A Roseville teen is in jail after images of a sexual encounter with a younger girl ended up strewn across social media sites and students’ cell phones – alerting law enforcement to more alleged crimes and igniting a torrent of gossip, accusations and vitriol among his peers.
The case broke earlier this month when one concerning image came to the attention of a Woodcreek High School official, who alerted the campus school resource officer. Within days, Roseville police arrested Michael Anthony Contini, 18, who now stands accused of six felonies related to unlawful sexual conduct with three minors and possession of material depicting that conduct.
Contini, a senior at Woodcreek High, remains in custody in lieu of $200,000 bail. He pleaded not guilty to the charges at his arraignment last week. He has been suspended from school pending the outcome of the case, according to Roseville Joint Union High School District officials, who said they are cooperating with police.
Efforts by The Sacramento Bee to reach Contini’s family were not successful Wednesday.
Roseville police spokeswoman Dee Dee Gunther said she hopes the case is a “real eye opener” for teens and their parents about the dangerous intersection of teen sex and social media. At the very least, the results can be incredibly embarrassing. But in the most disturbing examples documented nationwide, such cases have led to shame, harassment and even suicide.
“It’s really sobering that the kids are exchanging these kinds of images so freely and perhaps naively. I don’t know what they’re thinking, if they think these kinds of things (will stay private),” Gunther said. “It’s a good time for some icky but important family conversation.”
Gunther said detectives suspect there are more victims in the case, and are encouraging teens to come forward with information.
As police continue their investigation, Contini’s arrest continues to reverberate on social media, where young people familiar with the allegations are pointing fingers at girls they believe are involved, as those girls fire back. Still others are talking freely, primarily on Twitter, about Contini’s alleged sexual escapades as well as their own.
On campus, too, the case is the subject of much conversation.
“Everyone’s talking about it,” said senior Yessenna Gonzalez. “Everyone’s showing his mug shot on their phones.”
Gunther, the police spokeswoman, declined to say what social media sites allegedly were used by Contini, but did say that still and video images of all three alleged victims were disseminated through emails and online.
Police initially arrested Contini on suspicion of several charges, including using a minor to assist in the distribution of obscene matter. Prosecutors did not charge him with that crime at his arraignment last week, instead charging him with three counts of oral copulation with a minor, two counts of unlawful sex with a minor more than three years younger than the suspect and one count of possession of material depicting sexual conduct with a minor. However, Gunther said several charges are being reviewed by prosecutors and could be added later.
The three girls involved, who range in age from 14 to 17, at times knew they were being recorded and at other times didn’t, Gunther said. She said she did not know whether the girls knew the images would be disseminated. Alcohol does not appear to be a factor, and the girls did not appear incapacitated in any way, she said. There is no indication physical force was used, but under the law, minors cannot consent to sex.
Contini met the girls “in the normal social circles of a teenager,” Gunther said. They do not all go to Woodcreek High.
“I think it’s fair to say they’re pretty embarrassed because of the images being disseminated,” she said of the alleged victims. Asked if the girls had suffered any severe harassment, Gunther said, “As far as I know, they’re doing OK.”
But experts familiar with cyberbullying say the damage in such cases can be devastating, given the criticism women sometimes face and the unforgiving memory of the Internet.
“If there’s a sexual explicit photo of a boy circulating ... there are high fives. If there’s a sexually explicit photo of a girl circulating ... suddenly she’s a pariah,” said Cindy Southworth, vice president and founder of the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “We live in a culture that puts such blame and judgement on girls.”
Advocates agree that while neither teen sex nor sexual violence are new issues, the Internet and social media have created a faster avenue for abuse in juvenile and adult relationships. Images of private sexual encounters – including those taken with the knowledge of the participants – can become public in an instant when a lover is jilted. The rise of “revenge porn,” generally considered to be the unauthorized sharing of sexually explicit material, has resulted in new laws in California and elsewhere. But sometimes, particularly among young people, images are shared in an act of bravado.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing it pretty much everywhere,” said Mary Anne Franks, vice president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Law. “It’s really become the new thing.”
Franks said young people in particular often don’t consider the consequences of sharing sexual material online – much like the ignorance surrounding drunk driving.
“They don’t realize how serious it is until the moment something incredibly serious has happened,” she said. “Then it’s too late.”
A few highly publicized cases nationwide have had drastic results. Audrie Pott, a San Jose-area teen, was 15 when she committed suicide days after she was sexually assaulted by three boys in 2012. Cellphone pictures of the attack were spread via text messages. A similar tragedy played out in Canada the year before.
In Steubenville, Ohio, two popular high school football players were convicted of rape after assaulting a 16-year-old girl too drunk to resist in the summer of 2012. The crimes were documented in photos and videos taken by other teens who posted the images to social media but never alerted authorities. Because the girl could not recall the assault, the images, along with text messages, comprised the bulk of the evidence. The case deeply divided the otherwise close-knit town.
Such high-profile cases have local advocates applauding Placer County law enforcement officials for taking a serious approach to the allegations in Contini’s case.
“When we look at the number of suicides that have been linked back to videos and photo, especially with teenagers, I think it’s a good sign of saying this is unacceptable and we are going to pursue this,” said Julie Bornhoeft, director of development and community relations for Women Escaping a Violent Environment, a Sacramento nonprofit.
But Bornhoeft and others warned that even aggressive prosecution can’t reverse the damaging fallout from these cases. She, too, encouraged parents to have conversations with their children about healthy relationships, dating violence and the dangers of allowing technology into intimate encounters.
“Once that photo’s sent, it’s done. You no longer have control,” she said. “Even if someone is charged with distributing it, the damage is done.”