The 32-year-old chose an Ohio chat room, looking for small talk with folks tuned to his Wooster sensibilities. Sure, he had a fiancée, but some innocent flirting never hurt anyone, he thought.
Within minutes, he received an instant message. He looked up the sender's profile -- a 19-year-old girl from Carrollton, about an hour southeast of Wooster.
What's up? he wrote back.
Are you lonely tonight? Got company? the girl asked.
"We just exchanged small talk for a while, innocent talk," says the man, who agreed to talk if his name was not used.
Then the girl sent him a photo, apparently shot at a college fraternity. Pretty cute, he thought.
The conversation slowly advanced to sex. The man was amused by the girl's teasing innuendos and played along. "She'd tap-dance around actually talking about sex, but you knew that's where she was going," he says.
I don't want to be alone tonight, the girl wrote. She asked whether he would drive down to Carrollton, since she didn't have a driver's license and still lived with her dad.
He was skeptical. In the virtual world, you have to watch your back, and he didn't need the trouble. He ended the conversation and walked away from his computer.
But the messages continued, growing irresistibly erotic. "Finally I wrote back, and the conversation went to something, not about intercourse, but about masturbation," he says.
That's where the fun ended. The girl revealed she was actually 16. Then someone else messaged him, claiming to be part of a group that chased down online predators. They now had enough to turn him in to the cops.
"They threw out all this legal mumbo jumbo," the man says. "I'm no lawman, and it sounded good, so I was like, 'Fuck! How can this be?'"
He had reason to worry. In 1998, he was convicted of gross sexual imposition, after he groped a 17-year-old at a house party. For the past eight years, he's lived with the state-sponsored title of "sexually oriented offender."
But instead of turning him in, they offered a deal: He could wire $400 to make the whole thing disappear.
"I laughed," the man says. "I knew I was being conned, but it was just easier to send the money than deal with it. I only have to register for two more years. I can't jeopardize that shit."
He couldn't afford $400, so he offered $90 instead.
On May 17, he sent a money transfer to a Rite Aid in Carrollton. The order was made out to Michael Barnett, a down-and-out Iraq-war veteran who had stumbled upon the perfect crime: robbing pedophiles.
These were not people who would go to the police, Barnett believed. Nor was he really committing a crime. After all, there was a Robin Hood quality to blackmailing men who slept with little girls.
Tom Barnett kneels in the center of his living room in Mechanicstown, a bare-bones strand of weathered farmhouses, 925 people, and no stoplights, buried in the hills of northern Appalachia.
The 57-year-old railroad man and father of three carefully sifts through mementos he's collected to honor his middle son, Mike -- an Iraqi flag, photo albums, certificates of academic and military achievement.
"I found these out in the trash this past spring," Tom says. "[Mike] threw them out. But I guess anything good about himself he was throwing away these past couple months."
He holds up a 2002 Academic Challenge plaque and an old résumé that lists Mike's interests, which include paintball, television, parties, and "fires," a hobby that puzzles his father.
Mike was always a bit of a rebel who resisted the countrified ways of Mechanicstown. He preferred Manic Panic hair to crew cuts, leopard prints to polos. In high school, he was voted "Class Clown," famous for the pranks that earned him 27 detentions during his senior year alone. "He never did anything illegal," says his younger brother, Heath, an earnest 20-year-old bail bondsman. "He was just trying to make people laugh. He just wanted to be the next big thing, regardless of what that would be. A real showboater."
Inspired by 9-11 -- as well as boredom and his family's military heritage -- Mike enlisted in the army after graduating high school in 2002. He was quickly deployed to Iraq, where his main duty was transporting prisoners of war. He served as a gunner on more than 350 missions, his father proudly notes.
Mike often wrote home on scraps of cardboard or by e-mail. The stream of letters revealed a young man in transition. "He became so serious," says best friend Christian Taylor. "He was more sentimental than he'd ever been. He'd never talked about the way he felt."
Mike would sometimes write about the loneliness. He'd frequent chat rooms to escape the expanse of desert around him. One night he found solace in Maria Catini, a doe-eyed beauty from Rome, who looked much younger than her 19 years. She dreamed of moving to America to study biology.
By the time he returned to Fort Hood, Texas, in 2004, he and Maria were talking nonstop online. He suggested that she come for a visit.
Mike fell hard for her European sensibility, her dramatic gestures, the way he could tuck her petite frame into his body, which was chiseled by years of drills. Maria loved being in America with an American so attentive to her every whim. The prospect of a green card didn't hurt either. "She liked that he really listened to her," says her attorney, Brendan DeLay. "She also enjoyed the fact that he was American. She had aspirations to live here."
Mike had never really dated anyone before Maria. But a month later, as her departure for Rome neared, he suggested that they get married. They went to the courthouse that day.
"One day we get this call from Texas," Heath says. "It's Mike, saying, 'We just got married.' And I'm thinking, 'You're nuts.'"
When the newlyweds arrived in Mechanicstown for a visit, Mike was celebrated as a war hero. Stories in the newspapers. Guest of honor in the Memorial Day parade. Cookouts with the neighbors, who deluged him with questions and gawked at his war mementos.
He and Maria finally exchanged proper vows under the town gazebo -- Mike in uniform, Maria swimming in a secondhand gown. "She was very timid," remembers Heath. "She wasn't exactly comfortable with English yet. But Mike was just going on in Italian."
The couple returned to Texas and got an apartment near the base. For a time, the Barnetts didn't hear from Mike; they assumed he was busy honeymooning.
Then they got a call from his sergeant. "They told us Mike had a domestic dispute," Tom says. "His sergeant said it was normal for returning combat vets and that Mike was in the hospital, being treated for PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]."
When Heath finally got hold of his brother, Mike was crying uncontrollably. He said Maria had become pregnant. They'd agreed to an abortion. But she came home from the clinic screaming at Mike for forcing her to kill their baby. The screeching and slapping threw Mike over the edge. He punched and pushed back, until Maria was black and blue. She went to the hospital, and Mike turned himself in at the base, where he was placed under psychiatric evaluation. Doctors believed his outburst came from PTSD.
While he was hospitalized, Maria returned to Italy. The army promised Mike he'd soon receive an honorable medical discharge, but he couldn't wait. Less than a week before his discharge, he flew to Italy in search of forgiveness.
Mike was now AWOL, living in Rome with Maria and her parents. She was happy to give her husband a second chance. He got a job giving tours of the Vatican.
Tom plays a video of Mike strolling through the streets of Rome. As he leans on a fence, gazing at Vatican City, he appears content. But that was about to end.
Maria reminded Mike that she'd married him for a reason. She wanted to go back to the U.S., get her green card, and study.
They arrived unexpectedly at the Barnetts' doorstep last spring, asking for a place to stay.
But their newlywed bliss was already spent. Mike and Maria were constantly fighting. It would usually start with Maria screaming, telling Mike that she didn't really love him or that he needed to get a job. Once, the Barnetts found them rolling around in their gravel driveway, shouting obscenities at each other.
"The arguing was insane," Heath says. "She's got a little temper on her, and she could really get at Mike."
They'd stay up all night, watching TV, chain-smoking, and bickering loudly. As Tom would get up for work, they'd just be turning in on the living-room sofas. No one could convince Mike to get a job.
But on April 26, he finally found inspiration.
The family was gathered around the TV, watching Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" segment, in which reporters lure pedophiles to a home, then turn them over to the cops. This episode took place in Greenville, Ohio, a burg not unlike Mechanicstown. By the end of the episode, Dateline had caught 18 men in just three days.
"What would stop somebody from robbing these guys?" Mike asked his family.
Between the fighting and Mike's refusal to work, the Barnetts were finally fed up. "My wife threw them out," Tom says. "We'd been pressing Mike to find work, and he was real reluctant. So she thought making him fend for himself would encourage him. But I think he was just real depressed. I think it was the PTSD."
With nowhere to go, Mike called an aunt in Salineville, an old mining village east of Mechanicstown, where the jobs had been replaced by cocaine and heroin decades ago. Even folks in Mechanicstown describe Salineville as straight out of Deliverance. Maria called its residents "hill-a-billies."
The couple moved into a small, two-toned trailer with Mike's aunt and her daughter. Now buried even deeper in the picturesque blight of southeast Ohio, Mike spent his time thinking about the Dateline episode.
He created fake Yahoo! Chat accounts, carefully designing profiles for his fictional Lolitas, according to the Carroll County Sheriff's Department. One, "daisygirl0909," was aptly named "Jesica Vanscooter."
Though 21, Maria looked no older than a middle-schooler. She posed for photos wearing flirty skirts, just to pique interest. In others, she appeared topless. These would seal the deal.
Mike and Maria began scouring chat rooms, fishing for men, using seductive messages and pictures as bait. They caught as many as 35 admirers between ages 28 and 40. A common theme prevailed, of divorced dads who loved to "hunt, camp, and hang out with my kids!"
Smitten with his scheme, Mike began bragging to cousin Kellie Barton and her friends. All agreed it was a victimless, almost righteous scam. Stealing from perverts? Mike was doing society a favor.
In exchange for a small cut, he recruited as many as nine kids, ages 16 to 19, to help. "It was pretty much foolproof," says one who participated, but asked not to be named.
Sometimes they'd get a 16-year-old neighbor to chat with the men. When the conversation took a turn for the blue, they'd throw down their deal -- pay up or we go to the police.
It didn't always work. The anonymity of the internet allowed some men to call their bluff and disappear. Mike knew that he'd have to raise the stakes, get them face-to-face, if he wanted to make real money.
Armed with two laptops and a video camera from Wal-Mart, the group got serious. Mike would work the computer for hours with promises of sex with a minor, until he hooked a sucker. Maria or Barton would then call the guy and give him directions to the usual meeting spot -- Riley's Church, an isolated parish on a seldom-traveled country road.
As Maria slipped into her miniskirt and heels, Mike rounded up his crew, who armed themselves with baseball bats and sticks.
At Riley's, the boys would hide behind trees, while Maria waited for the suspect in the front.
When she brought the man to the back, the boys would jump out, armed with a video camera, and yell, "Freeze!"
"We would tape the guy the whole time and tell him that if he didn't comply to our demands, we'd turn the tape over to the cops," says one kid involved. "Then we'd take their ID and anything valuable in the car. It worked pretty well, because no one wants that information released, especially if you have a good family. You don't want that coming back to you."
The group lured roughly 10 men to Riley's, according to investigators. May was their best month -- so good, in fact, that Mike and Maria took a short vacation in Rome.
Sometimes they'd ask the men to bring along Xboxes and PlayStations, suggesting that they'd have sex and play videogames. The items found their way to eBay. But mostly Mike and Maria ended up with bottles of wine, flowers, and CDs.
Their victims rarely resisted; no one went to the police. Only once did a guy get away, but there were many no-shows.
It wasn't the most lucrative scam. Still, Mike was proud of his work, referring to the group as a "foundation" that was protecting children.
"He couldn't shut up about it," Heath says. "He was telling everyone around town. Everyone knew about it. He was so proud he got away with it."
That would be his undoing. Word got back to Mike's parents. Florence, his mother, contacted the Carroll County Sheriff's Department to relay the rumors about her son. She wanted them to investigate before things got worse.
Police staked out Riley's, but never saw anything. They dismissed it as small-town gossip.
At 7:30 p.m. on July 14, Salineville police were summoned to a disturbance at a Water Street trailer.
Neighbor Greg Howard complained that Maria had pulled a 12-inch knife on his son because he ate one of her pudding snacks.
"Can you believe that?" asks Chief Tim LaClair, who sucks on a Marlboro Light behind a desk cluttered with cocaine test swabs and confiscated heroin. "All over a 25-cent pudding. That's what I have to deal with!"
Maria denied having a knife, but appeared visibly upset about the loss of her pudding. She and Mike were taken for questioning.
Back at the station, LaClair received a bulletin from the Carroll County Sheriff. Mike and Maria were wanted for questioning in regard to rumors about robbing pedophiles. LaClair ran a few checks of his own, discovering that Mike had been AWOL for two years.
When the chief questioned him about the predator scam, Mike clammed up. So LaClair played the AWOL card.
Suddenly, Mike knew he was done. "Can I have one of those cigarettes?" he sighed. LaClair offered a Marlboro. "I'll tell you everything you want to know."
Both he and Maria soon spilled all, from the baseball bats to their using topless pictures as bait.
The next day, LaClair was still dragging in Mike's crew for statements. Everyone confessed. Each story corroborated the next. "It was a domino effect," the chief says. "Every time you'd knock one down, another would start."
There seemed only one place the stories diverged: over Maria's participation.
She had quickly turned on her husband. Her statement paints Mike in the role of domineering boss and her as the pliant subordinate. He wanted to tape her for porn and sell it on eBay. She refused. She'd been a reluctant participant in his schemes, urging him to stop. But he didn't want some crappy job making eight bucks an hour. And if she didn't help him, he threatened, she'd starve.
But the remaining nine suspects had no such perceptions of her involvement. They all called Maria a willing instigator, and LaClair believed them. This was no demure immigrant girl. "I was sitting there, staring at a topless photo of her, and then staring right back at her," he says. "She never looked embarrassed or scared. She almost looked proud."
As news of the couple's scam spread, the morality debate began. Many believed that Mike hadn't committed a crime -- at least, not a real one. The victims, if one could call them that, didn't justify a war veteran's arrest.
LaClair was listening to Canton's Q92 one day when he heard callers discussing whether Mike should be charged. "It was down the middle," says the chief. "Fifty percent were for the Barnetts and didn't think they should be charged. People just couldn't agree. All they could agree on was that these guys, these victims or whatever, were trying to obtain sex from a minor, and that was clearly wrong."
One man who was blackmailed says otherwise, saying that Mike and Maria created temptation where none existed. "They sought me out," he says. "I wasn't looking for it. I didn't want to jeopardize anything. But they pushed the envelope; they blatantly lied and tricked me. As far as I'm concerned, I am the victim."
Mike soon made an appearance on the evening news, claiming Dateline as his inspiration, but his lawyers quickly moved to shut him up. The couple declined Scene's interview requests.
"Maria is in a vulnerable position, because of her citizenship," says attorney Brendan DeLay.
On August 22, Maria was released under house arrest, while Mike remained in jail, unable to come up with a $1 million bond.
Prosecutors offered Mike a nice plea -- one count of extortion, less than a year in prison. Mike's family says he was close to accepting, but changed his mind, hoping he could bargain for Maria's freedom. He now insists that he forced her to cooperate.
As police continue to collect evidence, Mike's friends and family have their own opinions. Christian Taylor, Mike's best friend, blames Maria.
His buddy returned from war with a void in his life, says Taylor -- one he filled with Maria. Yet she offered little more than insults and demands. "She'd often scream at him that she hated him and was only using him for a green card," Taylor says. "He'd always say that he wouldn't be surprised if she divorced him."
In a way, Mike's father agrees, though he also blames PTSD. But it's Heath who probably offers the best explanation. Here was a showboating prankster who always wanted to be "the next big thing," no matter what that really was.
"He was always looking to outdo his last prank," Heath says. "I guess he finally did."