IACP 2023: The impact of sextortion on a family, community and small-town police department
The parents of James Woods, 17, are on a mission to shine a light on the events leading up to the death of their only child by suicide and what happened after
SAN DIEGO — Within 19 and a half hours of being targeted by online predators, 17-year-old James Woods died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Unfortunately, James’ story is not an isolated incident. That is the message his courageous parents, Tamia and Tim Woods, hoped to convey during a presentation at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference.
Here are three memorable quotes from the session that illustrate the current threat of sextortion in the United States:
“In 2021, there were 18,000 sextortion complaints made, with losses exceeding $13.6 million.” — Streetsboro Police Department Chief Patricia Wain
“Sextortion is running rampant on campuses. If you have campuses in your jurisdiction, this is happening in your area.” — Streetsboro Police Department Chief Patricia Wain
“The people who are doing this don’t care that law enforcement is involved and we need to change that.” — Streetsboro Police Department Chief Patricia Wain
The death of James Woods
The sudden and unexpected death of James Woods on November 19, 2022, led to the discovery of a targeted attack on the high school student and athlete when he became the victim of sextortion.
For the Streetsboro (Ohio) Police Department (SPD), the incident began as a suicide report. When sextortion was identified as the cause, the SPD continued the investigation by taking advantage of available resources and help from NCMEC, ICAC, HSI and the FBI.
During the IACP session, SPD Police Chief Patricia Wain and Sergeant Stanley Siedlecki, who investigated the case, outlined what happened after the discovery of James’ body.
When officers arrived at the scene, there was a shift change in progress, and a significant police presence was already established. The initial contact was made by the first responding officer, who met with Tim Woods. Mr. Woods reported the tragic death of his son, James, who had been discovered lifeless in an upstairs bedroom with a gunshot wound. At that moment, there were no apparent signs or indications as to why this tragic event had occurred.
“We proceeded to secure James’s cellphone and obtained written consent to examine its contents, utilizing a Faraday bag for this purpose,” Siedlecki said.
A series of threatening messages were discovered on the phone aimed at James. These messages demanded that he send money, with the threat that compromising pictures of him would be shared online with his family and friends if he refused to comply. The messages included a Cash App username and were sent through direct messages on Instagram. The account responsible for these messages appeared highly suspicious, continuously bombarding James with a multitude of threats.
“What heightened our suspicions,” Siedlecki said, “was the fact that the first contact with this particular username had occurred just the day before, within a span of less than 24 hours.” That contact had persuaded James to send naked photos of himself with screenshots of those images immediately sent back to the teen.
In response, James said he didn’t have any money and begged the online predators to delete the images. For the next 19 hours, the perpetrators bombarded James with a series of increasingly violent messages.
“We initiated legal proceedings with Cash App and Meta/Instagram, which ultimately led us to obtain the IP address associated with the threatening account. Further investigation led us to discover that the activities traced back to the Ivory Coast in Africa, as the screen captures contained words in French,” Siedlecki said. “Our prior collaboration with the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children (OHIC ICAC) unit proved to be highly beneficial. Having worked together on smaller cases before, our department was well-prepared to handle a significant event like this.
OHIC ICAC played a pivotal role in successfully taking down the threatening account and creating cyber tips that effectively linked the account and IP addresses, consolidating the evidence and leads in the case, Siedlecki said.
Based on these findings, HSI (Homeland Security Investigations) indicated that the origin of the threats could be traced to either Nigeria or the Ivory Coast. Further investigation led them to link the Cash App activity to a female located in Georgia in the United States.
“We remain hopeful that the information we provided to HSI will ultimately result in the arrest of those responsible for these disturbing threats and actions,” Siedlecki said.
If there was one thing Siedlecki wanted IACP attendees to take away from this case, it is: “Have officers, detectives and supervisors know what they are doing as far as legal service. Facilitate relationships with ICAC or federal agencies ahead of time. Do not wait until a big event to call the 800 number and contact someone.”
Communicating with the community
“Immediately following James’ suicide, the Woods family stepped up in a way in my 30 years of law enforcement I have never seen a family do,” Chief Wain said.
This close collaboration enabled immediate communication with the community and James’ school not only to get the message out about the tragic events but also to inform other students of what to do if they were also the victims of sextortion.
“The story went viral on social media, and we still have it pinned as the top story on our Facebook page,” Chief Wain noted.
Key to getting information out was the positive relationship CPD had with the school superintendent. “You need to inform your communities, and parents need to talk to their kids and have access codes for their phones. I am afraid to think of how many suicides we have missed because no one looked at the phones,” Chief Wain noted.
Educating legislators is also critical, notes Chief Wain: “Meta has the capability of tracking this information, but using AI to search data for keywords is not a financial win for them, it is however the way that they missed opportunities. James used all those keywords that should have triggered an alert on their end. If we can’t stop the kids maybe we can get big business to do what they should have done in the first place, there was time with James for them to catch this.”
The kind of boy everyone loves
Since James’ death just under a year ago, Tami Woods has done over 80 interviews, engagements, podcasts and school presentations about James’ tragic death. She always asks two questions:
- How many of you know what sextortion is?
- How many of you have children?
“I do this to educate, raise awareness and stand up for kids. I refuse to let another child die on my watch,” Tamia Woods told the IACP audience. “We all need to work together. This is not just a parent thing, it is a community thing.”
James’ father, Tim Woods, described how his son was the kind of boy everyone loves, but “it turns out people don’t care how special you are. Those individuals told James terrible things would happen if they made the photos they had of him public and told many things that James did not know were lies. They told him they were going to ruin his life and make his parents not love him anymore. That his friends wouldn’t want to be friends anymore. That he would be labeled a pedophile and go to jail. These were all untrue but he didn’t know that. At 17 years old his brain was not fully developed. My son took his life because these people just wanted money.”
Do It For James
On January 13, 2023, Tami and Tim Woods founded a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization called the Do It For James Foundation to warn others and encourage communication between children and adults. As the foundation grows, it will help the underserved, assist with mental health needs and provide scholarships for runners. For more information, see https://www.letsdifj.org/