Apr. 24—POTSDAM — The family of Riley K. Basford has been connected with a public speaker who could bring the 15-year-old's story of extortion to thousands of students. The plan is underscored by a third family whose 14-year-old son was blackmailed online to the point his predator encouraged the suicide that would eventually happen.
Mary C. Rodee and Darren E. Basford, the parents of Riley, recently met with the superintendent of Potsdam schools. The parents were there to get help with finding Paul Davis, the public speaker who has presented to more than 600,000 students across the United States and Canada. He's eager to spread Riley's story.
Riley died by suicide in his father's home March 30. The teenager had been extorted online after sharing personal photographs with a Facebook user posing as someone they weren't. They demanded $3,500 or they would share the photos with his friends and family. The threats came just hours before Riley died. Just three weeks before, Shylynn M. Dixon, 18, of Lisbon, died by suicide after she was blackmailed and manipulated online.
After sharing Riley's story, his mother, Mary C. Rodee, and Mr. Basford said many families began contacting them with their own stories. There were families in Alabama, California and Minnesota — to name a few, he said. Then there's 14-year-old Evan T. McDaniel in Texas who died by suicide in January after vicious and all-out aggressive blackmails flooded his phone from a fake Instagram user. His parents found it difficult to share what was done to their child, but they're doing it for the first time after seeing the story of a teenaged north country kid.
"I showed my dad Riley's story," said Evan's father, David McDaniel. "I told him, 'Now take Riley's name out and put your grandson's in there, and that's exactly what happened.'"
'I couldn't breathe'
Jennifer J. McDaniel remembers saying, "I thought he was happy" over and over as she watched her 14-year-old son lay outside their back door in Tomball, Texas, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Evan was his own modest and giggly self on Jan. 5, but he woke up the next day to messages from who he thought was a beautiful woman. They were threatening to share a photo they claimed they had of him. They told the 14-year-old his life was over, that they were going to share the image with his friend list on Instagram and that they had already shared it with his sister and brother.
"They said, 'You might as well take a gun and shoot yourself in the head because your life is over,'" Mrs. McDaniel said, "and that's exactly what he did."
She and her husband David live outside of Houston in a suburban area. Raising their two kids, Lillian and Evan, they wanted to expose them to more than their hometowns in Texas or Louisiana where they used to live. They took trips to Costa Rica, Colorado and Arkansas. They were always family trips — those four together, hiking mountains or walking the beach.
Just like on Jan. 5, when the family was coming home from a trip to Louisiana to see family. They had a four-hour drive and Evan was messing around. He looked at his mom and said, "Momma, how old do I have to be until I can start cursing?"
He also told his sister he's glad her basketball team lost because that means their skiing trip in a month wouldn't be postponed.
It was all normal — just like Riley, just like Shylynn.
What his parents didn't know was Evan had been speaking with someone on Instagram, and he was just hours away from being blackmailed.
The family got home and went to bed, which is when Evan loses his phone each day until roughly 11:30 a.m. the next day. It's a daily routine so he can get school work done.
The threats started rolling in sometime after he went to bed, progressing and elevating as he didn't respond, leading to the encouragement of suicide. The Instagram user did in fact share a photo with Evan's sister and with a person who turned out to be Evan's cousin. Lillian never opened it and his cousin thought it was a joke, but Evan was known for his modesty and shyness and sending an intimate photo as a joke would not be something he would do.
It's still unclear if Evan actually sent any intimate photos or videos as none have been found. It's just known that an Instagram user said they had photos of Evan and threatened to share them.
Evan got up the next day and drank coffee, worked out, did his school work and spoke with his counselor about his class schedule. His mother was on a walk before running some errands. His dad was in his home office working.
It was about 11:20 a.m. when Evan got his phone back and ate lunch, which is likely when he saw the threats. His family said, just like Riley and Shylynn, the moment took him into a flash panic and worry. He began looking for his dad's truck keys because he knew there was a firearm inside.
Mrs. McDaniel got home shortly before 11:45 a.m. and was greeted at the door by her daughter. Lillian was asking about help with her school schedule and Mrs. McDaniel wondered where Evan was. She asked Lillian to take the trash out a few times before she did, walking the overflowing bag out their back door and to the garbage can before finding Evan laying on the ground. Lillian froze and didn't scream as she said her brother's name.
Mrs. McDaniel came out a few seconds later, not seeing a gun.
"When I saw him lying there, and this is going to sound crazy, I thought he had fallen off his bike and hit his head and he was walking into the house and he had collapsed," Mrs. McDaniel said. "That's how out of the realm of my thinking it was that he did this to himself."
Evan's father dialed 911 as a neighbor came over and they began CPR, which resulted in a cough-like sound coming from Evan. They heard it so they turned him over, which is when Mrs. McDaniel saw the gun. It appears it was less than 30 minutes between the moment Evan saw the messages and when he died.
"I just kept saying. 'I thought he was happy,'" Mrs. McDaniel said. "There was no way I could believe he did this to himself."
It wasn't until a month after Evan's death when an investigator came to their house to show them that Evan had been in contact with someone on Instagram. Evan's parents said they hadn't seen messages indicating a demand was made by the blackmailers, but given the nature of the threats, investigators believe something was asked for. They just don't yet know what that is. It appears Evan came into contact with these people on a different app to begin with, which could have been when the demands were made.
The investigation continued and the Instagram user was eventually traced back to the Philippines, which stonewalled the investigation from a local law enforcement perspective.
Evan was the kid in school who wasn't a popular jock, but he was known and well-liked. He was an offensive linemen on the football team, loved sports trivia, fishing and was a Boy Scout who was one badge away from beginning his Eagle Scout project.
Roughly three months after he died, his parents still didn't want to speak about what was done to their son with hardly anyone. Mr. McDaniel's father didn't even know. That is, until they read Riley's story.
"When I read it, it took my breath away because I felt we were the only people it happened to," Evan's mother said. "I knew things happened like this, but to the extent it was this similar was unbelievable. It was like someone took a gun and killed them."
'Everybody is mobilized'
Paul Davis is an Ontario-based public speaker who has given cyber presentations to parents and students across five states and four provinces.
Before it went virtually, he presented in front of 622,000 students in classrooms during the day, not to mention the talks he gives to parents at night wherever he travels. He mostly speaks about online safety and how students have a voice to speak out if they are being harassed online, especially if they are being threatened with photos they have sent.
Mr. Davis is not only wanting to meet the Basford family and make a video to share with his large online platform, he said he would spread Riley's story to students in classrooms he visits in person and virtually.
"I absolutely would," Mr. Davis said. "I never wanted to use someone's grief or hurt in an effort to make a point, but if a family approaches me and says, 'Paul, we want you to,' then I will absolutely do it."
He speaks with students about removing the stigma of feeling shame, embarrassment or judgment for sending a photo they regret. Having a former career in the cyber world, he advises they simply don't send intimate photos, but there are options if they do. There are people to reach out to, whether it's a parent, teacher or principal. The trusted adult has a responsibility to help them, he said. He said he believes in the saying of, "Even if it saves one life, then it was worth it," but that bar is too low.
"If we do get that message across, then we're literally saving hundreds," he said, "and that's what we have to strive for."
Joann Chambers, the superintendent of Potsdam Central School District, where Riley was a sophomore, wondered like many about what she could do to help. That's how Mr. Davis got involved. She had seen his presentations in the past and knew it was her job to facilitate the connection.
"A lot of people are having conversations right now," Ms. Chambers said. "I think we just need to capitalize on this momentum and work together to make sure this doesn't happen to another student."
Riley's mother, Mary C. Rodee, wants to focus on how her son's brain was underdeveloped and incapable of processing such fast-moving threats and manipulation. Evan's mother felt the same way. She was in shock at how similarly both teens were sent into such a panic.
But for all of them, it's about continuing the fight and message and bringing awareness to as many as they can.
"I can talk to a kid all day long that doesn't know me and he's going to say, 'Yeah right, whatever, that isn't going to happen to me,'" Riley's father said. "But with Riley's story, I can share with them how happy and go-lucky he was, how popular he was, and how he was just a normal boy who got sucked into something terrible."