But charging them for that crime didn’t make any sense
A bout a month into the investigation, Donald Lowe concluded that the wide phone-collection campaign had added up to one massive distraction. “They thought they were doing it privately,” he told me, reaching much the same conclusion as Levick. “We’re not helping them at all by labeling them at an early age.” Lowe recalled to me a girl in his own high-school class who had developed a reputation as “the county slut, and it took her years and years to overcome that.” These girls didn’t need their names in the paper to boot.
His investigators subpoenaed Instagram for the IP address of the accounts’ originating computer, but because of a technical aberration, that turned out to be inconclusive
By June, Lowe had made the decision to wipe the photos off most of the phones and return them to the girls, and most of the boys, with a warning: “We don’t want to put anything on your record, but the next time we come around, we’re not going to be so nice about it.” He held on to a few phones and got search warrants for a few more, and began to focus on what seemed more like the actual crime: the posting of explicit photos without consent on Instagram.
Within the first day or two of the investigation, Lowe had developed a pretty good suspicion of who was behind that. A few of the boys he talked to-and a couple of girls as well-had told him they’d sent photos directly to boys who they thought had set up the accounts. A few others had sent them to a go-between, but still had a decent idea of who was setting up the accounts. The organizers had apparently spent weeks gathering photos. They said they would open the accounts only when they had a lot of pictures in hand, and that anyone who sent one in would be guaranteed access. Lowe wasn’t sure whether it was just a couple of boys working together or with a slightly larger Echt squirt group of accomplices. He continued to search for other, solid evidence.
Lowe would not confirm to me the identity of the main suspects in the investigation, but according to some of the kids and parents, they are two brothers-one a student at the school, one a recent graduate. One was a troublemaker known for hitting people on the bus, and the other a popular kid. One was under 18 and the other over, meaning that if they were charged, they could be subject to very different legal treatment. The key would be to figure out their intent-were the boys trying to make porn available to adults, or was it a “me and my buddies want to collect a bunch of pictures” kind of deal?
Lowe strongly suspected the latter, that this was about “raging hormones and bragging.” Kids, after all, described the accounts to him, and to me, as “funny,” “just something to laugh at,” “just a bunch of friends sitting around having a laugh.” If that were true, at least for any minors involved, a child-porn charge seemed too “Big Brother” to Lowe, and he and the local prosecutor might want to come up with a lesser charge or even no charge at all, especially because the account had been closed down so quickly and had been seen by relatively few people, limiting potential harm. But largely because of community pressures, he had to consider the possibility that he’d just discovered “the tip of an iceberg of some organized-crime thing.”