Authorities warn of child predators in online chat rooms amid search for missing Mount Vernon teen

The disappearance of a Mount Vernon teenager is shedding light on the dark side of online chat rooms.

Those who know 14-year-old Ella Jones best said it’s unlike her not to call, or text anyone or not post on social media. Ella’s family and friends haven’t seen or heard from her since Jan. 6.

The family said Ella’s friends claimed she had been communicating with an older man on online chat platforms like Discord.

Discord was created in 2015. The app became popular as an online chat room for gamers. Since then, it has grown as a messaging tool for a variety of communities to virtually connect, now with nearly 200 million users worldwide.

"It’s kind of like a non-corporate Slack or Microsoft Teams. So, it’s just group chat," said cybersecurity expert Bryan Seely.

Lurking in those chats are predators who prey on children, using the app to trade child sexual exploitation material, extort minors by tricking them into sending nude images, and grooming children before abducting them. Law enforcement nationwide has been warning communities about the dangers of the platform and the people who abuse it.

"A lot of good information you can get from the internet, but it’s also that potential danger with kids," said Lt. Dave Shackleton with Mount Vernon Police Department.

Ella’s family said the teen had been online chatting with a man claiming to be in his late 20s, early 30s. Her mother, Sarah Merrill, previously told FOX13 she punished Ella for talking to the stranger by taking her phone away temporarily. Merrill explained she did not realize the extent of the relationship between her daughter and the stranger.

Mount Vernon Police Department said the teen voluntarily left her home with a large green backpack full of clothes on Jan. 6, 2024. Merrill reported her missing that same day.


Missing Washington girl, 14, may be with predator she met online, mom says

A Washington mother is asking for the public's help in finding her 14-year-old daughter, who is missing after apparently leaving home to meet a man she had been communicating with online.

"We’re following up on leads as they come in. Of course, we’re getting a lot of them. We’re evaluating each one on its own merits. And those that have substantive information that we’re able to follow up on, we are," said Shackleton.

Cybersecurity experts said it’s not just Discord that’s abused by predators. There are dark sides to many online platforms, and those dangers need to come to light.

"Whether it’s getting someone involved in trafficking or finding ways to extract money from someone, there are limitless amounts of tools now at people’s disposal to use for good or for bad. We’re going to see more of this before it gets better, unfortunately," said Seely.

To prevent any family’s worst nightmare, experts encourage adults to start paying attention to changes in a child’s mood and behavior.

"Finding ways to keep the kids engaged and connected to other people, that’s more eyes on your kid and more people looking and noticing stuff that might be off," said Seely.

Families are also advised to have open, frequent conversations with children about online safety.

"If you stay close with your kids, you can actually have the uncomfortable conversations about what online predators look like or what they can appear to be like," said Seely.

"A lot of apps you can turn off your location services so people can’t look and see where you are and maybe come and find you. So, we really encourage people to have that locked down," said Shackleton.

Seely said he knows how Ella’s mother and family are feeling in this time of uncertainty. Seely explained his daughter disappeared in 2017 for six weeks before she was reunited with her family. The cybersecurity expert encouraged those who are in similar situations searching for missing children to maintain a good support system, connect with people and don’t self-isolate.

"Stay busy and if you don’t have a therapist, get one. If you don’t have a couple’s counselor, go get one. You are not supposed to know how to handle this," said Seely. "You just can’t really anticipate how much it hurts or all the different things that people go through, and they go through them in different orders. So, I would suggest getting as large as a support network and finding people to be able to talk about it with."

In the latest description from police, Ella "is described as a 5’5" Caucasian female weighing approximately 135 pounds. She has brown eyes and brown hair.  At the time she left, she was believed to be wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, multicolored plaid pajama pants, and black Nike Air Force shoes."

Anyone who sees Ella is asked to call 911 immediately. Those who think they have information that could help find her are encouraged to call Skagit County Dispatch at 360-428-3211. Tips can also be submitted through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website.