Sextortion victim’s testimony helps put predator away for 38 years
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Written by LOPPW | 12/13/2016
Sextortion victim’s testimony helps put predator away for 38 years
Caught in a massive sexploitation scheme when he was 15, a former Eau Claire man closed the doors on a 4½-year ordeal by testifying against the perpetrator at a sentencing hearing
Photo by Derek Montgomery | – Grant Abens, a 2015 graduate of North High School who now lives in Duluth, Minn., was among at least 155 adolescent boys from the Upper Midwest victimized by Anton Martynenko in a sextortion scheme that prosecutors say is the largest child porn production case in Minnesota history. Abens testified recently at the hearing where Martynenko was sentenced to 38 years in prison.
Editor’s note: The Leader-Telegram normally doesn’t publish the names of minors involved in child pornography cases but made an exception in this case because the victim is now an adult who wanted to share his story to educate others about how sextortion schemes work.
The initial Facebook message to Grant Abens arrived out of the blue.
It appeared to be from an attractive young woman named Cortney Jansgen, who said she worked for a Twin Cities company called JH Modeling and was interested in offering then-15-year-old Abens a modeling deal.
The agency, she said, was looking to photograph high school athletes and would pay Abens up to $1,000 — an enticing sum for the Eau Claire North High School student just about to start his sophomore soccer season — if he would go to the Twin Cities for a fully clothed photo shoot.
After exchanging hundreds of messages to allay his skepticism — including a message exchange with the purported CEO of JH Modeling — Abens eventually agreed to work with the agency.
Then came the catch: Jansgen explained, all in a professional manner, that to set up a portfolio before the shoot Abens would have to fill out a detailed questionnaire about his physical appearance and send nude photos to prove he was a male.
Without consulting with anyone else, Abens obliged, launching a painful 4½-year ordeal that finally came to an end Nov. 29 when Abens’ tormenter — actually a man named Anton Martynenko — was sentenced to 38 years in prison for running a massive sextortion scheme prosecutors maintain is the largest child pornography production case in Minnesota history.
Martynenko, 32, a mortgage broker from Eagan, Minn., pleaded guilty in January to using fake social media profiles to victimize at least 155 adolescent boys from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. Most of the victims, like Abens, were high school athletes between 14 and 16 who Martynenko tricked into sending him nude photos and videos, which he later posted online.
Sextortion, a crime that occurs when someone demands something of value, typically images of a sexual nature or sexual favors, from a person by threatening to distribute material the victim seeks to keep private, is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States, according to the FBI.
For Abens, now 20 and living in Duluth, Minn., while taking a year off from studying engineering at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the sentencing lifted a black cloud that has been following him since the day he hit “send” on the email containing his nude photos.
“It just gave me a sense of freedom that I never have to worry about him again,” Abens said of Martynenko, whose real identity Abens didn’t learn until the FBI contacted him this February as part of its investigation.
Abens insisted he was skeptical about the modeling offer, at one point even asking if sending the nude photos might be considered child porn and thus be illegal. But the decoy Jansgen account assured the teen it wouldn’t be child porn if there wasn’t a sexual nature to the photos.
“She was just very reassuring about it all,” Abens said. “The whole thing seemed very convincing at the time, and I didn’t have the smartest brain yet, being only 15. I was really enticed by the $1,000.”
Assistant U.S. attorney Carol Kayser said Martynenko put together a multiple-page modeling contract and provided victims with an address for the agency and a photo of the actual building at that address.
“It was a very sophisticated scheme,” Kayser said. “It wasn’t like a hobby. It was an obsession.”
Martynenko, posing as Jansgen, even sent Abens sample photos that looked like typical graduation pictures to alleviate his fears and directed him to look at a fake website for the modeling agency.
While Abens received internet safety training in school, the level of sophistication in Martynenko’s scheme caught him off guard.
“I was never prepared for any sort of professional scheme like that,” Abens said. “I just never thought there’d be people who put so much time and thought into stuff like that. It was so elaborate that it just all added up for me.”
After Abens sent the nude photos, the bogus Jansgen messaged him that he was approved for the modeling gig and just needed to get to the Twin Cities for his photo shoot.
But Abens was still too young to drive and too embarrassed to tell his parents about the photos, so he confided in his older girlfriend and discussed the possibility of her driving him. The girlfriend, however, was dubious about the arrangement and put him off, something he now is exceedingly thankful for.
In the meantime, Jansgen then messaged Abens that the ground rules had changed: The photo shoot now must be done without clothes.
That’s when the alarm bells went off for Abens, who informed Jansgen he didn’t want anything to do with the agency anymore and asked her to delete his portfolio.
Shortly thereafter, while on a road trip with his Huskies soccer teammates in October 2012, Abens received a Facebook message from someone named Dustin Michael, who looked like a high school kid and claimed to be a hockey player who had just moved to the Twin Cities and was looking for new friends.
After exchanging a few messages, Michael said he would pay $300 if he could perform oral sex on Abens.
Abens immediately rejected the proposal but had no idea he was actually communicating with Martynenko, posing behind another fake Facebook profile.
That brought a welcome end to Abens’ bizarre internet encounters — until the following summer, when things got even more uncomfortable.
Abens, then 16, recalled riding in a car next to his grandma on a family vacation about nine months after the Michael incident when he received a shocking text message from a close friend stating: “Dude, have you seen Facebook? Your naked pictures are on Facebook!”
The friend said the four photos appeared to have been posted by Michael, who had tagged Abens so that his more than 1,000 Facebook friends could see them. Abens had no idea how Michael could have gotten the photos.
“The whole time this was all Anton Martynenko, and I had no clue,” Abens said.
Still too humiliated to tell his parents about any of it and unable to access the internet on the flip-style cellphone he had at the time, Abens texted his Facebook user name and password to his friend so the friend could untag Abens and delete his Facebook account so the photos would no longer be visible to his friends and family.
Still, that process took about half an hour.
“It was so embarrassing,” Abens said. “I didn’t know who saw them, but I knew some people took screenshots and sent them around.”
Indeed, a girl named Marie Anna (another Facebook alter ego for Martynenko) messaged many of Abens’ friends and encouraged them to send the photos to others.
“For the next several months, every time somebody looked at me I was sure they were thinking about what they saw on Facebook,” Abens said.
Abens said he is fortunate that the few close friends he confided in remained loyal and supportive. Other victims caught up in Martynenko’s scheme weren’t so lucky, as some reported being bullied and prosecutors said two committed suicide.
For the next two years — Abens reactivated his Facebook account so he would know if the pictures ever got posted again — he regularly received notifications, sometimes late at night, indicating that Michael or Anna had tagged him in a photo. But when Abens clicked on the links, the photos were never accessible.
“He was just taunting me for not going along with him,” Abens said.
The experience was stressful and at times terrifying, with Abens acknowledging that he constantly worried about the photos getting reposted and sometimes feared someone might be watching him or plotting to abduct him. It affected his sleep and his ability to concentrate in school.
Even at family gatherings, Abens said, he would wonder which relatives might have seen the photos.
“So when my uncles or aunts would say, ‘We need to pray for Grant,’ I didn’t know if they were referring to what they saw,” he said. “Not knowing really drove me nuts.”
But at the same time, Abens said, “I felt like I couldn’t talk to the police because I thought I did something wrong by sending those pictures. Now I finally realize I was a victim.”
It came as a huge relief when the FBI called in February and answered all of the questions that had been swirling around in his head. Agents explained that Martynenko was behind the whole thing and that the FBI had identified Abens, a multisport athlete in high school, as one of at least 155 victims.
Kayser said Martynenko contacted thousands of teenage boys, most of whom he identified through high school sports websites, in his efforts to recruit potential victims. Martynenko kept detailed records of boys he targeted, including photos they sent and others he took from social media sites, and organized by name, age, school and sometimes penis size. About 15 of the victims were from cities across Wisconsin, including one from Menomonie, Kayser said.
In other cases, Martynenko posed as an attractive young woman and tricked boys into swapping sexually explicit photos and videos. He contacted potential victims through various social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter.
Once Martynenko obtained naked photos — he insisted they include the teen’s face to aid in his extortion — he threatened to post them online, and often followed through, to humiliate his victims and pressure them into either sending more pornographic images or engaging in sexual activity.
Martynenko lured at least three boys into performing sex acts on him, Kayser said, calling him “just evil” and a “tenacious predator.”
After learning about Martynenko’s elaborate scheme, Abens agreed to write a victim impact statement for the prosecution. Kayser said she was so impressed with Abens’ statement that she asked him to testify at Martynenko’s sentencing hearing in federal court in Minneapolis.
While most victims Kayser contacted declined and some backed out at the last minute, Abens, one of two victims to testify, said he actually relished the chance to look Martynenko in the eye and see justice be served.
“I knew I could do it because I remember every single detail because it was probably one of the most prominent things that has happened in my life,” Abens said. “I wanted to see this person and be in control of the situation, and I wanted to make sure he went to prison for a long time.”
After Martynenko testified that he wasn’t an evil person and that his online activities were just his way of escaping depression and coping with the death of a grandparent, Abens said he told the court Martynenko was a smart man who manipulated hundreds of victims and now was trying to manipulate the judge.
Kayser said Abens did such a good job articulating how the scheme worked and its impact on him that she believes it carried a lot of weight in sentencing.
“Grant had just an amazing presence,” Kayser said. “He hit it out of the park.”
In the dark
The entire ordeal took place without the knowledge of Abens’ parents, Jim and Kathy Abens, who didn’t learn about it until this fall when a letter from federal court addressed to Grant arrived at their Eau Claire home after being forwarded from his previous address in Duluth.
“We were like, Oh my God, what the heck did Grant do?” said Kathy Abens, who proceeded to call her youngest son for an explanation.
The disturbing saga came as a shock to the parents, who felt terrible that Grant had gone through such distress without their support.
In retrospect, Grant Abens acknowledged he should have told his parents from the start, but he said the sensitive subject and the fear of disappointing them prevented him from making that choice. He wasn’t alone, as Kayser said many of Martynenko’s victims never told their parents.
While Jim and Kathy Abens wish a red flag would have gone up for Grant when the fictitious modeling agency asked for nude photos, they are blown away that he had the courage to testify at the sentencing.
“I’m proud of him and impressed for doing that,” Kathy Abens said. “That takes some guts.”
The key to stopping such cases from spreading is for victims to speak out, said John Shehan, vice president of the exploited child division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “It’s really important that victims report. They just need to tell someone.”
Sextortion is a relatively new form of sexual exploitation that NCMEC has been tracking through its CyberTipline since October 2013. In the first two years, the number of reports increased by 90 percent. The average target age of victims was 15.
Though predators were seeking sex in a small percentage of the cases, Shehan said, “Usually the photos are the currency they are seeking.”
Police previously had identified Martynenko as a suspect, but nobody had connected the dots until a student at Rosemount High School in Minnesota told a school resource officer about being targeted, Kayser said. Officers then were granted permission to take over a teen victim’s social media account and arrested Martynenko in November 2015 after he sent messages seeking sexual contact.
A key lesson, Grant Abens said, is that people should not be Facebook friends with people they don’t know in real life.
Kayser took it a step further, advising parents to talk to their children about internet threats at an early age and to go through their children’s Facebook accounts and make them delete anyone they don’t know.
“I guarantee that some of those (fake) friends are pedophiles and they’re looking at your child’s Facebook posts and doing stuff with those photos,” Kayser said.
Shehan also advised parents to educate themselves about all of the different apps and social media platforms their children are using.
Looking back, both Grant and Kathy Abens said they are most thankful that Grant never accepted Martynenko’s invitation to go to the Twin Cities.
“I’m so relieved I didn’t go to the Cities for this photo shoot trap,” Grant Abens said. “I wasn’t that far away from doing that, and that could have been a dangerous situation.”