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11 June 2006

Teen's plan to visit man she met online unravels in Jordan

medium_1000000000002.jpgDETROIT — A 16-year-old honor student from Michigan snookered her mother into getting her a passport and then flew to the Mideast to be with a West Bank man she met on MySpace.com, authorities say.

U.S. officials in Jordan persuaded her to return home before she reached the West Bank. Television news footage showed Katherine Lester waving as she walked across a tarmac at Bishop International Airport in Flint late Friday.

"She's a good girl. Never had a problem with her," said her father, Terry Lester.

MySpace.com is a social-networking Web site with more than 72 million members that lets users post photos, blogs and journals. There have been scattered accounts of sexual predators targeting minors they met through the site.

Lester disappeared Monday, sheriff's officials said. She apparently planned to visit a man whose MySpace account describes him as a 25-year-old from Jericho, Undersheriff James Jashinske said. Authorities suspect the man from Jericho helped pay for the trip.

The FBI traced the girl to a Wednesday flight from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Tel Aviv, Israel. At a scheduled stop in Amman, Jordan, U.S. officials persuaded her to return home, FBI agent Robert Beeckman said.

Lester's preparations began a few months ago, Jashinske said. She convinced her mom she needed a passport so she could accompany a friend's family on a Canadian vacation when school got out.

On Sunday, Shawn Lester drove her daughter to the bus station to meet the friend's family for the trip, but no one showed up. Lester called the family and learned no such trip was planned.

Mother and daughter returned home and, as the sheriff's news release phrased it, "Katherine then became very upset and refused to tell her mother what her original plans were."

After her mother went to work Monday, the teen called a cab and took off with clothes, her birth certificate and passport, Jashinske said.

The teenager apparently contacted the man from Jericho about three months ago, Jashinske said.

MySpace forbids youngsters 13 and younger from joining and provides special protections for those 14 and 15: only people on their list of friends can view their profiles. Older users have the option of restricting certain personal data.

"I just don't understand with all these new laws protecting America how a 16-year-old kid could get out of the country," Shawn Lester told The Saginaw News.

Lester and her mother live in Gilford, about 80 miles north of Detroit. Her father lives near Flint.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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