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About 25 million kids in the United States use the Internet, according to John Shehan, manager of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's CyberTipline. The tipline, which tracks all types of child sexual exploitation, has logged almost 14,000 incidents of online enticement of children for sexual acts in the past seven years.
Judging by a 2001 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, the CyberTipline's numbers reflect only a fraction of reality. The university study, which was a random sample of 1,501 kids age 10 through 17 who used the Internet regularly, found that about one in five had received a sexual solicitation over the Internet during the previous year. The study also found that teenagers were more often targets than younger children and that about half the time, the recipients didn't tell their parents.
Adding to the risk is a normal impulse to test boundaries. "We are finding more and more often, these children know they're speaking with an adult," Shehan says. The messages are often blatantly sexual. "You'd think the child would tell a parent or someone. But in many situations, they're not; they're continuing the conversations."
Indeed, Stephanie was aware that she was conversing with an adult. "It's like girls who get crushes on their teachers, but the teachers know better than to act on it," Levine explains. "It's natural for the little girl, in a way. These girls are at that developmental stage. They're being normal. It's the adult that's not being normal.
"Yes, [Stephanie] made some serious mistakes in judgment. But that's what molesters want, mistakes in judgment. She made a mistake and put herself in danger."
Stephanie began seeing a therapist after the incident. A Coral Springs detective told Levine that they hadn't been able to get Michael online and suspected that he was out of the country.
However, Jackie, upset that several weeks had passed without an arrest, became impatient with the police investigation. She hatched a plan to find Michael on her own. She set up a phony profile for a 15-year-old girl, which included a poem that ended with the verses: "All mine for all time. I will capture your soul as you steal my heart. Sparkle, smile, shimmer, shine, follow the broken line."
Jackie placed Michael's screen name on AOL's so-called "Buddy List," which meant that if he was online using his screen name, she'd be notified. Not more than a day later, the name popped up on Jackie's screen, and she instant-messaged him, saying that she'd read his profile and was interested in him.
"This guy was very disgusting," she recalls. His approach with her was entirely different than with her 12-year-old sister, as though he adapted to his prey. Using a bizarre tack, he tried to win her over by describing a previous girlfriend. "He was telling me about some fat, blind girl he was a boyfriend to," Jackie says. "How he cared about her so much and what a good person he was because of that. He said he'd 'laid down the dick for her.' He would say sexual things, and I'd say, 'Blah blah blah -- let's wait for that.' It was just gross."
Jackie's plan was to lure him to a meeting place and then have her male high school friends pound the living daylights out of him. It likely would have worked, as Michael agreed to meet, but her mother discovered the plot. Apoplectic, Levine called the police, who didn't look kindly on Jackie's actions.
"Well, they weren't grateful," Jackie says ruefully.
Instead of Jackie herself, a Coral Springs undercover cop made the rendezvous with Michael at a Borders bookstore parking lot on September 9. The man answering to the name of Michael was Rehman, who was in the United States on an expired visa. He confessed to molesting Stephanie, police said, and he was taken to the Broward County Jail. His bond was set at $35,500, and he was declared indigent.
On September 23, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security filed an immigration detainer with the Broward Sheriff's Office requesting that ICE be notified if Rehman was to be released or moved to another jail.
Levine and her family felt a ripple of relief after weeks of knowing that this sexual predator had been on the loose. It was, of course, a misguided sense of peace.
Although Waqas Rehman has no previous record of sexual crimes, a brief outline of his years in America suggests a furtive lifestyle. He was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1975 and landed in Fairfield, California, in 1998. He moved frequently, sometimes renting more than one apartment at a time, according to public records. He moved to Broward County permanently in 2001 and at the time of his arrest had been working at a Dunkin' Donuts for a year.
He began a romantic relationship with a minor, Lorena Corina Franca, an immigrant from Uruguay living in South Florida. On her 18th birthday, February 19, 2004, she and Rehman filed for a marriage license. They wed in a ceremony conducted at the Broward County Courthouse on April 14, 2004.