By Natalie Johnson / firstname.lastname@example.org
A Chehalis teen accused of eliciting sexual images of W.F. West High School classmates using social media and extorting the classmates if they tried to stop sending pictures will not be charged as an adult, Superior Court Judge James Lawler ruled Monday.
“I just can’t see that there’s enough here to do that,” he said. “I see far more problems than solutions if that had been my decision.”
While Lawler ruled the allegations were serious and that the suspect’s actions were premeditated — requirements for charging him as an adult — he said other factors pointed in the boy’s favor, such as his lack of previous criminal history and his willingness to take responsibility and undergo treatment.
The Chronicle does not name suspects charged in Lewis County Juvenile Court.
The teen’s defense attorney, Elissa Brine, argued that evaluations of her client, nearly 17 now and 15 at the time of the alleged crimes, showed that he has shown remorse and was not mature enough to fully understand the impact of his actions.
She said he wants to be a normal 17-year-old, go to college, and live his life.
“He wants to do that in a way that’s respectful to other people,” Brine said.
After Lawler’s ruling, the teen pleaded not guilty to amended juvenile charges of four counts of first-degree dealing in depictions of minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct and seven counts of extortion.
The suspect has already served 101 days in Lewis County Juvenile Detention and for the past 38 days has been on electronic home monitoring, attorneys said Monday.
Lawler ruled Monday the boy could be on house arrest, meaning he does not have to wear a tracking anklet as in electronic home monitoring, but must be accompanied by parents when he leaves the house.
Brine expressed a desire to schedule a plea hearing in the next few weeks.
Attorneys agreed Monday the suspect should be sentenced under a treatment option such a juvenile special sex offender disposition alternative (SSODA) in which he would get treatment in lieu of incarceration, but would have to serve the balance of his sentence if found to violate conditions of the alternative.
Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer argued for the state Monday, saying the teen should be charged as an adult in Lewis County Superior Court partly out of a concern that if he completed the case in juvenile court he would be able to seal his criminal record and would be out of custody by 21 at the latest.
“His victims will forever have their picture and their videos out on the internet,” Meyer said. “We’re four years away from the maximum amount (of time) this court can impose.”
Meyer introduced testimony from two witnesses — FBI agent Richard Schroff and Det. Sgt. Kevin Engelbertsen from the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, both of whom were involved in the investigation.
Schroff said the Federal Bureau of Investigation became involved after getting a tip, and tracked the photos to IP addresses, then to the suspect.
The suspect was 15 when he allegedly created numerous social media profiles under a female alter ego, the agent said. Using the accounts, the boy was accused of contacting male classmates and sending them the explicit content.
In return, the teen would ask for pictures and video of his victims. If the victims tried to stop, the suspect reportedly threatened to send their explicit photos and videos to their family and friends, which he did in several cases, according to the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office.
The boy was 16 when contacted by investigators, and will turn 17 in March.
At one point, Meyer estimated as many as 40 criminal charges in the case and said an FBI report detailed hundreds of explicit photos in the teen’s possession, not all of them of classmates.
The Chehalis School District became aware of the allegations in mid-2016.
Both investigators said under oath Monday that the suspect acknowledged what he had done, and knew it was wrong.
“He said he knew exactly what he was doing,” Schroff said.
Investigators testified they asked the suspect if he felt he was a predator, and said the suspect said, “yes.”
Meyer said it was the extortion and the suspect’s willingness to follow through on his threats that made the crime so “alarming.”
Brine painted a different picture of the teen, saying he was immature for his age and isolated.
“He is one of the only gay students at his school,” she said.
Brine said her client solicited pictures of other boys at his school the way he did because he had no other outlet for sexual contact, and said he was essentially “unable to control his impulses.”
She said he took responsibility for his actions and should be treated as a juvenile.
Rickie Anders, a probation officer and representative of Lewis County Juvenile Court, also recommended that the teen stay in juvenile court.
“It is egregious, he had lots of victims, but at the same time, we’re dealing with a juvenile,” she said.
Anders said the suspect should have an opportunity to take advantage of treatment options and show that he can be rehabilitated.
Meyer agreed with the probation officer and defense attorney that the suspect needs and should get treatment regardless of whether it was in juvenile or superior court.