A 31-year-old Florida man was arrested and faces charges after police say he hid a missing Ohio teen and planned to have sex with her.
Detective Henrick Osthed arrested Thomas Ebersole on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.
An FBI special agent had reached out to Det. Osthed for assistance in locating the missing 16-year-old girl.
Investigators found the girl after she logged into World of Warcraft, an online video game, from Ebersole’s home address in Dunnellon, police said.
Upon further investigation, authorities learned that Ebersole also had a World of Warcraft account that was accessed from the location.
When law enforcement contacted Ebersole, he initially denied knowing the missing girl. However, when pressed, he allegedly admitted that he had driven to Ohio to meet the juvenile victim and brought her back to his home.
Ebersole told police he was in a romantic relationship with the minor and said he was going to hide her in his home and eventually marry her, according to the news release.
Ebersole turned over messages on the online chat app Discord to Det. Osthed that detailed his plans to meet the girl in Ohio and engage in sexual activity with her, despite knowing he was committing a crime, police said.
He was arrested and booked in Marion County Jail, where the sheriff’s office said he remains without bond.
Ebersole faces charges of interfering with child custody, traveling to meet a minor to engage in sexual activity, and sheltering an unmarried minor.
Law enforcement agencies have warned that children face a growing threat of being sexually exploited over the internet.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCME), reports of “Online Enticement of Children for Sexual Acts” have grown by 82% since 2021 and 113% since 2020.
NCME attributed the growth, partially, to a spike in financial sextortion, defined as “a crime in which kids are targeted to share explicit photos and then threatened by offenders that they will share the images with the child’s friends, family, or others if they don’t give the blackmailer money.”
An NBC report published earlier this year detailed how Discord, which boasts 150 million users worldwide, has been used by child predators to groom children, trade child sexual exploitation material and extort minors whom they trick into sending nude images.
The report identified 35 cases over the past six years in which adults were prosecuted on charges of kidnapping, grooming or sexual assault that allegedly involved chat messages on Discord.
Discord has community guidelines which warn minors “do not engage in sexual conduct or any conduct that puts your online or physical safety at risk.” The platform also prohibits adults from soliciting sexual conduct or engaging in any sexual conduct with persons under the age of 18.
Discord disabled 128,153 accounts and removed 7,736 servers for Child Safety between July and September 2023, according to the company’s third quarter transparency report. The company said it reported 51,916 accounts to NCME, a 40% increase from the previous quarter.
Fox News Digital’s C.B. Cotton contributed to this report.