British Columbia·In Depth

Search goes cold for suspect police say posed as pop star to sextort teen

Police are still searching for a suspect in a frustrating investigation into a sextortion case involving a social media celebrity impostor and a 13-year-old girl.

RCMP say suspect is still out there after 2017 search of rural property came up empty

RCMP obtained a search warrant for a Chilliwack address in their attempts to track down a suspect accused of posing as Shawn Mendes to sextort a teen. (CBC)

The 13-year-old told police she had doubts the person she was sexting with was really pop star Shawn Mendes.

The details of the deception are laid out in court documents obtained by CBC.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the teen said she "fully believed him at times." She sent nude pictures of herself despite "not wanting to."

But she said she also "wanted there to be enough information for police to find out who was behind the user profile."

Chilliwack RCMP obtained a search warrant in June 2017 to search a rural property where they believed they might find computers holding the key to the mystery of the fake Shawn Mendes.

But they came up empty.

And as of now, the teen's tormentor is still out there.

"It was an intense investigation — a very complex investigation. They executed the warrant, and then our tech person went through the entire computer and did not find anything to support the allegation," says Cpl. Mike Rail, spokesperson for the RCMP's Upper Fraser Valley Regional Detachment.

"They followed all of their leads and at the end of the investigation there was no suspect identified and there was no evidence to support sending anything forward for charges."

A request for contact

The allegations form part of two troubling trends: a proliferation of both sextortion cases and fake social media accounts set up in the names of celebrities in order to target vulnerable fans.

Just last month, Burnaby RCMP warned the public about a rise in sextortion cases and last year, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection reported staggering increases in incidents involving both teenaged boys and girls.

The Chilliwack investigation began on Valentine's Day 2017, when a school vice principal called police.

According to the search warrant, the teen was contacted on social media by someone claiming to be pop singer Shawn Mendes. Celebrities are frequently the target of online imposters. (Rich Polk)

Cpl. Nathan Berze — then a constable — applied for the search warrant.

Berze claimed the vice principal told him the student had '"friended' someone on Snapchat by the name of Shawn Mendes and it seems as though the contact may be predatory in nature."

The teen said the connection began in October 2016 when a male called 'Kurt Vasquez' contacted her on Instagram.

"Sometime in December of 2016, one of Kurt Vasquez's listed associates on Instagram who identified himself as the professional celebrity musician Shawn Mendes ('Shawn') requested to connect with her," Berze writes.

'Is it really him?'

According to the court document, their relationship soon switched to Snapchat.

"Shawn requested that she send nude videos of herself to him," the warrant says. "She initially complied because she wanted to engage sexually with him."

The girl told police she wanted to stop, but "Shawn had threatened to make her previously sent sexual photos and videos public."

In applying for the warrant, Berze noted that "offenders will often create fake social media profiles for the purposes of avoiding detection."

According to an analysis of social media accounts, the most popular celebrities on social media, like Beyonce (left) and Taylor Swift, are the subjects of thousands of imposter accounts. ((Jason DeCrow/Associated Press))

The issue was recently highlighted by the New York Times, which commissioned an analysis of false social media accounts in the names of the top 10 people followed on Instagram, including Beyonce and Taylor Swift.

The company that conducted the survey, Indiana-based Social Impostor, found more than 9,000 accounts connected to those identities. CEO Kevin Long says the Chilliwack story is sadly familiar.

"Everyone on social media, they have their guard down most of the time. They're very comfortable and open. They overshare. They want to feel like someone wants to talk to them. And so common sense goes out the window," Long says.

"Why would Shawn Mendes contact this girl in high school in Vancouver? It doesn't make sense, Why would he do that? But that doesn't strike a chord when you're a teenager.

"You get caught up in it, and maybe a little star struck in some cases, or they just don't think to question, is it really him?"

'We would pursue it'

RCMP contacted the company which owns Snapchat. They preserved the account and reported the incident to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

A member of the RCMP's Integrated Child Exploitation Unit also contacted Berze with a report from an officer in Scotland.

"He was currently conducting an inquiry into a child abuse investigation whereby an adult male had been approaching young females under the age of 16 via their Snapchat profiles for the purpose of exchanging sexual images and chat."

The username was the same as the suspect in the Chilliwack case.

A police officer in Scotland conducted an investigation into a man using the same Snapchat user name as the Chilliwack case to prey on teenage girls. The case remains unsolved. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

Berze tracked the IP addresses for the account back to a residence in Chilliwack. And according to the court documents, RCMP seized Playstations, hard drives, iPads, and iPhones from the address. To no avail.

"If there was more evidence to come forward, we would explore it," Rail says.

"But every avenue we explored it. We investigated it. And in the end when they put everything together — examined all of their evidence — there was nothing that came out of the computer."

Representatives for Shawn Mendes did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

The Ontario-born superstar has more than 35 million followers on Instagram and nearly 20 million on Twitter.

Long says the nature of Mendes' popularity and the age of his fans makes him a target for fakes: "Given his popularity these days, I would be surprised if he doesn't have a thousand imposters."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.