TAMARAC, Fla. – A 41-year-old accused child sexual predator from Broward County used the online video game Fortnite, a worldwide pop culture phenomenon, to victimize at least 20 minors, according to the Broward Sheriff's Office. The Tamarac resident is facing charges in only one case.
Deputies accused Anthony Thomas, an alleged former juvenile detention officer, of engaging in sexual activity with a teenage girl from Brevard County and of soliciting pornographic photos and videos. Detectives said he used the multiplayer free-to-download game to make initial contact.
The law enforcement community worldwide has warned that there are pedophiles hiding among the millions of Fortnite players. Sgt. Thomas McInerney said he is concerned because a lot of parents aren't aware that sexual predators are using the gaming platforms.
"Most games nowadays have chatting applications or voice over the games themselves and obviously children are on these game systems and so predators prey on children anywhere they are," McInerney said.
Attorney General Ashley Moody released a statement Thursday saying parents need to talk to their children and teenagers about sexual predators who like Thomas are lurking online.
"This case is disturbing not only because it involves child pornography, but also because a popular online game was used to communicate with the victim," Moody said.
Deputies said Thomas used a 23-year-old woman, whom he met when she was 16 years old and was having sex with, to communicate with the 17-year-old victim and work on "normalizing" the abuse.
"You are like the bigger sister I always wanted. My sister did nothing but bully and pick on me," the teenage girl wrote in a message to the woman Oct. 8, according to court records. "She never was nice, only like 1 percent of the time she was."
The woman was not discomfited. Instead, records show she also sent lecherous messages to the teenage girl. Detective Michael Joo said Thomas used classic grooming techniques such as playing to the weaknesses or insecurities of the victim, cloaking the relationship in secrecy and using gifts -- including two credit cards and an iPhone.
When confronted about the gifts, Thomas told a deputy he did so to help protect the girl, who had allegedly told him she was having problems at home.
"Parents need to know that predators will use any means possible to target and exploit a child," Moody said.
Thomas, who is a father, took the teenager to his home where the two engaged in sexual activity Aug. 25, deputies said. The parents told authorities in Brevard County that the victim had vanished from home, and deputies returned the teen home Aug. 26.
Despite authorities' involvement, Thomas remained in contact with the victim. Phone records show the two communicated from Aug. 27 to Oct. 11, and the teenage girl even used an application from her mother's phone, deputies said.
"I got you sending me nudes and videos after the cops and your parents forbid it," Thomas wrote in a message, according to records.
FBI Agent Evan Patterson told an ABC affiliate in Louisiana that predators are increasingly using the games to connect with minors, and they are asking their victims to download messaging apps to communicate privately. Patterson also said parents need to watch out for red flags.
"When your child is trying to hide things from you, if they turn the system off quickly when you walk into the room, if they’re starting to seem withdrawn and they want to spend more time on the game but, without you being in the room when they’re doing it," Patterson said.
Patterson suggested that a good way for parents to protect their kids is to participate in the games and to be aware of who they are talking to and what personal information they are releasing online.
"I am asking parents and guardians to please make sure you know who your children meet online," Moody said.
It was game over for Thomas on Thursday when deputies arrested him at his home in Tamarac.
Thomas is charged with unlawful sexual activity with a minor, 22 counts of child pornography, possession with intention to promote sexual performance of a child, traveling to meet a minor for unlawful sexual activity and soliciting a child for unlawful sexual conduct using computers.
"We have reason to believe there could be additional victims," Moody said.
Moody is asking anyone with information about the recruiting of minors for child pornography, or any other type of sexual exploitation, to contact law enforcement immediately. Deputies are also asking anyone with information about Thomas' case to call Joo at 954-888-5241.