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How a 'Sextortionist' Went from Trolling Bieber Fan Pages to Being Sent to Prison for Child Pornography

What started as a relatively harmless ring of internet pranksters became a playground for a demented adult.

by Allie Conti
Jun 3 2015, 6:40pm

Jeremy Brendan Sears via CBS Los Angeles

Around 1 AM on August, 12, 2013, a 17-year-old boy went to a California park to meet a teen he'd been talking to online. Or so he thought. Although he was under the impression that a young woman named "Rachel" he found on MeetMe.com had been trading nudes with him and was down to take the next step, the boy instead came face to face with 21-year-old Jeremy Brendan Sears.

Sears claimed to be "Rachel's" brother and told the younger boy to get naked "so that the sister would be excited by him when she arrived," according to a federal criminal complaint. The boy complied, and, in the nude, followed Sears for two hours in hopes of meeting Rachel, and was eventually left stranded without his clothes or wallet. Later, Sears would confess to investigators that he'd taken nude photos of the teen and uploaded them to the now-defunct revenge porn site UGotPosted, though it's unclear if they ever actually appeared on the site.

After the boy complained to police, the feds finally had enough evidence to execute a search warrant on Sears, whose online personas they'd been tracking for months. As it turns out, from 2012 to 2013, Sears was at the helm of a small online group known as the Confederacy, which consisted of about ten core members dedicated to hijacking Facebook pages for teen sensations like Justin Bieber and One Direction. Although the other members were mostly minors who got into trolling as a fuck-you to their basic peers, Sears apparently detected easy targets in teens desperate to regain control of their precious pages.

"The group had various ways to harass their victims, such as getting them to put a sock on their heads and take a picture," FBI Special Agent David B. Hand tells VICE. "Jeremy would take that to the next level."

After Sears was arrested on April 30, 2014, he estimated that he "definitely" had more than ten victims but said the number could be as high as 100. On Friday, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and court documents paint a disturbing picture of how he led an unwitting group of teens into abusing peers as young as 12.

The FBI actually claims to have coined the term "sextortion" in their LA office in reference to a man named Luis Mijangos, who was arrested in June 2010 after hacking into the computers of least 44 minors and then threatening to expose their secrets if they didn't give him naked pictures. Since then, there have been three other cases in California in which the FBI has busted people for taking over computers and pulling the same sort of scheme.

But the Sears story has much more in common with one that made international headlines three years ago. That's when Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old girl from Canada, posted a video online detailing how she turned to the internet to make friends, was pressured into showing photos of her breasts, was unknowingly screencapped, and then eventually blackmailed by a stranger who found her classmates on Facebook. Although she was actually a victim of a vicious community of pedophiles, the media wrongly portrayed Amanda Todd's suicide as a case of schoolyard bullying gone wrong.

On Motherboard: Police Could Charge a Data Center in the Largest Child Porn Bust Ever

It wasn't until last year that a 35-year-old Dutch man was arrested in connection with Todd's death and charged with child pornography, extortion, internet luring, and criminal harassment. "I don't want everyone to get so hyped up that this is it, that this is the end," Todd's mother told the Globe and Mail at the time. "I don't think in my heart that this is the end. It's the start of it. There's more than one person in those chat rooms."

Sears's crimes indicate that she was probably right—the "capping" community, as it's sometimes called, is alive and well. But his arrest and sentencing are a source of hope: If anything, it seems like US law enforcement officials are getting better at tackling child exploitation on the seediest corners of the web.

Photo via Facebook

Before Sears and his cohorts in the Confederacy made a name for themselves, there was the Bieber Hijacking and Trolling Company (BHTC). The group, which according to its co-founders launched in the summer of 2011, would take over various fan pages and spam them for lulz. Sometimes a member would pretend to be a male Bieliber and ask to become an admin. Then they would lock out the other admins and do whatever they wanted with the page.

At first it was just a fun social group that doubled as a "sport." However, Joshua DeStefano, an original member who's now 17 and living in Ontario, says that the project later became profitable. They would sell the pages back to their original owners or third parties who wanted control over pages that could reach tens of thousands of young girls. DeStefano tells VICE that even if he kept the pages and milked the ad revenue, he could pull in as much as $1,000 a week "if he really pushed himself."

But internal politics revolving around Jeremy Sears pulled the group apart in the summer of 2011. "We didn't do any background checks on our new members, we just accepted anyone who applied," says "Sagan," one of the original handful of members. "But that guy was distinct because he was weird. Nobody liked him. We were all against him, because he was concocting his own little weird ideas."

DeStefano says that Sears was eventually kicked out of the group after it became known that he was dating a 13-year-old online, and rumors started spreading that he had forced a girl to masturbate on TinyChat to get her Bieber fan page back. So Sears and his supporters splintered off to form the Confederacy, which the FBI claims was a darker version of the original group that specialized in trolling and hijacking people's Facebooks and posting nudes on them. All of this was done through "soxpuppets" or "alts"—terms referring to fake accounts. Sears himself was reportedly fond of using one called "Tommy Wiseau," after the cult filmmaker behind The Room. His other aliases included "Sammi Summers" and "Louis Tompkins."

Kids between 12 and 19 flocked to the Confederacy. "It seemed like it was a lot of kids who were socially awkward and the internet was a way to meet other like minded individuals," says Hand, the FBI special agent. "And primarily they were interested in trolling against young teens who were interested One Direction or Justin Bieber. They had a real distinct dislike for that type of kid."

According to Hand, Bielibers and One Directioners were easy targets for trolling, and when their pages went under attack, they flipped. "That was very upsetting to these girls because it's like a diary for them—six months or a years worth of work of compiling pictures," he explains. "To lose control of that was a huge deal for some of these younger girls, which would make them very vulnerable to extortion by Jeremy Sears."

To get their pages back, the teens would do anything. That's when Sears would swoop in.

It's unclear how loyal the other members of the Confederacy were to Sears once they realized he was collecting nudes. According to Hand, one day Sears shared his "trophies" with his minions. "The other members were somewhat taken aback," he says. "They were very uncomfortable with that. But these are kids and this was a 22-year-old at the time who was doing this. I don't think they were making the best judgments."

The FBI began investigating Sears in 2012, after the agency received three tips through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Apparently "Tommy Wiseau" had uploaded photos of a 12-year-old girl stripping naked and penetrating herself. Federal agents found that the owner of the account was also talking to another victim and threatening to kill her online boyfriend if she didn't send nudes. Facebook security staff told the Feds that "Wiseau" was Sears. (The online boyfriend was "Louis Tompkins," another account run by Sears in what the FBI called an "elaborate scheme.")

According to Sears's plea agreement from December 2014, he "would harass his minor victims by posting obscene accusations about victims' sexual activity, by repeatedly insulting victims on their webpages, or by filling the victims' webpages with derogatory comments about people the victims' [ sic] liked. Defendant would then stop the harassment if the victims would send him sexually explicit images or would transmit to him live depictions of themselves engaging in sexually explicitly conduct."

"I will kill you," Sears responded on November 3, 2012. "Every time you are defiant to me, like you... refusing to follow my orders, I will cut off a part of your body."

Examples include tricking a teen into sending nude pictures to someone she thought was Justin Bieber. Another member of the Confederacy targeted a 12-year-old middle schooler, calling her "fat," "ugly," "bitch," and "whore," while recommending she kill herself.

One girl, called "A.A." in court records, was specifically targeted by Sears after she criticized a post he made mocking Amanda Todd's suicide. According to a plea deal, Sears threatened to fly to Australia and rape, torture, and kill A.A., her cousin, and her brother unless she sent over nudes. At first, the One Direction fan thought she could get away with sending over a photo she had found online.

"I will kill you," Sears responded on November 3, 2012. "Every time you are defiant to me, like you... refusing to follow my orders, I will cut off a part of your body."

Eventually, the 16-year-old complied and sent over a full-frontal nude shot through Facebook messenger, which Sears then posted on AnonIB.com.

Some of the girls the cops interviewed were too embarrassed to admit they had sent nudes in the first place. But the boy Sears lured to the park was pissed about his stolen clothes and wallet. On August 15, 2013, he helped the Ventura County Sheriff's Department (VCSD) conduct a sting operation. That day, they charged Sears with four counts of felony luring, one count of felony extortion, and one count of felony possession of child pornography

Hours later, the FBI executed a search warrant of the house Sears shared with his parents. Special Agent Hand was then tasked with digging through Sears's electronic files. Among them, they found close-up photos of a 14-year-old girl's vagina. That photo had been posted online along with her name, telephone number, school, and online accounts. Sears admitted to the VCSD and an FBI agent that he lured the young boy to the park because he was "demented," that his activities had "a very minor sexual thing to it," and his motivations were more focused on "power" and "control."

Sears was released on bail after promising to stay away from minors and the internet, but then tried to convince a former victim to help plan an escape and to send more pictures. The victim responded, "A 14-year-old kid probably isn't your best option."

Eventually, on June 10, 2014, Sears was handed a 31-count indictment. This January, he pleaded guilty to one count of producing child pornography. Now 24, Sears is currently being held in Los Angeles, and when he gets out of jail, he will have to register as a sex offender and will be required to stay away from all 14 victims the feds included in their investigation.

Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI's LA office, tells VICE that the agency is being more proactive in trying to stop sexploitation cases. But the story of Sears and the Bieber Hijacking and Trolling Company shows that might be downright impossible in some cases. After all, how could anyone predict that a couple of kids pulling a prank would be co-opted by a sick man who soon had an army of followers doing the legwork for his demented purposes?

"If it wasn't us creating the BHTC, Jeremy Sears would have done something else," says Sagan. "We didn't create him. He was old enough to know what he was doing, and he took advantage of our own existing network and used it for his purposes. When someone showed us the article about him getting arrested, we were like, 'Oh my God.' We were like, 'This is way too much.'"

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