BOWLING GREEN - In recent months, police have arrested two suspected sexual predators who came to town thinking they would be meeting a 14-year-old girl for sex.
Those men instead were met by police who had pretended to be young girls in online conversations.
But on Friday, a real 14-year-old girl prompted a 20-year-old to hitchhike from Washington state to Bowling Green after she "met" him on MySpace.com and chatted for a couple weeks.
Fortunately, police said, the girl's mother found out what was going on and called police Friday afternoon to report that the stranger had traveled to Wood County.
According to police reports, he hitched a ride to a North Baltimore truck stop, then got a ride to the North Main Street Kroger store where he called the young girl to meet him.
Police arrested Christopher Barnhill, 20, of Renton, Wash., and charged him with attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. He also was charged with two counts of receiving stolen property after officers found him in possession of two of his father's credit cards.
At an arraignment yesterday in Bowling Green Municipal Court, Judge Mark Reddin set bond for Barnhill, who is on parole from Texas, at $25,000 and scheduled a preliminary hearing for March 5.
Detective Scott Kleiber said the incident could have turned out far worse for the 14-year-old, who apparently didn't expect things to get so far out of hand.
"I think the reality of it kind of came home when this all started happening," he said.
Detective Kleiber said the incident underscores the need for parents to monitor their children's Internet activity, to talk to them about the dangers, and to use blocking software.
"A lot of kids aren't supervised, and they get caught up in this and they think, 'Well what can happen?'•" Detective Kleiber said. "Before they know it, they've got a person hitchhiking across the country to meet them."
He said the girl in this case was petite and has a broken leg. She would have been no match for a predator, he said.
"It really could've gone in a bad direction quickly. She was in no position to defend herself," he said. "It really makes you sick to your stomach when you think what could've happened."
Parry Aftab, executive director of the online safety group WiredSafety, called the incident a "textbook example" of what can happen when young people share private information with strangers online.
"The only good thing is the parents found out ahead of time and the child was saved the pain of a possible rape and, in many cases unfortunately, murder," Ms. Aftab said.
She said too often children know far more about the Internet than their parents yet are completely nave about the dangers.
"Kids are clueless," she said. "They are absolutely convinced that person they are talking to is a cute 14-year-old boy or girl."
Parents should not worry about invading their child's privacy, she said, but should act like parents and know what their child is doing and with whom.
Among the Internet safety recommendations on the Ohio attorney general's "cyber-predator awareness" Web site, parents are encouraged to:
•Become computer literate and learn how to block objectionable material.
•Forbid their child from entering private chat rooms.
•Maintain access to their child's account and randomly check e-mail.
•Keep the computer in a central room where they can see what their child is doing online.
•Contact police immediately if an adult tries to set up a meeting with their child.
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