In the kitchen of a modern three-bedroomed house near Wigan 10 days ago, a 12-year-old girl asked her parents if she could have her passport. Her mother asked why. The girl said it was so she could apply for a bus pass and the passport was duly handed over. Thus fell into place a vital part of the plans that Shevaun Pennington had been hatching with her secret friend.
He was American. She had met him on the internet months ago, and he had seemed to understand her. They would email each other for hours, and he had written her letters and phoned her at school. And he was coming to meet her and they were going to have a holiday and be with each other, and it would be just like all those great emails, only better. Only she knew, 'cos it was a secret. He was her secret friend, called Toby.
The friend had secrets, too. Big secrets. Like, Toby Studabaker had been accused of sexual assaults on two young girls. And thrown out of his father-in-law's house. And collected a £75,000 life insurance payout when his wife died of cancer. They were the kind of things that maybe you would not mention to your new girl. Especially if she was only 19 going on 12, and the day you were going to meet was drawing near. Not that Mr and Mrs Pennington had any idea about that.
The school holidays were coming and life seemed just as it always was, with Shevaun tapping away at the computer in the kitchen. She seemed popular at school, had lots of friends, but there she was, most nights, on the Net for hours and hours. Still, it was safer than being out on the streets, surely?
As Shevaun kept her secret, 4,000 miles away in the small town of Constantine, Michigan, her friend was getting ready. Just a couple of weeks out of the Marines, Toby had told his brother Leo that he had met an English college girl on the Net and now he was going over to see her. The day before he flew, he dropped in at the tae kwon do academy where he had learnt martial arts as a teen, gone on to earn a black belt, and become so friendly with his trainer, Cindy Anglemyer, that he babysat her children. He mentioned that he might be off to Europe.
The next day, Leo took Toby to the airport, where he took the overnight to Amsterdam and then boarded KLM Flight 1073 to Manchester. As he was in the air, Shevaun put into practice the final part of her secret plan. Telling her parents that she was going shopping with friends, she left the house at 7.30am. She took her passport, a holdall of clothes, and £16, and headed to Manchester airport. Studabaker landed at 7.45, and within an hour or so, in the crowded halls, the 5ft 6in Shevaun came face to face with her secret friend for the first time. Quite what passed between them as she looked at this stocky widower remains their secret. But whatever it was, it did not prevent her joining him in the next part of their plan. At 2.50pm they caught a British Midland plane to Heathrow, and then the same airline's flight to Paris. No one, as Shevaun checked in or showed her boarding pass for either flight, seemed to have asked this 12-year-old who she was flying with. After all, as the airline said, a minor travelling with an adult is deemed accompanied. Only if unwillingness or unease were displayed would staff intervene.
As for the Penningtons, they thought their daughter was still shopping in Manchester. It was only at 8pm, as Shevaun was landing in Paris with the 31-year-old burly ex-US Marine, that they raised the alarm. Within 24 hours, the whole world knew Shevaun's secret. Worryingly for everyone, some of Toby's secrets were also emerging.
It did not take long, as police forces on both sides of the Atlantic tried to track down the missing girl and her "friend", for the media to go knocking on the door of Leo Studabaker and his family in Three Rivers, Michigan. The relatives painted a picture of a good if naive army vet flying off to Blighty to meet his internet sweetheart, and parts of the US media followed this line. "Net nightmare for former Marine" ran one headline. "Why," said Leo, "he'd even joshed that he might bring her back here as his bride." The news that Shevaun was only 12, said Leo, was quite a bombshell. It was not the only one. On Tuesday, there was Leo again, telling the cameras that Toby had just rung in. He was real mad at Shevaun for not letting on her real age, but she was safe, had not been touched and had even signed a letter to that effect. The call took everyone by surprise, not least the police, who found out from the BBC. Studabaker called the FBI but would not say where he was.
If the investigation into the couple's whereabouts appeared to be stalling, those into Studabaker's background were not. Police said the contents of his home computer strongly suggested he knew Shevaun's real age; and there was the story of Christmas 1998 at his in-laws' when two relatives, aged 13 and 10, accused him of making advances to them. He was charged with two counts of criminal sexual misconduct, but the case never came to court. This was reported, but the discovery of child porn images on his computer was not. The police, fearful of provoking Studabaker into breaking off all contact, asked the media to suppress the news.
Events now picked up speed. Shevaun called home on Wednesday morning to report that she and Studabaker were on their way to Stuttgart, where he put her on a plane bound for Amsterdam with a ticket on to England. He then contacted the FBI again, arranged for his surrender, and made his way to the US consulate in Frankfurt, where he was arrested.
On Friday, as Studabaker sat in a German cell awaiting extradition and Shevaun was having details gently coaxed out of her by police, came news of another of his secrets. For the past year he had been corresponding with another 12-year-old girl, Elizabeth Short from Fort Myers, Florida. More than 500 emails had been exchanged between the two, with, strikingly, the full knowledge of her mother, Jami. "He was a father figure towards her," she said, revealing that he had talked of visiting them in Florida and going to the beach.
Shevaun's secret had a happy ending. But others will not. As you read these words, faceless, fantasy, furtive 'friends' will be in the chatrooms insinuating themselves into the lives of the vulnerable. After last week, their existence should no longer be a secret to anyone.
Additional reporting by Neha Sharma
The tech trap: new dangers on the way
If parents think monitoring computer use is difficult now, they should just wait a few years. According to experts such as John Carr, internet safety adviser to National Children's Homes, one major concern is Net-enabled mobiles, which would mean access to chatrooms and email could be taken out of the home, on to a bus, a park bench, or anywhere.
"Parents will not be able to monitor their children's internet access at all once it leaves the home," says Mr Carr, "and such mobiles would greatly increase the risk of impromptu meetings with chatroom 'friends' being arranged."
His warnings about new technology come in the wake of the disappearance and return of Shevaun Pennington. The publicity surrounding that case prompted the parents of a missing girl, Jenna Bashir from Chiswick in west London, to discover a contact website on which their 14-year-old daughter had posted a photograph of herself and claimed to be 17. Jenna was reunited with her family on Friday, having been missing for a fortnight.
Yesterday the Institute of Public Policy Research called on the Government to introduce Net training for youngsters along the same lines as the cycling proficiency test. Children would receive a certificate to show they knew how to use the Web safely, including not revealing any details through which they might be traced. Groups such as Childline strongly advise children never to do this. If they do meet a Net contact, they should take along a trusted friend.
David Randall and Sophie GoodchildReuse content