“Offenders capitalize on the minor’s feelings and often will continue their criminal behavior until caught.”
In several cases, the abuse only stopped when a parent or relative found the explicit text messages or pictures on the victim’s cell phone.
Most recently, a jury found Susan I. Hernandez, 30, of Globe, guilty of luring a minor for sexual exploitation.
The victim’s cousin uncovered the abuse when the cousin found text messages from Hernandez on the victim’s cell phone.
“Those text messages referenced earlier kissing and touching between the victim and the defendant,” Flores said. “The text messages also discussed a desire, on the part of the defendant, to have sex with the minor victim.”
Hernandez is now serving two years in jail.
The effects of such abuse may prove long-lasting.
Victims often develop a lack of trust in adults, which results from both the offender’s behavior and other adults’ disbelief in the victim’s story.
“Victims feel ashamed that they did not do anything to prevent the conduct or because they actively participated in the sexual conduct,” she said. “Some even feel sorry for the offender who must face serious consequences for his/her actions.”
If parents suspect or discover inappropriate communication or contact between a child and adult, they should report it to local law enforcement immediately.
If a cell phone was used, discontinue use and turn it over to the police.