"This case is about every parent's worst nightmare," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Elly Peirson.
URBANA — A Champaign teen described in detail for a federal jury Tuesday how a Tennessee man convinced her over the Internet and through text messages that he loved her and that they could run away together.
Joseph Cain Harrison even made several trips to Champaign from Nashville to see the then 13-year-old girl in January 2012.
When the teen's best friend couldn't convince her friend to steer clear of the virtual boyfriend, the friend told an adult, leading to criminal charges against the 36-year-old registered sex offender.
"This case is about every parent's worst nightmare," Assistant U.S. Attorney Elly Peirson said in her opening statement.
The jury was chosen Monday to hear the charges against Harrison: enticement of a minor, traveling with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor, and doing those things at a time when he was a registered sex offender.
Judge Michael McCuskey is presiding. Assistant U.S. Public Defender John Taylor represents Harrison.
Peirson outlined how, in the summer of 2011 between the girl's sixth and seventh grades, the girl and Harrison met via the online gaming website OurWorld. They were able to chat individually, and in spite of built-in security measures designed to prevent the sharing of telephone numbers, Harrison and the girl did just that.
"She was naive to what dangers could be on the Internet. She was a girl who needed a little extra attention," Peirson said of the girl from a two-parent family who made good grades.
The pair communicated primarily through text messages — 20,000 — between late November 2011 to mid-January 2012, the prosecutor said.
The girl told the jury it was "about 24/7" for the texting, with the exception of the six hours she slept at night. She even texted during class in school. In the beginning, Harrison told her he was 13. He knew she was 12. She told him about what movies and music she liked, her favorite color of nail polish, and about her dog.
The texts from him included pictures of him when he was younger and later, others that showed he was older and wore a uniform shirt for Staples. She said he eventually admitted to her he was 18, which she believed despite some of the pictures of him being recent.
"He complimented me. It made me feel happy, like I was wanted by somebody," she said, adding that she considered their relationship to be boyfriend and girlfriend even though they never met.
After a few weeks, the texts turned more sexual in nature and included photos of Harrison in boxer shorts. There were love letters and poems from him, even marriage-like vows between them and discussions of running away to Canada.
At his direction, she sent photos of herself in certain outfits, even pictures of her underwear drawer. Then he began talking of coming to see her.
"I was scared about meeting him. I haven't seen him in real life. I had concerns that I was putting my life in his hands, that he could basically take me anywhere," she said.
Despite her concerns, they exchanged home addresses and Christmas gifts. He sent her a heart-shaped pendant necklace and ear buds. She sent him a bracelet, a Subway gift card and candy bars. Her mother testified that she took the girl to buy the items and mail them, being under the impression that her daughter was communicating with a 13-year-old from her own school who was in Tennessee at a grandparent's home.
The mother cried quietly as she admitted she had no idea of the inappropriate texts. Her daughter maintained good grades through the weeks-long exchanges, she said.
"I didn't notice any changes. I wish I had. She still had the same friends. We are a tight family. She still hung with us. I didn't see anything," the mother said.
The mother testified the family was shopping at Sam's Club on Jan. 8, 2012, when they ran into a man that her daughter introduced as Harrison's older brother. The daughter testified that she had texted Harrison the family's errand schedule for that Sunday so that he could see her in public places.
Later the same day, the girl testified, Harrison followed them to the County Market, instructing her via text to separate from her father so they could steal a kiss in another aisle.
"I thought that was too much. I gave him a hug and said 'hi,'" she said. "He leaned in for a kiss but I walked away."
Later that same week in January and again the following week, he came to Jefferson Middle School and picked her up. She testified she had sent him a map of where to park, a photo of her family home and even a diagram of the layout of their house. They went back to her home on those two afternoons and up to her room for what she described as kissing and embraces and him feeling her over her clothing.
It was after the second visit that her best friend, concerned over the teen getting in a car with someone the friend knew was not her parents, told her own mother what had happened. That woman contacted the victim's mother, who said she was "shocked and surprised" but called police the same day.
The teen's mother said her daughter was very upset about the prospect of Harrison getting in trouble. The mother said when the family learned Harrison's real age a few days later, they were in "total shock because we were worried about what else had happened."
Harrison's attorney, Taylor, asked no questions on cross-examination of the girl or her mother.
The case is expected to wrap up Thursday.