Police are searching for more victims who may have had their personal images shared on sexual dating websites without their knowledge in a complicated aggravated cyberstalking case.
Fifteen victims already have been identified, leading to the arrest of Pensacolian Sean Michael Vest, 31, on 15 counts of aggravated stalking and cyberstalking.
In a joint press conference Tuesday afternoon, Assistant State Attorney John Molchan and the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office revealed few specific details about the case against Vest, but did say due to its unique nature it could be one that eventually changes legislation.
Vest is accused of sending harassing text messages and voice calls to a number of women over a period of time between December and his arrest Jan. 20. He also is accused of collecting photographs of victims, including children, from social media sites and selling those images to sexual websites, according to Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan.
It is alleged that Vest used a number of devices and platforms, including private internet browsers, to collect and distribute the images, which makes the case more difficult to prosecute.
Escambia County Chief Deputy Chip Simmons said the department expects more victims to come forward in light of Vest’s arrest.
“One victim is too many, but when the investigators started looking at it, they saw victim after victim after victim,” he said.
While there is no evidence the cyberstalking ever became physical in nature, primary investigator Amber Bernard said that a number of the victims were connections that stemmed from Pensacola Catholic High School, specifically the Class of 2004. Bernard said the other victims may have been found through association with those victims.
“It ranges from people’s mothers and grandmothers in their 60s, to we have some 12-year-old victims,” Bernard said.
“We’ve had phone calls even since he was arrested Friday.”
Molchan said aggravated cyberstalking is a relatively new charge, which means it will be a challenge to prosecute the case against Vest.
“This is one of those areas of the law where the law has not caught up with the technology that it out there, and certainly it will be a challenge for us in putting this case together,” Molchan said.
Molchan said this case likely will force an adjustment in law as law enforcement and prosecutors address the case’s complexities.
Though authorities wouldn’t discuss specifics as far as the nature of the images and their use, they did say “hateful speech” was involved, as well as threatening text.
“If you post pictures of yourself and your children, we sadly live in a world today that there are no protections from you not ending up a victim of an internet-based crime,” Morgan said.
“While in your own lives you’re doing something very innocent, you’re sharing with your high school class page from 1960 … along comes someone who takes those images of both you and your children and sells them to a sex website.”
The 15 counts, which are third-degree felonies, could carry a penalty of up to 75 years in prison, Molchan said.
Vest is currently housed at the Escambia County Jail in lieu of a $375,000 bond. His first court appearance is Feb. 10.
Anyone who is a victim of these crimes is encouraged to contact ECSO.