FORT LAUDERDALE, 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 a Brevard County girl and possibly up to 20 other minors, officials said.
Deputies accused Anthony Thomas, of Tamarac, of engaging in sexual activity with the 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, News 6 partner WPLG-TV reported.
Deputies said Thomas used a 23-year-old woman, whom he met when she was 16 years old, 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 Brevard 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."
Records show the woman also sent lecherous messages to the 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," Florida Attorney General Ashley Mood 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 Aug. 26.
Despite authorities' involvement, Thomas remained in contact with the victim, officials said. Phone records show the two communicated from Aug. 27 to Oct. 11, and the teenage girl 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.
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 predators prey on children anywhere they are," McInerney said.
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"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.
"I am asking parents and guardians to please make sure you know who your children meet online," Moody said.
Thomas was arrested Thursday at his home in Tamarac. He faces charges of 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 954-888-5241.
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