Teen girls trapped sick online predator
Jodie was just 15 years old when she received a seemingly innocuous message on Facebook from a man she had no recollection of adding as a friend.
That man was Ashley Willats, then 24, formerly of Wyndham Vale, Victoria, though he told Jodie he was 18 when he messaged out of the blue to ask if she needed support.
"I've always been someone that seeks comfort," Jodie says. For this reason, the connection didn't seem odd to her.
On the contrary, she found it flattering.
"He was an older guy, so as a young person, you always like the older guys better because they treat you better," she says.
"He would always treat me like a princess. He would say stuff that I want to hear and obviously, he knew what young girls want to hear as well, considering he's done it multiple times."
It's easy to say this with hindsight. But at the time she had no such sense of foreboding. Jodie and Willats - who used the assumed name Ashley Percy - started chatting online every day.
Initially, the photos he sent through were playful, depicting images such as his face obscured by his black cat. Pretty soon though, he started sending explicit images - including of him naked in mirror and of his erect penis. He asked to Jodie to send nude images back, which she did.
Jodie's parents - Craig and Seonee - only allowed her to use the internet for homework, not for social media. The upshot was she wasn't online as often as Willats desired. He began to message incessantly, asking why she wasn't in touch.
"I blocked him on everything but Snapchat," Jodie, now 20, recalls. "I told him I wasn't allowed Facebook anymore. That way, (I figured) he would stop messaging me constantly. And … then he messaged Jess."
Jess is Jodie's cousin, who was 16 at the time Willats made contact.
Speaking in a Skype interview alongside Jess's mother Annie, Jodie and Jess sit very close to one another - the trauma they've been through has drawn them together.
Jodie starts to cry. She has a lot of guilt about dragging Jess into the situation and says: "It makes you feel weak still," and then a moment later, "I am nothing."
Before taking over the story, Jess assures her cousin this isn't the case.
"It's not your fault, it's his fault … It stopped at us and that's what you've got to really think. It stopped at us," she says.
In his messages to Jess, Willats initially pretended he was worried about Jodie. Then he started voicing paranoia, opining that "Jodie was back with her ex".
"He threatened me that if I didn't somehow manage to get Jodie in contact with him in 24 hours, that he would leak her nude photos," Jess recalls.
As proof of intent, he sent the nude photos of Jodie through to Jess.
Willats' messages stated: "I love Jodie and can make her happy. But … she has humiliated me, talking to me and making me happy then disappearing like I was nothing."
He went on to say: "I feel like a low piece of shit" and, "She's got until tomorrow night or I post her nudes all over fb (Facebook). Tell her that."
Through the screens, Jess felt his rage.
"That's when I was like, 'OK. This is really big now … If this gets out, this is the internet. Things like this stay on the net forever," she says.
Her goal was to calm Willats down and take the heat out of his anger. (Remember, she was only 16 at the time.) She tried to reason with him, appealing to his better nature and imploring him to understand Jodie came from a strict household and had limited internet access. Her soothing tactics worked - but the danger wasn't over.
"He started going on like asking me weird questions, like whether I was a virgin … and started going on about my sex life," Jess recalls.
Although she didn't know exactly where he lived, Jess knew it wasn't too far away. She also knew from researching online that he had a car and a gun and reputation for contacting young girls.
One Facebook message she found, posted in the Melton Goss (short for 'gossip') group was from a young woman called Sarah who "used to be mates with him and went cruising with him every night". In the message, Sarah went on to say Willats sent her explicit images and tried to convince her to have sex.
"He also had a book of girls in his car of all the girls he's f**ked," she wrote.
When Jess read that post, she became even more scared.
"My parents were asleep, and it felt like my walls were closing in on me because I had no idea what to do," Jess recollects. "And the following morning, I immediately told my mum and showed her the messages."
"After that, when my mum got hold of my Facebook, that's when he started even sending nudes or videos of him pleasuring himself to me," she continues.
Jess's mum, Annie, is one of the heroes of this story. Her close, trusting relationship with her daughter - and her determination to get police to pay attention - are major reasons Willats was ever tried and convicted.
Annie looked at the conversations Willats had had with her daughter over Facebook Messenger. She then poked around his Facebook account, noting that all his "friends" were very young girls. In any images he'd posted that depicted cars, all the number plates were blacked out. It seemed increasingly suspicious. A post on a local Facebook community group named Willats via the alias Ashley Percy and warned young girls he was a predator. Along with Jodie's parents, Annie went to the police.
Initially, law enforcement did not respond as she hoped, instead urging Jess and Jodie to: "Just block him. Don't worry about it. It happens all the time."
"We, both myself and Jodie's parents, basically had to push the police to investigate him and then that led them to take statements from the girls," Annie says.
Eventually, Annie and the girls hit upon a police officer at Melton Crime Investigation Unit who took the case up and worked tirelessly to resolve it. Her name was Detective Leading Senior Constable, Josie Gunnell.
"She really advocated and fought for us and our case," Jess says - and the other two women agree.
Annie, Jodie and Jess started scouring social media for posts about Willats/Percy and handing potential case studies over to police. He had contact with underage girls, many of whom were troubled and in state care. Willats frequently sent explicit imagery to these girls, requesting similar images in return.
Annie describes Willats' offending as a "Pandora's box" and says many of his victims "had something that made them a little bit easier for him to abuse, for example problems with their parents or past life trauma".
"Some of them just wanted to be loved," she says.
After years of waiting, Willats was finally sentenced on May 28, 2018 in the County Court in Melbourne. He was found guilty of numerous State and Commonwealth offences against at least 11 victims. The youngest female target of his sexual advances was just 12 years old.
He was given a global sentence of four years and eight months and is due for release from prison in November 2021. Willats' convictions include: using the internet to procure a child for sexual activity, producing and transmitting child pornography, stalking, online harassment, distributing intimate images, making a threat to kill, false imprisonment, burglary and theft and possession of prohibited weapons.
Court documents show Willats had little sympathy for his victims. During a police interview in July 2015, he claimed his victims were "bad people" who took drugs and hated law enforcement.
"They're a different class of person," he stated.
Willats further claimed he "hadn't hurt anyone" and "these people don't have any emotions".
Nothing could be further from the truth. In her victim impact statement tendered to the court, Jess explained that Willats' harassment during her final year of schooling affected her educational progress and made her lose trust in those around her, especially men. She became hypervigilant and fearful and was later diagnosed with PTSD.
Jodie's statement is even more alarming. She felt "duped" by Willats' words and actions and felt betrayed by his possessiveness and aggression and began self-harming "resulting in eight sutures near an artery". She wrote that her personality changed and she had trouble eating and sleeping. She had to move schools was medicated for depression.
In his sentencing remarks, Judge Frank Gucciardo noted: "These are the normal impacts that courts unfortunately see upon victims of sexual offending every day. They are profound (and) long-lasting."
Jodie says she wouldn't have got through it without her parents.
"My parents fought through the whole process side-by-side with Annie, and I couldn't be any more thankful for what they've done - not just for Jess and I but for all the girls who didn't have anyone to turn to."
For Annie, this whole fraught saga is a lesson in building trusting relationships with your children. She knows that if her relationship with Jess wasn't so strong, things may have turned out very differently.
"So many kids in our community were being harassed by this guy and they didn't feel comfortable going to their carer.
"Communicate with your kids. You've got to. Don't judge them … you've just got to be there and you've just got to listen."
Annie's view is backed up by the Federal eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant.
"Keeping open and honest lines of communication with your children about what they're doing online, and letting them know you'll be there to support them if anything goes wrong online, may make it easier for them to approach you when something does go awry online," Mr Inman Grant said.
"Although your child may not be interacting with a person face-to-face, don't underestimate the danger they may be in, or the support you can provide."
The eSafety office also encourages parents to teach their children to:
• Be alert to the signs of inappropriate contact
• Delete unknown contacts and requests or messages from strangers
• Report and block any unwanted or negative contact
Parents can go to the eSafety website for resources and advice for advice on how to keep your kids safe online.
• In an emergency, please call 000
• For non-urgent policing assistance, please call 131 444