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Man gets time served, probation in ‘sextortion’ case that led to San Jose teen’s suicide

Man gets time served, probation in ‘sextortion’ case that led to San Jose teen’s suicide

SAN JOSE — A man convicted in a “sextortion” scheme that drove a San Jose teen to take his own life last year was sentenced Thursday to time served and supervised release, in a case that drew national attention to the blackmailing crime that preys on young people.

Jonathan Kassi, 26, has pleaded to a felony extortion charge in a sexual blackmail scheme targeting a San Jose teen who died by suicide in February 2022. (San Jose Police Dept.) 

Jonathan Kassi, 26, has been in Santa Clara County jail custody since December and was expected to be released under the terms of a plea agreement with prosecutors in which he admitted to one count of felony extortion of 17-year-old Ryan Last.

Judge David Cena technically sentenced Kassi to a three-year prison sentence, but under terms that half of it be served in county jail and half of it be served on probation under county and court supervision. Because of the time he has already spent in jail, Cena ruled that the in-custody portion had been met.

For the next year and a half, Kassi will be under the monitoring of the Santa Clara County probation department — though he resided in the Los Angeles area at the time of his arrest — and will be subject to conditions including warrantless searches of his cell phone and electronic devices, and a prohibition from enrolling on any social media platform.

Two other charges, an additional extortion count and a misdemeanor count of posting a photograph without consent, were dropped in accordance with the plea agreement.

Kassi’s only statement at his sentencing hearing in a San Jose courtroom was to say “Yes” when Cena asked him if agreed to the terms of his sentence. But Pauline Stuart, Last’s mother, had much more to say and described the devastating toll of losing Last, an imminent Sobrato High School graduate and Washington State University college freshman who was also an Eagle Scout and active member of the Future Farmers of America.

“The loss of Ryan devastated our family. Our daily life has a huge hole in it because he’s not there,” Stuart said, adding that each day “I wake up hoping it was just a nightmare.”

Stuart said the impact on her, her husband and her surviving son has been immeasurable, and that she laments being unaware of the crime that victimized Last. A few weeks after his death, Stuart began speaking publicly with the aim of raising awareness of sextortion schemes to prevent similar tragedies from happening. Late last year, the FBI released a national public-safety alert about a tenfold increase in reported sextortion instances since last year, affecting as many as 3,000 adolescents and preadolescents, primarily boys.

“I am using Ryan’s story to bring awareness of this crime,” Stuart said. “I didn’t get the chance to tell Ryan about this and what to do.”

Last died Feb. 26, 2022, at his South San Jose home, and that same day, the San Jose Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force launched an investigation that revealed the previous night, the teen had been corresponding online with someone he believed to be a girl.

Their conversation reportedly became intimate, and the two exchanged sexually revealing photos, according to the investigation. Soon after, Last was told that he had to pay the other person $5,000 or else his photo would be revealed publicly. The monetary demands dropped in scale — eventually to $150 — after the victim communicated that he could not afford them. But after Last paid the smaller amount, the demands persisted.

The following morning, Last had died by suicide. Detectives determined that he had been targeted by a West Africa-based scam and identified Kassi, a resident of the L.A.-area city of Reseda, as a suspect. He was found and arrested last December.

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Investigators say Kassi was not the person communicating directly with Last — which accounts for the severity of his charges — but that he facilitated the scheme by managing email addresses and a bank account where extortion payments would be directed. Police also found evidence indicating other teen boys had been targeted across the country.

Stuart asked Cena to find a way to restrict Kassi’s online activities, on the premise that the internet gives him unfettered access to new victims, which prompted Cena to tell her that anything resembling an internet ban was beyond the court’s authority.

“The court has tried to fashion terms of supervision here that will hopefully protect others from this type of crime in the future,” Cena said.

After the sentencing, Stuart told his news organization that she understood the judge’s reasoning, and said that state laws need to be modernized to adequately address sextortion and what can be tragic results.

“The law hasn’t caught up to the seriousness of this,” she said. “We need to catch up to the crimes that are being committed.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with feelings of depression or suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, round-the-clock support, information and resources for help. Reach the lifeline at 988 or 800-273-8255, or see the 988lifeline.org website.