VIRTUAL REALITY, REAL FEAR

Two young Columbus women said they are living in fear after their faces, names and addresses were published with altered sexually provocative photos on the Internet.

Adam J. Helton, 22, of Columbus, is accused of posting those altered photos on up to a dozen adult- and sex-themed websites.

With a courtroom full of spectators for a Nov. 12 sentencing hearing, two female victims — one now 22 and the other now 18 — testified that Helton removed photos of them from a social media site and superimposed their faces on the bodies of other women.

Each posting left the impression they were created by the women themselves, according to a probable-cause affidavit summarizing the police investigation.

“He told hundreds of men around the world it was my fantasy to have them kidnap and rape me,” the 22-year-old victim testified.

Comments left on some sites came from people who said they already had bought their plane tickets to do exactly that, the older victim testified.

Three packaged sex toys were subsequently delivered to the younger victim’s home, according to court documents and the woman’s own testimony.

As a result, both women have expressed constant concern of being abducted and sexually assaulted.

“Beyond anything I could imagine,” Bartholomew Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann said. “They can’t live any minute of their lives without being fearful.”

Investigators said they thought the Columbus man was using other people’s identities to engage in inappropriate communications with minors.

Broken laws

Helton, who was arrested last winter, originally was charged with child solicitation and stalking, both Level 5 felonies, as well as two counts of identify deception as Level 6 felonies.Heimann is considering a plea bargain that would allow the Franklin Street resident to plead guilty to one count of stalking and one count of identity deception.Under Indiana statutes, Helton could be sentenced under the proposed agreement to two to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay fines of up of $20,000.

While Heimann said he is considering suspending part or all of the sentence, he warned that probation likely would carry a lengthy list of conditions normally reserved only for sexual predators.

Although most of the fake postings have been removed from the Internet, Helton testified Nov. 12 that at least one site remained. For that reason, the judge decided to postpone the sentencing in order for the defendant to ensure all postings are removed.

Those efforts will be undertaken by Helton under the supervision of the cybercrimes unit of the Indiana State Police, Bartholomew County deputy prosecutor Kathleen Burns said.

Investigation & arrest

Police became alerted when a Columbus woman told police Jan. 30 that someone had used her 17-year-old daughter’s name and photographs to create a bogus Facebook page in the summer of 2014, according to the probable-cause affidavit filed Feb. 6 by Columbus Police Department officer Brian Plummer.After the teen was alerted by a friend that her real name and address were posted on pornographic websites, the family received at least two phone calls to the home from an unknown male asking to speak to the daughter. In both cases, the caller’s request was denied, the affidavit said.However, the teen’s sister got a reply when she asked the person who created the fake Facebook page why her sibling was being targeted.

“Your sister is a rare breed. She needs it; she deserves it,” was the reply.

While on the witness stand, the younger victim said she had received another message from the same person. “I took one look at you and knew I wanted to hurt you.”

After police were called, investigators were able to connect the writer to another bogus Facebook page.

They then were able to use information from that page to learn about the 22-year-old victim, a Columbus native who recently married and now lives in the Pacific Northwest.

But when they attempted to trace the location of the suspect through the Internet protocol address, police discovered the writer was using masking software.

When officers used the teen’s real Facebook page to get more details, the writer demanded to see a picture of the female with his message on her screen.

After the request was granted, police said the writer seemed to accept he was communicating with the victim. Eventually, officers were able to persuade the suspect to send a text message to the female’s cellphone, which enabled them to pinpoint Helton’s location, the affidavit said.

Local police, accompanied by members of the Indiana State Police Internet Crimes Against Children unit, searched Helton’s parents’ Columbus home at 6:30 a.m. Feb. 2, Columbus Police Department spokesman Sgt. Matt Harris said.

While not home at the time, Adam Helton was arrested a short time later as he was visiting relatives in the Greenwood area, Harris said.

Helton’s arrest was part of a yearlong investigation into Internet crimes, he said.

Indiana cyberstalking laws are broken when a person transmits an obscene message or indecent or profane words to a person over the Internet in an attempt to harass, annoy or alarm, according to state statutes.

‘Something broke’

For many of the 25 people in the courtroom who thought they knew the defendant, Adam Helton was the last person they would suspect of committing such damaging acts. Prior to the hearing, Helton’s attorney, Sean Thomasson, handed over 13 positive character references for his client in the form of letters from local residents.On the stand, the defendant’s mother, Beth Helton, described Helton as an always-obedient and well-behaved “joy of my life” who constantly helps around the house without being told.

Helton, who has been on several mission trips with the family’s church, never raises his voice or uses profanity, Beth Helton testified. However, she also testified her son has a quiet and shy demeanor with low self-esteem who comes off as lacking emotion.

Beth Helton said she believes “something broke” in her son’s mind while attending a Chicago area university that, at one point, resulted in a trip to a hospital after suffering a panic or anxiety attack at a fraternity function.

Although the judge has a confidential psychological evaluation of the defendant, he listened carefully to testimony from the fathers of both victims — one of whom is a mental health professional practicing in Columbus.

While admitting he was angry, the therapist used terms such as antisocial and deviant to describe Helton, adding the defendant seems to lead a double life that involves hiding his darker side from those who know him.

In contrast, the father of the younger victim described Helton’s actions as the “cold, calculated crimes of a sociopath and sadist.”

His own words

Testifying on his own behalf, Adam Helton said he didn’t set out to do as much damage to the two women as he did.“I’ve come to understand how things can spiral out of control when you get online,” he said calmly.Helton said he understood he was doing wrong and felt bad, which prompted him to temporarily take down the bogus sites.

However, he said, “things would happen that would trigger me” to put the sites back up after a week or two.

“I know I’ve done a lot of horrible things,” Helton said.

When asked by Burns to elaborate, the defendant replied only that he had ruined the young women’s reputations. Besides not acknowledging the danger he created, Helton also said he doesn’t know why he committed his crimes.

While on the stand, Helton stated he was especially sorry for the pain he has caused his own family.

His mother earlier testified that, due to the case, she and her husband were preparing to sell their home, move out of state and find other jobs.

What's next?

A sentencing hearing for Adam J. Helton is scheduled to resume at 11 a.m. Dec. 3 in Bartholomew Circuit Court.

Helton is charged with child solicitation and stalking, both Level 5 felonies, as well as two counts of identify deception as Level 6 felonies. Under those four counts, he could be imprisoned from three to 17 years and ordered to pay up to $40,000 in fines.

However, Judge Stephen Heimann is considering a plea bargain that would allow Helton to plead guilty to one count of stalking as a Level 5 felony and one count of identify deception as a Level 6 felony. That would lower the sentencing range to two to 12 years in prison and a maximum $20,000 in fines. 

Heimann said he will not determine an appropriate sentence until he’s satisfied the defendant has removed all fictitious web site postings regarding two Columbus women.

Protecting yourself

Protecting yourself on Facebook

Make virtual friends only with people you know. If you have doubts over identity, double-check before accepting the person as a friend. If still in doubt, don’t accept them.

Just replying to an unknown contact to ask “Who are you?” can give the person temporary access to your Facebook profile, depending on the level of privacy settings you have chosen.

You can remove friends at any time should you change your mind about someone.

Tips on profile privacy settings

  • Set to “Only My Friends”
  • Set “Photos tagged of you” and “Videos tagged of you” to “Only My Friends”
  • Consider setting contact information to “No one” (the default is “Only My Friends”)

Tips on search privacy settings

  • “Who can find me in search” — Default is “all my networks and all of my friends.”
  • De-select the “Allow my public search listing to be indexed by external search engines.”

Source: Cardiff University IT and Library Services

Pull Quote

“He told hundreds of men around the world it was my fantasy to have them kidnap and rape me.”

22-year-old victim, testifying in Bartholomew Circuit Court

“They can’t live any minute of their lives without being fearful.”

Bartholomew Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.