Gruesome allegations emerged Thursday in the murder case against two Howard County teenagers that has raised fears about a widely popular social media app and alarmed parents throughout Maryland.
David Eisenhauer, 18, and Natalie Keepers, 19, plotted the kidnapping and killing of a Virginia girl, buying cleaning supplies and a shovel at Wal-Mart and later hiding her body in the trunk of a car, a prosecutor alleged Thursday in a Virginia court.
The two planned for Eisenhauer to cut the throat of 13-year-old Nicole Lovell at a remote location, said prosecutor Mary Pettitt, though she did not discuss a motive.
Messages on the missing girl's cellphone led police to Eisenhauer, a graduate of Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Pettitt said.
A freshman at Virginia Tech, Eisenhauer is jailed without bond on charges of kidnapping and first-degree murder. Keepers, a graduate of Hammond High School in Columbia, is being held without bond on charges including accessory before the fact to first-degree murder. She, too, is a Virginia Tech freshman.
Neighbors of Nicole said the girl had been messaging an older "boyfriend" before she went missing last week from her Blacksburg, Va., home.
She had been messaging with the popular cellphone app Kik, the neighbors said. The messaging app allows users to easily disguise their identities. Such apps are increasingly used to target children, authorities say.
"I speculate that all she was looking for was to connect with people, and she inadvertently connected with the wrong people that were looking to cause real harm and trouble," said Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, which offers treatment and support for victims of child sexual abuse.
"As a parent, we wouldn't let our daughters go out on a date without meeting the guy first. What's happening with social media is that the guy is in your daughter's bedroom and you don't even know it," Rosenberg said.
Law enforcement agencies are urging parents to be aware of their children's activity on Kik or other apps.
"What we often find is that parents who would never dream of letting their kids open the front door and allow a stranger to come into the house take absolutely no precaution when it comes to letting strangers into their virtual front doors," said Elise Armacost, spokeswoman for the Baltimore County police.
In Lutherville, the children's clothing boutique Wee Chic has teamed up with the Baltimore Child Abuse Center to host "Tweens and Technology," a three-part speaker series aimed at educating parents and young children about ways to improve online safety.
Wee Chic owner Bridget Quinn Stickline, who has been working on the project for almost a year, said she was inspired to start the series after customers spoke of their worries about their children's use of the Internet.
"Parents were expressing concerns about the increased prevalence of technology in these kids' lives and being connected on texting apps and social media," she said. "It's difficult for parents to keep up with."
The first part of the series, for parents, will be Feb. 26 at 6 p.m. The event will educate adults on the possible dangers their children face when using the Internet on gaming systems, social networks and mobile devices and how to address these issues.
A teens-only session will follow on Feb. 27 at 1 p.m., aiming to equip children with the tools to identify and protect themselves against potential threats. A joint session with both parents and children on March 4 at 6 p.m. will allow families to discuss issues together.
Social media apps are increasingly used to target children, said Maryland State Police Lt. Matthew Kail, who commands the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Kail said about 1,500 tips were received last year about cases where children were possibly being targeted online, whether through cellphone apps, Internet chat rooms and even video games.
"Online exploitation is increasing," he said. "[Apps] give you a cloak of anonymity. You assume you know who you're talking to, but you don't."
In February 2015, for example, an Upper Marlboro man was arrested after police said he used Kik to send sexually explicit messages to a 12-year-old girl whom he later tried to meet for sex. Vincent Paul Hill has pleaded guilty to solicitation of a minor and he will be sentenced this month, said T. Wayne Kirwan, spokesman for the Howard County state's attorney's office.
California software developer Robert Lotter has worked to invent programs allowing parents to monitor the apps their children are using.
"The fundamental behind Kik is anonymity," he said. "The other part that makes it extra dangerous is it's open. Any user can message any other user on the platform. You don't know who that person is. They could be a 59-year-old posing as a 15-year-old."
Kik Interactive Inc., the privately held Waterloo, Ontario-based company that launched the app in 2010, claims more than 200 million registered users, including 40 percent of U.S. teens and young adults.
The company issued a statement Thursday saying it cooperated with the FBI in the investigation of Nicole's death. "We provide Kik users with features that allow them to block and report any unwanted contact, including from strangers," said spokesman Rod McLeod. He urged those concerned to read the "Guide for Parents" on the company website.
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Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, Calif., defended the company. "You're going to get a lot of people looking to blame Kik. That's the easy thing to do, but if it's not Kik, it's something else," she said. "The only thing to do as a parent is try and open a line of communication very early."
In court in Virginia on Thursday, prosecutor Pettitt offered a few details about the alleged scheme to murder Nicole. She said Eisenhauer initially denied his involvement, but later said he drove to the girl's home and watched her climb out of her window the day she vanished. He said he greeted her with a hug and then brought her to Keepers, Pettitt said.
Keepers is adamant that she was not present at the killing, but she "is in the same position as the person who carried out the murder," the prosecutor told Judge Robert Viar Jr.
Keepers was denied bail Thursday on charges that she aided Eisenhauer before and after the crime, and helped hide the body.
Nicole, whose body was recovered in North Carolina, two hours south of campus, was remembered Thursday at a private funeral.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.