An Arizona man who abducted and sexually assaulted a Utah teenager after publicly grooming the 13-year-old remotely online could have been stopped – if local cops hadn’t made a small but crucial mistake and if Twitter officials did not drag their feet to respond to law enforcement requests, the boy’s parents say.
“He had photos, pictures of my son, on Twitter. Everyone could see it,” Heather McConney told NBC News. “How can you not see that’s a child? If it had taken you 10 seconds to go and look, you would have seen it. And if you had just released the information, we could have found that person.”
The brazen kidnapping happened on Dec. 26, 2022 amid the social media platform’s tumultuous takeover by unpredictable billionaire Elon Musk. The second richest man in the world has loudly heralded the dawn of a new era for Twitter, vowing to eliminate widespread sexual abuse and child exploitation on the site.
However, according to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Musk has been largely unsuccessful in containing the problem and has made things even worse. Industry experts also say that upon arriving in the C-suite, Musk eliminated Twitter’s Confidence and Safety Council and halved the unit dedicated to enforcing the company’s ban on child sexual abuse material.
In the online universe, so-called keyboard warriors tend to narrate a big game with little action. In the McConney case, Twitter and real life literally crossed paths on her doorstep.
Heather McConney and her husband Ken first became concerned about their son last November, according to a criminal complaint filed in Utah federal court alleging 26-year-old Aaron Michael Zeman for kidnapping, producing child pornography and traveling with intent to engaging in illegal activities, accusing sexual contact and coercion and enticement.
On November 29, the couple discovered the boy had exchanged sexually explicit photos and videos with an adult male using the @HunterFloofyFox handle and turned his iPhone over to Layton Police. A few days later, a Layton PD detective reached out to Twitter for information about the person behind the @HunterFloofyFox account. But, the McConneys told NBC News, the username in the documents was misspelled as “@HunterFluffyFox.”
While they waited, McConney’s son, whose name The Daily Beast is withholding, was interviewed Dec. 9 by Davis County Children’s Justice Center officials, the complaint said. He told them about communicating with @HunterFloofyFox, also known as “Hunter Fox,” and said that although the two had also spoken on FaceTime, Telegram, Roblox, and Discord, “most of their conversations took place on Twitter,” he said the complaint. However, the search for Fox had hit a roadblock when Twitter told Layton police officers that an account called @HunterFluffyFox did not exist.
On December 22, detectives from the Layton Police Department served a second search warrant on Twitter, this time with Fox’s name correctly spelled. But the 22nd was a Thursday and Christmas weekend was just around the corner. On the night of December 26, Ken McConney went to check on his son. He found the window open and the boy gone. It remains unclear why it took so long to resubmit the corrected application.
Police learned the McConneys’ son had been in contact with Fox, who identified as “furry,” meaning part of a subculture that enjoys dressing up in anthropomorphic animal costumes with an Oculus VR headset, which Heather and Ken in the complaint says did not know that the device is capable of this.
“Law enforcement captured a Twitter conversation between ‘Hunter Fox’ and [the McConney teen]whereby Hunter informed Fox [the teen] that Hunter Fox had been in Utah for days and had made arrangements [the teen] from his residence,” the complaint reads, noting that a yellow alert was subsequently issued.
“I don’t understand what that person had on my son, the hold he had on him that convinced him to just walk away,” Heather McConney told KSL-TV at the time.
Police have hit Twitter with a series of emergency requests to unmask the person, who calls himself Hunter Fox. This time, the social network provided the information within two hours, Twitter vice president of trust and safety Ella Irwin told NBC News.
On December 28, the teen and Zeman, who the complaint said had legally changed his name to Tadashi Kura Kojima a few years ago, were spotted in Grand Island, Nebraska, about 800 miles from Layton. According to Layton Police, an eagle-eyed gas station attendant noticed something was wrong with the situation and notified police. Zeman was arrested and taken into custody pending his trial.
Family friend Beth Cooper described the Fox 13 teenage victim as a “handsome, brilliant young man”.
“He comes from a very loving household, a safe environment, he’s been raised by two loving parents his entire life,” Cooper told the outlet. “It’s just not one of those scenarios where he’s trying to run away from a bad home. He was being manipulated by someone pretending to be someone he wasn’t.”
Irwin declined to give further details, but said in an email to NBC News that Twitter is “very open to further cooperation with law enforcement to see how we are using them in this type of missing child investigation.” and be able to expedite and better support the data they request in these cases.”
Zeman has pleaded not guilty.
The McConneys are happy to have their son back. But, his mother told NBC, they still hope someone will be held accountable for the boy’s ordeal.
“I have to go ahead and find out what the hell happened,” she said. “Where did the ball fall?”
Twitter’s communications bureau responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Tuesday with an auto-generated poop emoji.
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