A Cleburne County man with a history of sex offenses dating to 2011 and who was accused of extortion in a criminal complaint filed last week was told by a federal magistrate judge on Monday that prosecutors had established sufficient probable cause for his prosecution to move forward.
Trent Allen Hackney, 29, of Higden was accused of extortion in a criminal complaint filed last Wednesday in federal court after an FBI investigation into allegations by an unidentified 21-year-old woman to the Lonoke County sheriff’s office that she had been the victim of a sexual extortion scheme.
According to court records, Hackney is a Level 3 sex offender registered in Cleburne County and is an active parolee assigned to the Cleburne County Probation and Parole office. Court records indicated that he was convicted in 2011 of sexual indecency with a child and distributing/possessing or viewing sexually explicit child material, and in 2013 he was convicted of second-degree sexual assault and sexual solicitation/indecency with a child. He was arrested last year in Conway on state charges of failure to register as a sex offender and possession of a firearm by certain persons.
On Monday, Hackney was escorted by federal marshals into U.S. Magistrate Judge Joe Volpe’s courtroom for a preliminary hearing at which he and his attorney, KenDrell Collins of the Federal Public Defenders Office, contested the allegations contained in the complaint. Hackney is being held in the Lonoke County jail on a parole hold by the state.
According to FBI Special Agent Aaron Hurst, Hackney is suspected of first approaching the victim, a 21-year-old woman identified only as “J.C.,” via text message by posing as a former co-worker attempting to set J.C. up for a romantic liaison with a man identified as Brandon Counts, who Hurst said investigators concluded exists only as a persona created by Hackney.
“In kind of breaking down the complaint, which I know is kind of complicated,” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristin Bryant, “there basically are four personas alleged to have been taken on by Mr. Hackney, is that true?”
“Yes, it is,” Hurst replied.
“One is actually Mr. Hackney, one is Jason McWilliams, one is Brandon Counts, and one is Gayelyn White,” Bryant said. “Is that fair?”
“That’s correct,” Hurst said.
According to the complaint, on Jan. 20, Hackney, posing as White, put J.C. into contact with Counts, who first contacted her via Facebook Messenger, then later called her and persuaded her to engage in “phone sex.”
The complaint said that all of J.C.’s communications with White, whom she personally knew, were conducted via Facebook Messenger or text message and that during the course of these exchanges, which took place between Jan. 20 and Feb. 25 of this year, the two never talked with each another in person or by phone.
Hurst said a forensic extraction conducted on Hackney’s cellphone revealed six mobile applications that allow the user to mask the originating phone number or to mimic a different cellphone number when making calls or sending texts from that phone.
“So someone can use the same phone, but it can appear to have various numbers, is that right?” Bryant asked.
“That’s correct,” Hurst said.
Investigators, he said, had concluded that McWilliams and Counts were made up by Hackney and that he had impersonated White via text message in an effort to get close to the victim. It was not explained how Hackney would have become aware of J.C., how he would have known of White’s existence or her relationship with the victim.
According to the complaint, White later contacted J.C. and told her that Counts needed $1,000 to pay an attorney because of legal issues between Counts and a girlfriend. White told J.C. that she could put up $500 if J.C. could put up the other $500, the complaint said. The complaint said that Counts contacted J.C. and told her that in addition to the $500, he needed her to help distract his ex-girlfriend, who he said was friends with Hackney, and asked her to flirt with Hackney to make the ex-girlfriend jealous.
Later, after being instructed to provide the agreed-upon $500 to Hackney, the complaint said, J.C. met with Hackney at the Cabot Travel Plaza in Cabot to deliver the money.
During this time, according to the complaint, Counts was pressuring J.C. to have sex with Hackney to make the girlfriend jealous, with those communications turning into harassment and threats to release sexually explicit photos and videos, which Counts claimed a hacker had obtained from her phone, if she did not do so.
According to the complaint, J.C. eventually agreed on two occasions to meet with Hackney for sex, once in Greers Ferry and once in Vilonia. When J.C. complained to White about the harassment, the complaint said, White told her that a hacker could “wipe” Counts’ phone of any incriminating photos for $500, which J.C. was instructed to give to Hackney. But White later told J.C. that because the photos were stored on the iCloud, another $500 would be necessary due to the amount of work required, the complaint said.
J.C. was later contacted via Facebook Messenger by McWilliams, who told her that he was dating Counts’ sister and said that Counts was threatening to expose her intimate photos to the group because J.C. had blocked Counts’ account, according to the complaint. After unblocking Counts, the complaint said, J.C. then contacted White for suggestions on how to prevent Counts from spreading the photos.
According to the complaint, J.C. acted on White’s suggestion to call Counts and ask what it would take and was told he would need $750 to leave her alone. At that point, the complaint said, J.C. called the Lonoke County sheriff’s office for help.
Posing as J.C., Lonoke County investigators set up a meeting with Hackney after he texted J.C.’s phone, authorities said. On March 1, Hackney was arrested after a traffic stop near the Exxon gas station in El Paso where the meet had been arranged. During questioning, Hackney said he was only trying to help J.C., denied ever receiving money or sex from her, and said he had met White through mutual friends at an event, according to authorities.
However, when contacted by police, White said she had never heard of Hackney, authorities said.
According to testimony from Hurst, White had no knowledge of any of the events her name was used for, and McWilliams and Counts were fictitious personas created by Hackney to perpetuate the extortion scheme.
Despite attempts by Collins to discredit Hurst’s testimony by pointing out that Hurst had not interviewed the victim and that a number of gaps existed in the FBI agent’s knowledge of the case because he was not personally involved in the investigation, Volpe ruled that probable cause existed for the prosecution to move forward.
“Obviously there are some things that need to be shored up to go higher than a probable cause standard,” Volpe said. “But probable cause says he probably did this, and based on that standard, I think the United States has overcome the burden of supporting the complaint.”