A Co. Tyrone teenager took his own life when private images of him were sent to his online friends as part of a blackmail plot.
Seventeen-year old GAA player Ronan Hughes, from Coalisland, Co. Tyrone, was given 48 hours to send £3,000 ($4,700) to a fake Facebook account the Northern Irish police service (PSNI) later tracked down to Nigeria.
Speaking to The Irish News, the teenager’s parents told of how Ronan had come to them three days before his death to tell them of the threat. Ronan became a victim of the blackmail threat when he posted images to a social media site after receiving similar photographs from a girl.
"He came to me and said I'm in trouble here,” his mother, Theresa Hughes, said.
"He gave me his phone. They were looking more than £3,000 for an image he had posted and told him they were going to show it to all his friends. They had sent him a list of all his Facebook friends. He texted them back to say, 'but I'm only 17'."
Ronan’s parents immediately brought him Dungannon police station to report the threat as further threatening messages were sent to Ronan.
Ronan’s parents believe that he would still be alive today if the blackmail threats had been properly treated by the PSNI.
His father Gerard Hughes recalls, "A policeman said to us there was very little they could do as he was there on his own that night. He scribbled down a few notes and told us to ignore the blackmail. He told us to come back the next morning.
"I knew Ronan was looking for help and I told him that all my son wanted is for these images not to be posted. He told us that he couldn't guarantee that. For Ronan, it was totally dismissive.
"If the police had given Ronan reassurance and said 'We'll contact IT experts, we'll close this down, we'll stop that’ – Ronan would still be here today, that's why he came to us, he wanted help."
On returning to the police station the next day, the police took Ronan’s phone and told him to continue to ignore the messages of blackmail. After two further days, on the eve of the blackmail deadline, they had still not heard back from the police.
“We were very disappointed but we sat Ronan down and told him that if the images were published it would blow over in a couple of weeks and we'd deal with it,” Mr Hughes said. “We told him it wasn't the end of the world.
"I had a chat with him on the Thursday night. I asked him if he was okay about the fact the images might appear the next morning and he replied, 'whatever.'"
However, a friend contacted Ronan the next day to tell him she’d received a link containing images but had not opened them. Ronan informed his parents and Mr. Hughes rushed home, concerned about his son. On reaching his home, he found that Ronan had ended his life.
His mother Theresa believes that more needs to be done to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
"We decided to speak out as this is something that could have been prevented,” she said. “A child with mental illness maybe can't be stopped from taking their own life. But to think that Ronan was living life to the full and then all of a sudden something like this can pop-up and take his life...that's why we had to act.
"We want there to be changes so if a child out there is being bullied online they can go to the police or other authorities with their concerns. We don't want another family to go through what we've gone through."
In recent days, new internet safety guidelines have been sent to Northern Ireland schools. Although not referring specifically to Ronan’s death, the guidelines ask schools to warn their students about posting nude or nearly nude photos or videos online, warning that to do so "could lead to harmful situations such as stalking, abuse or blackmail."