Kaleb Merritt, 21, of Spring, Texas, is charged with the rape, abduction and solicitation of a 12-year-old girl from Bassett and is awaiting extradition to Henry County from a jail in Henderson, North Carolina.
A criminal complaint on file with the warrants for Merritt’s arrest say police were notified Feb. 11 by Discord, an app that allows users to communicate with each other by voice, video, texts or the exchange of files in private chats, about messages between Merritt and the girl that occurred between Feb. 7 and Feb. 10.
The notification from Discord identified Merritt as a member of a Discord group that extorts girls.
The Henry County Sheriff’s Office was notified on Feb. 11 by the Southwestern Virginia Internet Crimes against Children Task Force that officials had flagged messages on Instagram between Merritt and the girl, a sheriff’s office release stated.
Investigators caught up with Merritt at the Planet Fitness on the Greensboro Road in Martinsville and seized his communication devices.
“The communication was concerning, but not illegal—probably like a well-being check,” Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said. “We made contact with Mr. Merritt and pushed it as far as we could legally. We talked to the commonwealth attorney, and the communication was not illegal.”
But the warrants, first reported by WSLS-Ch. 10 and WDBJ-Ch. 7 and confirmed by the Bulletin, state Merritt and the girl used the Discord app to communicate explicit details about sexual acts involving both of them and to exchange child pornography.
In a Wall Street Journal article headlined “The Dark Side of Discord, Your Teen’s Favorite Chat App,” Discord was said to have more than 250 million registered users almost two years ago. And although users are technically are supposed to be at least 13 years old to participate, Discord doesn’t check age with its subscribers.
Court documents indicate Merritt and the girl met on the social app Instagram in December and then moved their communication to Discord.
Records also show that, on the same day investigators took Merritt’s communication devices, he notified the girl to hide her phone and leave her home.
The following day, on Feb. 12, the girl’s great-grandmother reported that she was missing and that she had discovered a suicide note.
The girl’s cellphone was discovered hidden in a saxophone case.
An Amber Alert was issued, and the next day Perry called two press conferences.
At the first press conference Perry appealed to the public for any information as to the whereabouts of Merritt and the girl and for Merritt to drop the girl off somewhere safe.
The second time Perry called the media together, he announced the girl had been found safe, and Merritt had been arrested in Henderson.
“This should be a reminder to all parents and their children, parental conversations and inspections are needed and who you think you’re talking to is most of the time not who you’re talking to,” Perry said. “We think he [Merritt] was in the area alone, we are breaking down communications, but it appears he was in the area by himself.”
Perry also said investigators had information that Merritt was also communicating with at least one other girl in the area.
“We’re still seeing what we’re going to turn up, and it may open up to others,” Perry said.
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt.