An Arizona man who kidnapped and sexually assaulted a Utah teen after publicly grooming the 13-year-old online from afar, could have been stopped—if local cops hadn’t made a small but crucial error, and if Twitter officials hadn’t dragged their feet in responding to law enforcement requests, the boy’s parents say.
“He had photos, images of my son, on Twitter. Everybody could see it,” Heather McConney told NBC News. “How do you not see this is a child? If you would have taken 10 seconds to go and look you would have seen it. And if you would have just released the information, we would have been able to find this person.”
The brazen abduction occurred Dec. 26, 2022, amid erratic billionaire Elon Musk’s turbulent takeover of the social media platform. The world’s second-richest man loudly proclaimed the dawn of a new era for Twitter, vowing to eliminate what he claimed was widespread child sex abuse and exploitation happening on the site.
But Musk has largely been unsuccessful at tamping down the issue, and has in fact made things even worse, according to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). Industry experts also say Musk, who upon his arrival in the C-suite eliminated Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, and halved the unit dedicated to enforcing the company’s ban on child sex abuse material.
In the online universe, so-called keyboard warriors tend to talk a big game, with little action. In the McConney case, Twitter and real life intersected literally at their front door.
Heather McConney and her husband Ken first became concerned for their son last November, according to a criminal complaint filed in Utah federal court, charging 26-year-old Aaron Michael Zeman with kidnapping, production of child pornography, travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual contact, and coercion and enticement.
On Nov. 29, the couple discovered the boy had been exchanging sexually explicit photos and videos with a grown man using the handle “@HunterFloofyFox,” and turned his iPhone over to Layton police. A few days later, a detective with the Layton PD subpoenaed Twitter for information about the person behind the @HunterFloofyFox account. But, the McConneys told NBC News, the username in the documents was misspelled as “@HunterFluffyFox.”
While they waited, the McConney’s son, whose name The Daily Beast is withholding, was interviewed on Dec. 9 by officials at the Davis County Children’s Justice Center, the complaint states. He told them about communicating with @HunterFloofyFox, who also went by “Hunter Fox,” and said that although the two had also talked via FaceTime, Telegram, Roblox, and Discord, “most of their conversations occurred on Twitter,” according to the complaint. However, the search for Fox had hit a roadblock, with Twitter telling Layton cops that an account by the name @HunterFluffyFox didn’t exist.
On Dec. 22, detectives with the Layton Police Department served a second search warrant on Twitter, this time with Fox’s handle spelled properly. But the 22nd was a Thursday, and the Christmas weekend was about to begin. On the night of Dec. 26, Ken McConney went to check on his son. He found the window open, and the boy gone. It remains unclear why it took so long to resubmit the corrected request.
Police learned the McConneys’ son had been in touch with Fox, who identified as a “furry,” that is, part of a subculture that enjoys dressing up in anthropomorphic animal costumes, using an Oculus VR headset, something the complaint says Heather and Ken didn’t know the device was capable of.
“Law enforcement located a Twitter conversation on the Oculus device between ‘Hunter Fox’ and [the McConney teen], wherein Hunter Fox informed [the teen] that Hunter Fox had been in Utah for days and made arrangements to take [the teen] from his residence,” the complaint states, noting that an Amber Alert was subsequently issued.
“I don’t understand what this person had on my son, what grasp he had on him that convinced him to just walk away,” Heather McConney told KSL-TV at the time.
Police served Twitter with a series of emergency requests to unmask the person calling himself Hunter Fox. This time, the social network delivered the information within two hours, Twitter vice president of trust and safety Ella Irwin told NBC News.
On Dec. 28, the teen and Zeman, who the complaint says legally changed his name a few years back to Tadashi Kura Kojima, were spotted in Grand Island, Nebraska, some 800 miles away from Layton. According to Layton police, an eagle-eyed gas station attendant there noticed something “off” about the situation and notified cops. Zeman was arrested and taken into custody, where he remains pending trial.
Family friend Beth Cooper described the teenage victim to Fox 13 as a “handsome, brilliant young man.”
“He comes from a very loving household, safe environment, he’s grown up with two loving parents his entire life,” Cooper told the outlet. “This just isn’t one of those scenarios that he’s trying to run away from a bad home. He was manipulated by someone pretending to be someone they were not.”
Irwin declined to provide further specifics, but said in an email to NBC News that Twitter is “very open to collaborating further with law enforcement on how we can speed up and better assist them with these types of investigations involving missing children and the data requests they may have in these cases.”
Zeman has pleaded not guilty.
The McConneys are happy to have their son back. But, his mother told NBC, they’re still hoping someone is held accountable for the boy’s ordeal.
“I need to move forward and figure out what the hell happened,” she said. “Where did the ball get dropped?”
Twitter’s communications office replied to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Tuesday with an auto-generated poop emoji.