TAMPA, Fla. — Madison Conradis is not a lawyer. She doesn't work in law enforcement and she's not a cyber security expert. But, she had to be all those things to unmask her sextorter when she said her local police department victim shamed her.
The journey sent Conradis down a road when she learned what it means to deanonymize and the difference between sextortion and revenge porn. It's a story so wild, twisted, and terrifying that it's hard to believe. Yet, sadly, these crimes are becoming commonplace.
The emotional and mental damage that Conradis suffered under years and years of constant harassment and threats will never be completely healed. But she never gave up on herself, and in doing so, she hopes her story sends a message to other men and women getting sextorted that you can fight back, and you can win.
The term sextortion should be on everyone's radar, as cases of blackmail for nude photos skyrocket.
the practice of extorting money or sexual favors from someone by threatening to reveal evidence of their sexual activity.
Sextortion may not be as well known or recognized as the term revenge porn, but the online tactic to threaten, extort, and blackmail men and women for nude or sexually explicit photos is a growing threat.
re·venge porn /rəˈvenj/porn
noun: revenge porn
private sexual images or films showing a particular person that are put on the internet by a former partner of that person, as an attempt to punish or harm them
Adults, children, teens, and pre-teens are all targets. Law enforcement is sending out a dire warning for parents to keep closer tabs on the ever-growing digital lives of their children.
In 2011, Madison Conradis hired a professional photographer to take headshots and other pictures she described as "sexy" but non-pornographic. They were for headshots and her modeling portfolio.
Years later, photos that she thought would "never see the light of day" would haunt her digital and real life for years.
"They were proofs that were not chosen because of, you know, things being shown that weren't supposed to be," Conradis said. "So, really, at the end of the day, we kind of thought those were, you know, sitting on the cutting room floor. They were from a photographer's proof gallery and ended up being hacked in some way to where they obtained the images without the photographer's consent or mine. And they started using them to harass and cyberstalk me."
Conradis had no idea the photos were stolen and circulating online for a few years. Then one day, her phone rang, and someone from high school told her about the images.
"Your heart drops, and you are like, questioning what you did to deserve it. And who at that point? It was anonymous," Conradis said. "So, it's like, who's trying to hurt me like, I'm not a bad person. I haven't, you know, done anything wrong to anyone. So why are they doing this to me? It is kind of like your initial reaction."
From there, the floodgates opened. Her cyberstalker posted the images everywhere, along with all of her personal information.
"It's just non-stop. And then on these forums, not only is it just your harasser, but they actually get other sick human beings to help harass a person for you," Conradis said. "So, one person can have an entire army of other creeps harassing one girl. It's just non-stop when they start harassing. Literally, any way you can possibly think of communicating with someone, they will find that and send you the images, send you harassing messages, asking for more images, or, you know, blackmailing you, if you don't send more images, they're going to do something."
Blackmailers did everything they could to scare Conradis.
"If you typed in my name like my nude images would come up on the first page of Google," Conradis said. "So, they're posting them on forums, usually within the dark web, and posting them constantly. There was definitely in the thousands of photographs. In the first, like six years that Christopher was harassing, he only had, I think, one, maybe two images. So that was that same image over and over and over again."
Conradis shared a dozen of the hundreds of screengrabs she received. The threats were never-ending.
One message stated, "I'm just gonna cut to the chase. Unless you want your family to know about the pics you took, you're gonna send me what I want." Below that message is a nude image of Conradis.
Another message said, "I suggest you answer me or this goes out. I'll give you 30 minutes… 10 minutes left."
Her sextorter ended up sending all of the photos he had to Conradis' mom, dad, other family members, and business associates.
As stalkers continued their relentless assault on Conradis, she asked law enforcement for help.
What Conradis said happened next nearly brings her to tears. However, it's also one of the reasons why she agreed to talk on camera about a deeply personal and sensitive story. When she walked into the Melbourne Police Department, she walked out feeling broken.
"I probably went to the cops three times, maybe honestly, four," Conradis said. "They didn't let me write a police report the first time. It's the same with any sex crime. You're met with the kind of, you know, blank stares and like very, like victim shaming mentality. It's the same, you know, mentality of she was wearing a skirt that's why she was raped kind of thing. Eventually, I was like, I'm not leaving until I at least write a police report."
ABC Action News obtained a copy of the first report Conradis filed with the Melbourne Police Department. According to the narrative, dated Jan. 31, 2017, Conradis told the officer she was getting blackmailed.
"Conradis advised that she signed a model release that the photos could be used for whatever purpose other than pornographic or defamatory in nature. Conradis advised that some of the texts she has received are threatening as well as bordering on blackmail."
Conradis also gave law enforcement a seven-page statement of facts and some of the social media posts she received and emails. The report notes the information was "placed into records." The report ended by stating, "as of this writing, no contact has been made with any listed person involved in this incident. Suspended."
Melbourne police sent us a comment regarding Conradis' case:
The Melbourne Police Department takes these types of allegations seriously and is committed to investigating them thoroughly. We provide training to our officers for this type of crime during their orientation period. That is in addition to the training they would receive while attending the police academy
Sgt. Benjamin Slover, Community Services Division.
Another year went by, so Conradis decided to take matters into her own hands.
"Five years of harassing, until 2018, we had a hunch with some clues and evidence. So we did our own investigating and deanonymized him, the harasser, as Christopher Buonocore through a subpoena process and a lot of legal jumbo,” Conradis said.
It was only then that Conradis realized her stalker wasn’t a random stranger. He was someone she met through mutual friends in college.
De·anonymize / /əˈnänəˌmīz/
to remove the anonymity from; to make personally identifying
The legal process to find her stalker wasn't easy. Nevertheless, Conradis did all the legwork police should've done.
She filed John Doe civil suits to pull subpoenas, contacted tech giants like Facebook and Instagram, along with internet service providers to track down IP addresses. Essentially, she followed a digital jigsaw puzzle and put all the pieces together, leading to Buonocore.
"You can do anything on the Internet and think you're anonymous, but there is a digital footprint. It's just how much work and effort you're willing to go to get that digital footprint," Conradis said. "We cross-referenced some of the usernames that he was using and came up with a list of all the victims. So then we started, you know, saving evidence.”
"If you hadn't deanonymized and done all the legwork yourself, where would you be right now?" Paluska asked.
"Probably not far because they were not very willing to help in the beginning. And that's what I get really emotional about, this part of it. I'm educated, fairly liked, and well known in this community. And if I can't walk into my local police station, asking for help, they're there to help people. And they didn't help me," Conradis said. "They ended up listening after my sister and I put together like a 50-page summary of like everything that had gone on."
Her detective work uncovered five additional victims, including a then 14-year-old girl.
According to a plea agreement filed in the United States District Court Middle District of Florida Tampa Division, Buonocore, "created multiple fictitious social media and email accounts and used a website that allowed users to post anonymously." Some of the posts obtained by the FBI were about the 14-year-old victim.
"For approximately two years, the defendant engaged in a course of conduct intended to harass or intimidate victim two by continuously and repeatedly posting photos of Victim two online and attempting to solicit individuals to sexually abuse Victims two and/or persuade, induce, entice, or coerce Victim two into producing child pornography."
Examples posted in the plea agreement are horrific to read, "I have a strong desire to watch (Victim two) get raped."
"Yeah, I mean honestly would pay someone to do it."
"You saved those women," Paluska said.
"Yeah. It was; it's a wild story. And a lot of the other women in the case probably would not have been able to fully get justice themselves," Conradis said.
FBI TAMPA DIVISION
The FBI Tampa Division investigated Conradis' case. We met with Special Agent Kevin Kaufman to talk about the rise of sextortion.
"With the internet and the capabilities that are now given to the online predators, we're finding that the kids are being victimized much more," Kaufman said. "Along with the pandemic that's been going on, you're finding that our kids are getting online, and their online applications, online gaming, online social media platforms that our kids are accessing, that the parents aren't educated about, that these predators are using to gain access to our kids."
Kaufman said teens, pre-teens, adults, men, and women could all be victims of sextortion. The modus operandi for these cyberstalkers is the same. They pose as people they aren't to win trust, groom, entice, threaten, and make their victims fearful for themselves and their families.
"You're now finding out that the kids..., because of the internet, and because the access, they're being sexualized at younger ages. So, now you have kids that are, you know, 11, 12, 13 years old, that are sending more risque pictures out there without the knowledge of their parents, the online predators grab those images, and then they use those images to blackmail them or extort them," Kaufman said.
"They don't wanna get in trouble. They don't want their devices taken. Because a majority of the kids, their parents have told them, 'hey, don't go online, you know, you shouldn't have that application.' Or, if you're on that application, don't be sending out pictures or images of yourself," Kaufman said.
"So the kids will, in turn, instead of going to a parent or guardian to ask for help they go ahead, and they try to take care of it themselves, or they just go ahead and succumb to the blackmailing. Submit to a point where it becomes a snowball, and it just gets bigger and bigger. And to the point that they can't control it."
After we finished the interview, stopped recording, and walked to our car, Kaufman said something that clicked and made total sense. He said letting your child on social media without oversight is the same as taking them to a local park, dropping them off, and saying "good luck."
He said giving your child a device with social media opens them up to the world and all the predators that live in it. Stalkers will look for any detail in a post, a school uniform, location, home address, anything to find a way in.
"That's why I always warn parents and also kids is there's no reason to put yourself in or images or videos of yourself online with your real age or real identity. If people are friends know who you are, they're going to reach out to your account regardless of your name or your identity," Kaufman said.
"The first question to ask as a parent is, you know, one, is it educational? Is there any value to let your kid on this social media platform or a gaming app? If there's nothing that you see, as far as educational well, then you got to ask yourself, what's the purpose of allowing your kid on it?"
Kaufman did not work Conradis' case, but previous investigations have put sextorters in prison for decades.
A release from the Department of Justice shows the lengths people will go to prey on children:
U.S. District Judge Carlos E. Mendoza sentenced Justin Richard Testani (30, Orange City) to 60 years in federal prison for child sexual exploitation. Testani had pleaded guilty on February 6, 2020.
According to court documents and evidence presented during the sentencing hearing, for more than a year, Testani contacted multiple young girls (usually between the ages of 10 and 13) through Instagram and Snapchat. Testani frequently posed as a young, teenage girl who modeled for a prominent teen lingerie brand. Using that disguise, Testani convinced numerous victims to send him revealing photographs of themselves. After the victims sent such photographs, Testani often threatened to disseminate the photos or publicly humiliate the victims. At other times, Testani threatened to kidnap, rape, and/or kill the victims and their family members. He issued these threats to coerce victims into creating and sending him more images and videos of themselves engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Testani also used threats to coerce certain victims into giving him the passwords to their social media accounts. After gaining those passwords, Testani often took over the accounts and used those platforms to contact and exploit the victims' friends. The investigation revealed that Testani reached out to hundreds of young girls across the United States between December 2017 and January 2019.
"You're having these sort of real-world predators move to this online landscape because they can use social media as a private hunting preserve," Callahan Walsh, a Child Advocate with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said. "They can use the anonymity of the internet to stay behind their keyboard and not be detected."
Walsh said these so-called digital kidnappers are getting smarter and more innovative.
"We've seen chatter on the dark web amongst these predators sharing best practices, tips, and tricks on how to groom and lure children how to entice them online. And sextortion, unfortunately, is a huge problem that we're seeing," Walsh said. "These predators, they're cunning, they're manipulative, and that's what they're doing. They're preying on children and using manipulative tactics to get what they want. We've seen children and family members pay these extorters large sums of money in fear that these images would be leaked. And it's devastating."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children fielded millions of reports through their CyberTip line.
"In 2019, we received over 16.9 million reports. In 2020 we received 21.7 million reports, that's an increase of about 26%," Walsh said. "One category, online enticement which sextortion is included in, rose by 100%. We saw over 44,000 cases related to sextortion and online enticement."
Victims often feel there is no escape or help unless they do what their sextorter says.
"We had a victim at the National Center who was sending her exploiter over 60 images a night in fear that he would share them with her family and friends," Walsh said. "She did eventually come forward to her mother and working with the FBI, they were able to apprehend this individual. He had over 350 other victims that he was working on."
Walsh said, "these predators move 10 steps ahead, and the landscape online is constantly changing, and the legislature is oftentimes slower to react to things we are seeing in real-time."
Major tech companies have to be more intelligent as well. With billions of users globally, there are an infinite unknown amount of predators online. Each year, some get caught, while others continue their torments. And, digital abuse can quickly turn into a real-world crisis for victims — so-called traveler cases.
"We had an individual travel from New Zealand to Australia to the United States to meet with a 14-year-old girl when he showed up at the house he had duct tape, a knife, and gloves," Walsh said. "The mother luckily was there at the home. He was calling the girl's name out, yelling her name from the driveway, and knocking and banging on the door, and the mother was actually armed and shot through that door hitting that individual, and he's in jail now, thankfully."
At times, Conradis never thought she'd see justice. But, the years of harassment only increased her resolve to catch Buonocore.
In Nov. 2021, she faced down her stalker in Federal Court and read a six-page victim impact statement:
I told myself one thing that kept me going all these years – Madison, one day, your pain will have a purpose. My pain can help pave the path for every victim to come after me. Today, your honor, you have the chance to acknowledge that all of my pain has a purpose. As much as this is very much about me and the five girls standing up here today, it's also very much about every single woman in this room. Women and children everywhere. This is why I come here to have you consider the maximum penalty sentence for Christopher Buonocore. By doing so, my pain will feel as if it had a purpose. You will send him and other abusers a message that they cannot get away with harassing innocent women. We have the power to stop them, starting right now by holding Christopher Buonocore fully accountable for his crimes by punishing him to the maximum extent of the law.
The judge listened and sentenced Buonocore to 15-years in federal prison.
"You can't give up; you have to keep going. It's gonna be hard, yes, but we have to keep going because it's gonna be worth it in the end," Conradis said. "It's just so sad seeing all the people that I know could have very easily given up because of the system."