Photo of mother reunited with teen after he was lured online by a sexual predator.

By Denise Gee Peacock

Little did the parents of a Layton, Utah, 13-year-old know how dangerous his immersion into the social gaming platform Roblox had become.

The virtual reality world of social gaming got very real for a Utah teen abducted from home by a fellow gamer – an accused sexual predator from Arizona. The boy was found safe, nearly 800 miles from home, thanks to a good Samaritan.Noticing their son was becoming more secretive, distracted, and easily agitated, the couple investigated the game’s communications log for clues to his behavioral changes. They were distraught to find that he was conversing with a gamer named “Hunter Fox” who identified as a “furry” (someone who enjoys dressing up as a furry animal).As they combed through the text-like interactions, they saw the conversation had increasingly become sexualized in tone. But because such language might be flagged, and hinder the gamers’ access to Roblox, “Hunter” discussed using other digital platforms to continue communication.

Alarmed, the parents contacted the Layton Police Department (LPD) on November 29, 2022, to report their findings. Over the next several weeks, the LPD awaited information stemming from subpoenas issued to help them identify the online predator.

Meanwhile “Hunter” began using other methods to communicate with the boy, primarily via text messages in which he shared nude photos and videos of himself. He pressured the boy to do likewise. Soon, “Hunter” convinced the boy to meet him late in the evening on December 26, 2022.

The suspected abductor, whose real name was Aaron Zeman (though he had numerous aliases), was thought to be traveling with the boy in a 1998 Toyota Avalon. The vehicle had damage to the front grill and a temporary Arizona tag. And based on the LPD’s detective work, they believed Zeman to be taking the boy to either Arizona or Texas, where Zeman had ties.

As LPD Lieutenant Travis Layton and his team were pursuing the boy’s digital footprints and trying to track the vehicle, good news arrived within 24 hours—from nearly 800 miles away in Nebraska.

Quote from Utah Police Lieutenant Travis Lyman (shown in photo): "The parents did everything they could in this instance. This was just a persistent suspect and perpetrator. We're just glad it ended the way it did."

Just after 1 a.m. December 28, the clerk working at the Git ’N Split near I-80 in Grand Island, Nebraska, noticed some suspicious activity. A white Toyota Avalon, driven by an adult male accompanied by a teenage boy, had pulled up to a gas pump and parked. After no one exited the car to purchase gas, the vehicle drove away from the pump, headed the wrong way down an access road, turned around, and then parked in a dimly lit area near the store. That prompted the clerk to alert the Grand Island Police Department (GIPD), who quickly arrived at the scene.

After running the vehicle’s plate number, officers discovered it was wanted in connection with the AMBER Alert issued in Utah the day before.

ABC-affiliate Nebraska TV reported that the person driving the vehicle initially identified himself as “Tadashi Kojima” before officers realized he was Aaron Zeman, 26, wanted in connection with the AMBER Alert. By 2 a.m., the boy was taken to a place of safety while Zeman was booked into the Hall County jail on suspicion of kidnapping.

“We are grateful that [the store attendant] was paying attention, and was able to report the unusual activity,” LPD Lieutenant Travis Lyman told Fox13 News. Lyman said it was unclear where Zeman actually planned to take the boy, but what was most alarming was learning he had requested the boy bring his passport with him, which he did.

While the teen agreed to meet the man, Lyman said, “he is 13 years old and cannot consent in any way. Therefore Aaron [Zeman] had [committed] kidnapping.” At last check, Zeman was being held in a Nebraska jail, booked on $1 million bail. He is facing one felony count of kidnapping and resisting arrest. Lyman noted that Zeman will likely face the felony charge of online enticement of a minor. And since Zeman took the teen across state lines, his crime could be prosecuted federally.

“After helping the boy rejoin his family, we’ll work with our federal partners and law enforcement in Nebraska to determine charges and who may be handling what parts of this investigation,” Lyman said.

Speaking on behalf of the boy’s family in Utah, friend Beth Cooper described the 13-year-old as a “handsome, brilliant young man.”

“He comes from a very loving household, safe environment. He’s grown up with two loving parents his entire life,” she told Fox13 Salt Lake City. “This just isn’t one of those scenarios in which he was trying to run away from a bad home. He was manipulated by someone pretending to be someone they were not. … He doesn’t understand yet why when somebody asks you to leave your house, you don’t go.”

Thankfully, the AMBER Alert system worked.

“I’ve learned a lot about that,” Cooper explained. “It’s amazing to see how putting out the [AMBER Alert] quickly puts everyone on alert—not only officers in this state, but those in surrounding ones” who can access the information.

Happily, the boy’s mom and dad “are beyond ecstatic that this was the outcome,” she said.

When the mother reunited with her son, she told reporters that the anguish of not knowing where her son was for two days is something she “wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.”

Aaron Zeman, the man arrested for abducting the Utah teen, is shown in an undated photograph wearing a hat and backpack next to a Christmas tree. The Nebraska gas station where he and the boy were found by police is also shown.