By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
She found her walking on a sidewalk not far from the bookstore. As she boarded the car, Stephanie appeared "shaken, upset, not at all like herself." Still more frightened than angry, Levine says she popped a "typical mom" question: Who were you talking to?
"I was talking to a 23-year-old guy," Stephanie replied weakly. "He had a foreign accent, and he wanted directions."
Levine's mood swung from fear to anger. "How many times have we talked about talking to strangers?" she shouted. "Why would you do something like that?"
"I learned my lesson," Stephanie mumbled.
"What is that?"
"I learned never to talk to older people on the computer," her daughter replied. The seeming non sequitur ended the conversation, but it left Levine disquieted about the time her daughter had been spending on the computer.
The next day, while Stephanie was at a friend's birthday party, Levine asked Jackie if she could get access to any of Stephanie's online messages. It was a mother's hunch, but what Jackie found confirmed her fears.
About three weeks earlier, Stephanie had received an instant message from a man named Michael, with the simple note: "Hi looking for a friend wanna chat." Michael's profile page was about as generic as could be, describing his hobbies and interests as "movies, football, dining out and many more." Perhaps more enticing for a young girl was his personal credo: "Don't let any one run ur life cuz it's urs and u should be the one to make things happen."
Jackie recollects reading the evolution of the messages Stephanie and Michael exchanged during the following weeks. It began generally. "She talked about what she was doing with her friends," Jackie says. "He said he worked at a perfume factory, and he'd tell her about that. They'd talk about each other's pictures."
He tried to keep the discussion centered on Stephanie. "He didn't really give that much information about himself," Jackie says. "It seemed like he was trying to find out where she lived, what specific area."
The subject of meeting came up within three or four exchanges, and Michael's messages quickly evolved into "lovey-dovey" missives, Jackie says. For example: "Don't worry about anything. I care about you. I can't wait until we see each other. Why can't we see each other now?" Jackie adds: "They were saying how much they loved each other, stuff like that."
Shortly before they were to meet, Stephanie confessed to him that she'd lied earlier about being 15; she was younger than that, she wrote. "That's okay," he responded. "I really care about you."
On the morning of August 4, a Wednesday, Stephanie walked over to the Barnes & Noble to meet Michael. Her mother was running errands and wasn't even aware that her daughter had left the house. Stephanie got into Michael's black Mitsubishi Eclipse, which had dark-tinted windows, and he drove to the back of the parking lot. The two kissed, and he caressed her as she sat on his lap. He apparently became aggressive enough that she got out of the car after a few minutes and walked back home.
The meeting left her somewhat shaken, enough so that in a subsequent message, she asked pointedly, "Are you a rapist?" Jaemi Levine recalls reading Michael's response: "He went on and on telling her how he was hurt that she didn't trust him." He quickly quelled her doubts by manipulating her: "I thought you were my friend. How can you think something like that? I could never hurt anyone."
"It seemed the way she was writing that she was getting a little bit scared," Jackie says. "She was confused, I think."
But Michael pressed her to meet again, which led to their final meeting on August 7. After meeting at Barnes & Noble, Michael drove her to a nearby second-story apartment on Sample Road, according to the police report. He told Stephanie that the apartment belonged to a friend of his. Michael took his pants and shorts off, Stephanie told police, and he rubbed his erect penis on her. It was at this point that Levine began calling her daughter, who told the man that her mother was searching for her. That rattled him. Stephanie too was shaken, because when the phone rang a final time, she told him it was the police.
He drove her back to her neighborhood. While stopped at a red light, he pulled his penis out and masturbated until he ejaculated. He said he'd like to see her again after he returned from Canada. Several minutes later, Jaemi Levine found her badly shaken daughter. Police began investigating the molestation the next day.
During the past few years, Florida communities have busily beefed up laws dictating where convicted sex offenders can -- and cannot -- live. Town ordinances that prevent offenders from living near schools are common. Some cities, such as Pembroke Pines and Dania Beach, have passed ordinances that amount to a virtual housing ban for offenders.
While the wisdom and efficacy -- as well as the legality -- of such laws are still being debated, one thing is certain: They ignore the Internet, a fertile turf for sexual predators.