‘The worst was yet to come’
Kristin Helms was 14 when the ponytailed Texas man nearly twice her age began slipping through cyberspace and into the computer in her Lake Forest bedroom.
When her parents found his picture on Kristin’s computer, they shut down her MySpace account, pulled her Internet privileges for months and warned her about online predators.
But Kiley Ryan Bowers had their daughter in his grip. Kristin, thinking this could be her first true love, used computers outside the house to stay in touch with him. Eventually, he came to Orange County to have sex with her, knowing he could get in trouble because she was a minor.
After their relationship ended, Kristin told her mother everything, and Bowers was later arrested. Kristin decided she couldn’t go on. So she didn’t.
On a Sunday morning last summer, while her parents were at church, Kristin climbed into the rafters of the family’s garage, slipped a noose around her neck and stepped off.
In an age when Internet sex crimes involving minors are becoming a serious concern in the United States, more and more teenagers are bypassing old-fashioned dating rituals and awkward “meet-the-parents” introductions with a few strokes of the keyboard.
Kristin’s parents, Danielle and Robin Helms, hope their daughter’s story, and their incurable pain over their loss, will convince other children to beware of the online company they keep and show their parents that unyielding vigilance is a must.
“It may seem like fun and games, and a lot of kids may think that they’re too smart to fall for it. But that’s not the case,” Danielle Helms said. “You can’t be too careful. Very scary and serious things can happen.”
Bowers, 29, is expected to be sentenced today to nine years in prison in exchange for pleading guilty to traveling across state lines to have sex with Kristin and causing pictures of her to be sent over the Internet.
Kristin, “Krissy” to her parents, met him online in 2005, during the summer before her freshman year at El Toro High School in Lake Forest. She was surfing the Internet on a computer in her bedroom when she came across his profile.
Bowers, a graduate of the University of North Texas, was 27 at the time and quite Internet savvy. He had profiles on MySpace, GeoCities, FaceTheJury and other websites, where he called himself “Lychor” or “The Great Lychor.”
He kept a live journal and posted pictures of himself with his long brown hair flowing loosely or pulled back in a ponytail. On one site, he described himself as a laid-back person who is easy to get along with and likes “things that are dark, gloomy and depressing.”
“For whatever reason they cheer me up,” he wrote on FaceTheJury. “I always enjoy talking to new people, so go ahead and contact me.”
During their initial online chats, Kristin initially lied and told him she was 19. But about a week after their first conversation, she admitted to being only 14. That’s when Bowers started talking to her about sex, according to investigators, in graphic detail. She confided to him that she was a virgin.
Bowers helped Kristin create and post her own profile on MySpace. But it didn’t stay up for long. Her parents shut it down after they found it.
The Helmses, high school sweethearts from Tustin Hills, were well aware of how the computer age had drastically altered the dating landscape. They told their daughter not to talk to Bowers because of his age and took her computer away for five months.
“I had no idea the worst was yet to come,” her mother recalled.
Her parents thought their harsh crackdown would be enough.
Kristin had not given her parents a reason to suspect she might defy them. Born about two years after their older son, Ryan, she was a smart, well-adjusted kid who was close to her family. She got good grades, got to school on time, ran on the cross-country and track teams and was an artist whose talent landed her in advanced classes.
“We never had to lay down the law. There were never any problems,” her father recalled. “She was such a bright kid. She was so easy. And she was always a pleasure to have around.”
Still, after her computer was taken away, Kristin stayed in regular touch with Bowers by phone and e-mail using computers outside her home. And authorities said there was little her parents could do about it. Even in the strictest of households, children can flout access rules by hopping on computers at schools, libraries, coffee shops and copy centers and by using gadgets as handy as their cellphones.
The computers at Kristin’s schools were equipped with blocking software, but she later told her mother that students knew how to disable it -- a problem that school officials told the Helmses has since been addressed.
“The Helmses did everything that prudent parents would do under the circumstances,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Kenneth Julian, who is prosecuting Bowers.
Federal law enforcement officials single out the Internet for a jarring increase in sex crimes against minors -- twentyfold between 1996 and 2006, according to FBI Agent Peter Brust, who is in charge of the bureau’s Cyber Division in Southern California. Brust said changing technologies have made cyber crimes against children the most challenging for parents to prevent and authorities to investigate.
Julian and Brust said that’s why children need to understand that going into chat rooms is as dangerous as opening the front door to a stranger and that adults interested in boys and girls target websites like MySpace that are popular with kids and teenagers. A predator might come across as a harmless Prince Charming, wooing them over extended periods and playing on their emotions to win their trust. But that is a common grooming method. The ultimate goal is sex, Brust said.
“I can’t begin to tell you the methods these people will use,” Brust said.
Over time, Bowers convinced Kristin to send provocative pictures of herself. She was initially reluctant to undress for the camera, court records show, but decided it was acceptable after he sent her indecent photos and video of himself.
Bowers urged her to erase pictures and other traces of him from her computer, expressing concerns that she might report him to police, according to court records.
In December 2005, Bowers arranged to have sex with Kristin while he was in Southern California to visit his sister. Kristin was 15 by then.
Bowers checked into a Best Value Inn near Kristin’s Lake Forest home, drove to the bottom of her street after midnight and waited for her to sneak out to meet him, as planned. They had sex twice.
Bowers abruptly ended the relationship about five months later, telling her he might have gotten another girl pregnant. Kristin, who was in love and thought he was too, was devastated. She let him know during their last exchange in June 2006, according to court records.
“You came out here and used me,” she wrote. “I feel like you raped me.”
“I know,” he replied. “And though that was not my intent nor even what I wanted, it has become a big mistake that I wish I could correct.”
Bowers was arrested weeks later, after Kristin finally told her mother everything. She cooperated fully during the investigation but couldn’t shake her depression as it proceeded.
The Helmses tried everything the could think of to help their daughter. They took her to therapists and tried anti-depressants recommended by specialists. Her mom took her on a shopping spree. They watched movies together. Nothing seemed to work.
In the year since their daughter committed suicide, the pain and anger seem to have gotten worse for the Helmses.
Danielle Helms, who regularly visits her daughter’s grave, said family members are doing everything they can to honor the girl they remember, the one who loved to stay up late with her dad and hunt for satellites in the night skies and wake up early to cook her mom surprise breakfasts. The one who loved kittens and angels. The one who dreamed of being a doctor or dentist.
In the garage, the couple keep a balloon floating in the place where they found their daughter. On it, a note reads simply: “I love you.”