The families of three missing aspiring teen models have joined together in an effort to raise awareness of their daughters’ cases and to warn other young women of the potential dangers of the online modeling world.
Two of the victims, Kara Nichols and Raven Furlong, disappeared from Colorado in the last six months. The other, Kayla Croft-Payne, has been missing for nearly three years after telling others she planned to meet with a photographer in Washington.
Nichols and Furlong have profiles that are still visible on ModelMayhem.com, a portfolio website where models, photographers, stylists and others interested in the modeling industry can connect with each other.
Michelle Bart, president and co-founder of the National Women’s Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation, told HLN that her organization has learned of 13 to 15 cases around the country that involve girls who had profiles on the site becoming victims of kidnapping, murder, exploitation or trafficking. However, Bart only specifically named one other victim, Jillian Mourning.
Mourning told HLN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell she was sexually assaulted and trafficked for months by a manager who she said contacted her after she created a Model Mayhem profile. NWCAVE has created a task force to investigate other cases that have been brought to their attention. Mourning has founded her own anti-trafficking organization, All We Want Is LOVE.
“How is it that there’s so many cases with a common denominator of a modeling website?” Bart asked, adding that she was not trying to single out Model Mayhem or place blame directly on the site for the teens’ fates.
A spokesperson for Model Mayhem’s parent company said the site’s policy is to cooperate fully with law enforcement, but they have not been contacted by authorities in connection with the recent cases. He also pointed out that the site contains safety advice for users.
Nichols, 19, left her home in Colorado Springs on October 9, 2012 and was never seen again by her family or friends. The last call on her cell phone was made at 11:45 p.m. that night.
Her family believes she was headed to Denver for a modeling job, Bart said.
"I've done mostly lingerie shoots so far but I'm extremely open minded," Nichols had written in her Model Mayhem biography.
According to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, investigators are concerned that her disappearance could be related to her desire to become a model, which she had promoted on various sites.
“These aspirations, we believe, have caused Kara to fall prey to a subculture of modeling business fronts that many times involve illicit drugs and prostitution,” a November sheriff's office press release stated. “This subculture could have exploited a teenage girl who may have lacked the life experience to see the inherent risks. Our investigators have uncovered several websites which are NOT the cause of Kara’s disappearance, but sites which relate to this subculture.”
KRDO reported Monday that a Colorado Springs business owner claimed he saw Nichols several times between late October and early December with a scruffy-looking man.
“She looked like she was scared. It was like he was making her do things she didn’t want to do,” he told KRDO.
The man claimed he contacted the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and left messages in December and again last Monday, but Lt. Jeff Kramer told HLN the man could not recall what number he dialed and they were unable to track back those messages. Investigators interviewed the man last week after Nichols’ mother told them about his tip and they are following up on it.
“This continues to be an active missing persons case for us,” Kramer said.
The sheriff’s office has asked that anyone with information about Kara Nichols call them at 719-390-5555 or email tips to email@example.com.
The family of Raven Furlong, 17, acknowledges that she likely ran away from home voluntarily on February 5, 2013, but they believe she has fallen into some danger since then, Bart said. She left home with two others, a pair of sisters, and the three were seen later that day at a pawn shop.
On the same day, Furlong’s car was pulled over for a traffic violation by a state trooper in Utah. That was the last time her family knows of her vehicle being seen anywhere.
Furlong has called her family once since then, nearly two weeks ago, from an unknown phone saying she was told to call and tell them she was safe, but she quickly hung up after that.
According to the “Help Find Raven Cassidy Furlong” Facebook page run by her family, the two sisters who ran away with Furlong have allegedly given authorities several different stories about when and where they last saw her and investigators have not been able to corroborate their claims. Furlong’s family is particularly concerned because she left behind her contact lenses, computer and makeup.
“We’re not going to sit back and give up on her,” Bart said.
According to Bart, people who exploit girls in such situations tell them nobody cares about them and nobody is looking for them. If the family and authorities give up the search, “everybody’s just fed into the predator’s hands.”
The father of the two girls who ran away with Furlong told HLN his daughters are also still missing, but one has been in contact with their mother and they are okay as far as he knows. He said they have also spoken to the FBI about Furlong, but he does not know what they told authorities.
He said his daughters had not expressed any interest in modeling to him in the past.
“We just want all of them to come home safely,” he said.
Aurora police have not returned multiple calls seeking information on the case.
Raven Furlong’s family announced on Facebook Tuesday that they are offering a $1,000 reward for credible information leading to her whereabouts. Anyone with information is asked to contact NWCAVE at 360-852-8019, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-THE-LOST.
Kayla Croft-Payne was 18 and living in the Chehalis, Washington area when she was last seen in April 2010. She told friends she was on her way to meet with a photographer at the time, Bart said.
According to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, Croft-Payne was a frequent MySpace user but she has not accessed her account since April 28, 2010. She was reported missing by a friend after they had not heard from her for a few days.
Investigators told LewisCountySirens.com in 2011 that the last sighting of Croft-Payne they were able to verify was at a trailer park in Cowlitz County. One theory the sheriff’s office was looking into was that Croft-Payne may have died from a drug overdose and friends then hid her body to avoid getting in trouble.
“We’ve come to a dead end,” Lewis County Sheriff’s Office Chief Civil Deputy Stacy Brown told HLN Tuesday. She said detectives continue to talk to Croft-Payne’s family and friends, but they have not completely ruled out any possible explanations for her disappearance.
Brown said the detective in charge of the case is aware of the teen’s possible involvement in modeling and has pursued that angle as much as he could. Brown expressed concern that predators could use portfolio websites to stalk young women like Croft-Payne and gain access to them by claiming to be a photographer.
Anyone with information regarding Kayla Croft-Payne’s disappearance is asked to call the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office at 360-748-9286 or Crimestoppers at 1-800-748-6422.
“Somebody’s got to know something,” Brown said.
Jillian Mourning told HLN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell Monday about her experience being taken advantage of and trafficked when she was 19 by a manager who made contact with her through her Model Mayhem profile.
“It was a legitimate website that I met a lot of amazing people on, but at the same time there are a lot of predators on that website that look for vulnerable, naïve girls that are trying to pursue a dream,” Mourning said.
According to Mourning, she worked with the manager for about six months before he and two other men raped her in her hotel room while she was in Arizona for a modeling job and then forced her to continue servicing men for about six months. She said she only got out of the situation because the manager was eventually arrested for unrelated crimes.
“You kind of feel trapped, especially at such a young age, you feel like, if I don’t continue to do this, what’s going to happen to me, I don’t want my reputation ruined…” Mourning said. “A lot of times, our society really vilifies and criminalizes the victims and glorifies the predators in these situations.”
Bart said NWCAVE is devoted to raising awareness of the dangers of exploitation and the need for online safety, and these missing teens' cases are all potentially related to that mission, even if it is not certain at this point that they are victims of a crime.
Some media reports had initially tied the recent disappearance of 21-year-old Kelsie Schelling to Furlong and Nichols’ cases. Schelling, who had a modeling profile on ExploreTalent.com, went missing in Pueblo, Colorado in early February, but her family has since told Bart that she was not actively involved in modeling.
More information on Schelling's case is available at FindKelsie.org.
18-year-old Tia Teresa Payne disappeared in Phoenix, Arizona in July 2010 in a case that bears some similarities to those of Nichols, Furlong and Croft-Payne. Payne had mentioned that she was trying to find a modeling job and she had modeling profiles on at least two portfolio websites.
In 2012, two men were convicted of sex trafficking and other crimes in federal court and sentenced to life in prison for luring numerous women through the websites ModelMayhem.com and Blackplanet.com, using fake identities to convince aspiring models to travel to Florida for auditions. Once there, the women were drugged and filmed engaging in sex acts with one of the defendants, according to court records. Those videos were then sold through a pornography production company.
Modeling site responds
Internet Brands, the parent company of the Model Mayhem site, released a statement to HLN Monday in response to the recent reports of models’ disappearances. According to public relations manager Joe Ewaskiw:
“While our policy is to fully cooperate with authorities if approached for assistance in an investigation, Model Mayhem has not been contacted by police authorities regarding either of the three recent disappearances in Colorado.
“Model Mayhem strongly believes that safety should be top of mind when doing anything online. Because there are scams on the Internet, Model Mayhem tries to educate users about scams and how to avoid them. The site offers detailed safety advice to help members understand what to look for when they are contacted by others. This can be found here: http://www.modelmayhem.com/po.php?thread_id=575330.
“The site also has a feedback mechanism called ‘Contact a Moderator’ (or ‘CAM’) that allows any member to let site moderators know of any suspicious activity they encounter. Moderators view and respond to each and every inquiry. Members are also encouraged to share reports of suspicious activity with one another on the site’s active discussion forum.”
As Ewaskiw said, the Model Mayhem site does provide extensive advice for models to avoid dangerous situations and bogus modeling scouts. The page includes examples of scam e-mails users may receive and details on what models should do if they suspect they are being scammed.
Others have also taken steps to protect aspiring models from predators. In 2011, talent agencies in Hawaii issued a warning to young models about the risks of responding to online ads after two women were allegedly lured to Oahu by sex traffickers who promised them modeling contracts.
ModelingSafety.com also offers basic safety tips for models working with a new photographer they met online.
Bart said NWCAVE is not defending the content young women have posted on modeling sites or the decisions they may have made, but the organization is committed to bringing the missing teens home to their families.
“Their girls went on these sites hoping to break into modeling only to never be heard from again…” Bart said. “People are going to do what people are going to do because they’re being enticed by hopes and dreams that are broken promises.”