Calhoun County

Behind closed screens: Unveiling the hidden dangers of sexting and sextortion in Southwest Michigan

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series. 
BATTLE CREEK, MI — Shame, fear, and embarrassment are preventing victims of sextortion in Calhoun County and elsewhere in the United States from reporting the crime to those in a position to seek justice for them, says Calhoun County Prosecutor David Gilbert.
Of the 30,000 cases of online sextortion reported nationally in 2022, more than 7,000 complaints involved children, according to the FBI and Homeland Security.

Because of this, and a continuing rise in sexting — the sharing and receiving of sexually explicit messages and nude or partially nude images via computer or cell phone, Calhoun County Prosecuting Attorney Gilbert issued a letter earlier this month warning parents and students of the dangers of sexting and sextortion.
Calhoun County Prosecutor David Gilbert“We don’t have numbers, but we do know that it’s going on here,” he says of Calhoun County
The few individuals who have come forward to seek help from the Calhoun County Prosecutor’s Office include a man who moved out of the area after being victimized and a high school student who had their face photoshopped onto a naked body.
The man who left the area is among a federal statistic that says one in eight people move away after being victimized by sextortion.
Sextortion is a term used to describe a crime in which an offender coerces a minor to create and send sexually explicit images or video, according to information on an FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) website.
“After receiving the sexually explicit content from the child, the offender threatens to release that compromising material unless the victim produces additional explicit material. In these cases, the offenders are motivated by the sexual gratification they receive from the content,” according to the FBI.
There also is Financially motivated sextortion which follows a similar pattern with a different goal.

“After receiving the sexually explicit material, the offender threatens to release the compromising material unless the victim provides payment — often as gift cards, mobile payment services, wire transfers, or cryptocurrency. In these cases, the offenders are primarily motivated by financial gain, not solely sexual gratification.”

The two individuals who sought help from Gilbert’s office represent only the tip of an iceberg that has countless numbers of victims — both adults and minors — of sextortion remaining silent beneath it. Gilbert says the crime is a frequent topic of conversation among prosecutors throughout Michigan who are taking it very seriously and working to hold the perpetrators accountable.
Data collected by the FBI says victims are typically males between the ages of 14 to 17, but that any child can become a victim. In cases involving financially motivated sextortion, the offenders are usually located outside the United States, primarily in West African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast, or Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines.

These crimes can lead victims to self-harm and have led to suicide. From October 2021 to March 2023, the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations received over 13,000 reports of online financial sextortion of minors. The sextortion involved at least 12,600 victims — primarily boys — and led to at least 20 suicides.

One of these suicides happened in Michigan in March 2022 when Jordan DeMay, a 17-year-old from Marquette took his own life after two men living in Nigeria threatened to post explicit photos of him on social media.

DeMay had thought he was chatting with a girl on Instagram about his own age, and the conversation quickly turned to a request for explicit pictures, authorities said at the time. Once he shared images of himself, the talk changed to demands for money in exchange for the other side not sending the images to DeMay’s family and friends. When the teenager could not pay, the person on the other end pushed DeMay to kill himself.

The perpetrators, Samuel Ogoshi, 22, and Samson Ogoshi, 20, of Lagos, Nigeria, were extradited to Michigan from Nigeria to face prosecution after being indicted in May 2023, for sexually extorting numerous young men and teenage boys in the Western District of Michigan and across the United States. Ogoshi was also charged with causing the death of 17-year-old Jordan who was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in March 2022. At the time of this story, no trial date has been set.

One post is all it takes
The increase in sexting parallels the sharp rise in sextortion crime, Gilbert says.
In 2022, the FBI said incidences of sextortion had risen by 100 percent.
None of this comes as a surprise to Mark Glubke, a psychotherapist who focuses on teenagers and college-age youth as a partner with Glubke and White Psychotherapy in Kalamazoo.
He says he thinks sexting is driven primarily by adolescent curiosity.
“Of course, they’re going to make some not-so-great decisions because they don’t have life experience and they’re not fully thinking through their actions,” says Battle Creek Police Chief Shannon Bagley.
Battle Creek Police Chief Shannon BagleyIn Michigan, Gilbert says less than 20 percent of adolescents have sent a sexting message leaving a majority that has not engaged.
But Glubke says discussions about sexting and its aftermath come up “very frequently” among his clients.
“You’d be astonished if you knew the stories I have heard,” he says.
The disgruntled boyfriend of a female high school student Glubke was working with “decided to send her nudes around and the whole high school saw them. When people are shamed like that there’s anxiety and depression which puts a kid at risk of suicide.”
Like Gilbert, he says, “It’s not just kids. Adults take nudes too.” Their age, Glubke says doesn’t shield them from similar fallout experienced by teens, particularly when they become victims of sextortion.
“I’ve had this happen to two of my clients in the past year,” he says. “This is not some random weird thing that happens in big cities it’s happening here.”
One of these clients was a 21-year-old who had recently graduated from college and the other one was a middle-aged man who was using a dating site.
Glubke also had a client who was hospitalized after suffering panic attacks because he thought nude photos of him would be sent to his parents and his employer.
“This sextortion thing is terrible,” Glubke says. “People need to be aware. They’re ashamed of having to even talk about this issue or have nudes taken and disseminated. They’re not saying anything rather than dealing with the shame of it. One guy did talk to the police and a lawyer who told him it’s happening all the time and there are others who wouldn’t dare go to the authorities.”
This concerns Bagley, who says he’s certain that these types of situations are not being reported at the rate that they are occurring.
“What we’re seeing is that we’re not capturing the true numbers of that type of occurrence and that’s concerning,” he says.
Oftentimes victims are embarrassed and never realize the significance of their actions, Gilbert says.
“One adult I spoke to said they had done something when they were younger and the pictures have come up now that they’re older,” Gilbert says.
Glubke says if young people are going to engage in sexting, they should at the very least never have pictures taken that would not identify them in any way.
“We have no privacy in this day and age. If you’re on a hook-up app, keep in mind that you have no idea who you’re talking to, and don’t ever give your phone number or email out,” he says.
The letter Gilbert sent Southwest Michigan Second Wave says, “Children and teens across the nation are being threatened and coerced into sending explicit images online or paying money through cash apps to prevent their release. They are meeting people online through social media outlets — Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and numerous other apps. Many times, someone is posing as someone they are not.”
People have a false sense of security when it comes to their mobile phones and computers, Gilbert says, despite the presence of hackers who are routinely hacking into websites including those operated by the Federal government.
“You need to protect yourself and the people you care about,” Gilbert says. “If someone sends you something delete it. Turn it over to the police and let me know. There are people out there who want to make quick cash by taking advantage of people.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.