"I think we always think 'not us,' and when it is you, it turns your world upside down," Jessica Sproul of Waldoboro said following a week-long investigation into how photographs of her 10-year-old daughter made their way online.

Sproul is one of several parents to discover that a registered sex offender had been taking pictures of young girls out in several public places and posting them to various social media websites.

On Jan. 17, the Augusta Police Department received several calls regarding the situation and posted on its Facebook page:

"We have looked into each complaint so far and have not found any violation of law to this point. The reason there is no violation is primarily because the Constitution of the United States protects photographing people, places and things in a public place, even if it is a child or young adult by a registered sex offender."

The post goes on to explain, "This would only be a violation if a sex offender is on probation and has restrictions prohibiting this type of behavior. In this case, there is no probation in place."

After the warning got out to the public, Sproul said friends were scrolling through social media to see if their daughter was one of the subjects, only to find images of Sproul's daughter, Arianna.

"It was horrifying to see the pictures," she said, noting there were approximately 80 images of her unsuspecting daughter.

"I immediately started crying and could barely even catch my breath. It was like things became a blur," Sproul said.

The images were allegedly found on one of the perpetrator's Flickr accounts called "The Dude Likes Your Hair," according to Sproul.

She said there were thousands of pictures of mostly minors and some young adults who appeared to have no idea their picture was being taken.

The first phone call she made was to her husband, who was speechless; then she phoned her mother, who had taken her daughter to Barnes & Noble in Augusta Jan. 15 — where the pictures were taken.

Sproul was curious if she would remember seeing the guy — who by that point had been identified.

"She did remember him, and was so upset to learn he had photographed my daughter," Sproul said.

Her mom, who herself was in some of the pictures as well, remembered getting a weird feeling about the guy, but didn't see him doing anything that raised her suspicions.

Neither she nor her daughter remembered seeing anything in his hands that he would have been using to take pictures.

"He has admitted to using apps that hide pictures and I assume he must have some sort of hidden device he can use if he doesn't have his phone out in clear sight," Sproul said.

Her next call was to the Augusta Police Department, where personnel told her they would not be able to do anything, as he was not actually breaking any laws.

"I was shocked and upset," she said.

"I spent hours that night combing through his multiple Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, Flickr accounts and YouTube videos," Sproul said. "The things I was seeing was very scary, and still is. He taunts people with what he says, admits to following young girls around, and has no remorse for his actions."

She said there was even one post on YouTube of him videotaping himself at a self-checkout of a store he had been banned from for photographing young girls, saying, "I don't follow these bans … they should know this by now."

The next morning, Sproul called the Maine State Police Sex Offender Division and a detective with the Attorney General's Office.

"I got the same answer from all of them … nothing could be done," she said, adding, "I had to take their word that they were looking into things and being very sure there were no violations."

Eventually, Sproul's curiosity got the best of her, and she went on the Sex Offender Registry to investigate for herself. She said her findings revealed the man is a lifetime registrant on the sex offender registry after being charged and found guilty of three counts of gross sexual assault against a child who has not attained the age of 14. His sentence was five years with all but six months suspended.

"At some point, taking pictures is not going to appease him and he will cross the line," she said.

Sproul said she had to have a tough conversation with her daughter following the incident. She said she explained that there are some bad people in this world who make bad choices, and sometimes these choices affect innocent children.

She said as soon as she started to explain that there was a guy at the bookstore her daughter cut her off and said she knew who she was talking about.

"She said there were a couple of times she 'caught' him looking at her and she thought it was weird," Sproul said. "We discussed that if she ever has a feeling like that to let whoever she is with know and to trust her gut," Sproul said.

Sproul said she could see some of her daughter's innocence fading as she told her about the pictures being shared online.

"We also were sure to discuss that there are many more good people in this world than bad, and that if you are ever in a bad situation to look for someone to help," she said, adding that she reminded her daughter of a quote from "Mr. [Fred] Rogers" …  “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Throughout the ensuing week, Sproul said, she kept searching her mind, thinking there must be something that could be done to restore faith in being able to protect her daughter.

"She's 10. She doesn't deserve to feel unsafe," Sproul said.

In that moment she realized that the only way to protect her was to change the laws.

She was fortunate enough to connect with the newly formed group #timeforachange, which is working with State Rep. Matt Pouliot (R-Augusta) on getting a bill entered into this session to make some changes to the law.

"This is where our energy is going at this point," she said.

At a Legislative Council meeting Jan 25, at which Sproul was present, Pouliot submitted LR 2863 "An Act To Establish as a Class D Crime the Intentional Photographing of a Minor without Consent of the Minor’s Parent or Guardian by an Individual Required to Register as a Sex Offender" for consideration.

To Sproul's delight, the legislative leaders agreed the problem needs to be addressed and voted unanimously to allow Pouliot’s bill to be brought up for debate, even though it was submitted past the deadline.

"We have some work to do on what it will exactly look like, but it is such a positive feeling to see something coming out of this that can protect our children," Sproul said Jan. 26.

She said what she learned is that once sex offenders are off probation, they have no restrictions outside of being on the registry — if that is part of their sentence.

"We want to see restrictions tied to the registry directly," Sproul said, "so that even if you are not on probation, we can still protect people from the behavior of offenders."

According to Sproul, there was no investigation opened, as the perpetrator was not breaking the law because he was not on probation.

"My hope is that they [the police] continue to monitor his behavior, as I truly believe he will cross that line again," she said.

Sproul did say police had seized the sex offender’s computer, and are reviewing it to see if there are materials that may violate any other laws.

In the meantime, she plans to work with Pouliot and the group to see if they can get the laws changed to protect not only her daughter, but all children.

"I want to be able to tell my daughter, if it were to happen again, 'He did something bad and this is the consequence,' instead of 'He did something bad and there is nothing we can do about it.'"

"If there is one thing I will take from this as a positive … it's good to know people have our backs and watch out for each other," she said.

Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at bbirmingham@villagesoup.com.