A Texas man pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to enticing a 16-year-old Columbia area high school girl to run away from home and take a Greyhound bus to Texas.
The trial of Robert Christiansen, 57, a San Antonio resident, was headed into its second day when Christiansen unexpectedly told his lawyer, Jimmy Rogers, that he wanted to plead guilty to two counts involving luring an underage person across state lines for the purpose of having sex with her last summer.
Evidence in the trial demonstrated the ease with which predators use social media to stalk unsuspecting teens.
But it also showed how the FBI, using other modern technology, was able in this case to locate the girl and rescue her hours before she was to meet up with him in Houston. Christiansen planned to ride with her on the bus to San Antonio and then take her to his house.
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The girl was set to testify Tuesday. Christiansen's guilty plea meant she didn't have to take the witness stand.
Christiansen changed his plea to guilty after Monday's testimony, in which federal prosecutors played an hour-plus video of his confession to the FBI agents who picked him up at the bus station in Houston where he had planned to meet up with the girl.
What Christiansen told two FBI agents in the video — together with other evidence presented Monday — was every parents' nightmare: the girl, who was depressed and alienated from her parents, was hanging out in a Google Plus chat room where teens with social and psychological problems go to support each other.
Christiansen, posing as a helpful psychologist, admitted to FBI agents he deliberately began a process called "grooming," whereby he gradually gained her trust before asking her if she would come to live with him in Texas. He told her he could help cure her depression and free her from her parents' limitations on her use of social media and digital devices.
"I asked her if she wanted to go ahead and become a runner," Christiansen told FBI agent Glenn Gregory. The girl agreed. He sent her two burner cellphones and a $169 one-way bus ticket from Columbia to San Antonio. He planned to meet her in Houston, at a bus stop on the way to San Antonio.
Speaking in flat, unemotional tones, Christiansen told the agent he knew she was a minor and he didn't see anything wrong with luring her away from home. "It's not like I committed a crime, or theft, or worse," Christiansen said.
Christiansen also told the agents that he intended to take the girl back to his house in San Antonio, where she would have stayed in his bedroom and he would have sex with her. He also would provide her with a room in his house he called the "anger room," where she could go and be angry if she wanted, he said.
Last June, over a weekend, the girl's parents had discovered their daughter missing. They contacted the Richland County Sheriff's Department. The parents also discovered two Texas telephone numbers on their phone bill.
The sheriff's investigators, aware they were likely dealing with an interstate crime, notified the South Carolina FBI. Both phones listed on the phone records had GPS locators that made it possible for the FBI to track them..
On Monday, Columbia FBI agent Luke Davis told the jury how he had made an emergency request to T-Mobile, the smartphones' provider, for location data. Within hours, the FBI learned that one phone was at the Houston Greyhound bus station, and the other was on Interstate 10, near a town called Orange about 110 miles east of Houston.
The Columbia FBI then contacted the Orange, Texas, police, who, with flashing blue lights, stopped the Greyhound bus and rescued the girl. Meanwhile, Houston FBI agents swooped down on the bus station, where they found Christiansen and took him into custody. He agreed to be videotaped and confessed everything to the agents.
Judge Margaret Seymour will sentence Christiansen at a later date. Federal prosecutors in the case were Jay Richardson and James Burnham.
Christiansen could receive 10 years to life on each count.