Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and it turned Larson into something even more dangerous, according to investigators.
“Guys like him are preying on kids stuck at home, on computers, and bored,” said Lt. Brandon Pursell of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office in California. “It’s absolutely terrifying.”
Pursell and federal authorities are now building a kidnapping and sexual exploitation case against Larson, whom they accuse of using social media to befriend a 12-year-old girl in California and spending two months manipulating her into agreeing to sneak off with him. On Dec. 13, according to court filings, Larson flew to Fresno and picked up the girl outside her home early the next morning, at 2:30 a.m.
Hours later, after receiving a panicked call from the girl’s mother, investigators raced into action. Police caught up to them during a layover in Denver.
Larson is expected to be formally arraigned Wednesday in California Superior Court in Fresno. He also stands charged in federal court in Fresno on five counts: online coercion, sexual exploitation of a minor, receiving child pornography, kidnapping, and transporting a minor across state lines with the intent of engaging in sexual activity. Larson faces a possible life sentence.
The case represents an extreme example of what Pursell and investigators around the country say is an alarming byproduct of pandemic-triggered shutdowns: More children are being sexually exploited online.
During the first nine months of 2020, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says it received 30,236 reports of possible “online enticement,” which it defines as someone communicating with a child online with the intent of engaging in a sexual conversation, obtaining sexually explicit images or meeting in person. That’s a pace of about 40,000 reports for the full year, which is more than double the annual average of roughly 16,000 such reports over the previous four years.