NORRISTOWN — Posing as a young female named “Sarah” in online dating apps, a West Pottsgrove man sent dozens of males, some seeking sexual encounters, to the Upper Merion residence of an unsuspecting couple he never met and who feared for their safety and saw their lives disrupted, according to authorities.
“The defendant, acting under this pseudonym online, led men to believe that if they went to this house in King of Prussia that they would meet a resident there for sex when that was not the case. The men expected sexual encounters. These residents who unwittingly would answer the door to these strangers would have no idea what these men were talking about,” alleged Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Matthew Brittenburg.
Howard James Helbert Jr., 59, of the 600 block of Dori Lane, pleaded guilty in county court to a misdemeanor charge of harassment in connection with incidents that occurred between November 2017 and December 2018.
“It’s not just a nuisance. The victims described how insecure this made them feel in their home. How could you ever sleep soundly?” Brittenburg added. “There’s no evidence he knew them. All the victims have wanted since this happened is an explanation about why their home was chosen.”
The investigation intensified when detectives also found child pornography on Helbert’s cellphone, according to court documents. Helbert also pleaded guilty to a felony charge of possessing child pornography.
Judge William R. Carpenter deferred sentencing so that court officials can complete a background investigation report about Helbert, who will undergo a psychosexual evaluation.
Helbert, who remains free on bail pending a sentencing hearing, faces a possible maximum sentence of 5½ to 11 years in prison on the charges. However, state sentencing guidelines could allow for a lesser sentence.
“We’re going to seek jail time,” Brittenburg said.
Posing as a young female named “Sarah” in online dating apps, a #WestPottsgrove man sent dozens of males, some seeking sexual encounters, to the #UpperMerion residence of an unsuspecting couple he never met & who feared for their safety, #MontcoPa authorities said.Story coming.— Carl Hessler Jr. (@MontcoCourtNews) February 25, 2020
Regardless the sentence he eventually receives, because he admitted possessing child porn, Helbert, who is represented by defense lawyer Gail Marr, faces a 15-year requirement to report his address to state police in order to comply with Pennsylvania’s Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act.
The investigation began in 2018, when an Upper Merion couple who rented a residence in the 100 block of Patriot Road reported to township police that “various unknown male subjects began appearing at the house inquiring about a female named ‘Sarah,’” according to the criminal complaint filed by Upper Merion Detective Jay Nakahara. The couple reported that more than 40 men had knocked on the front door throughout the morning, afternoon and late evening hours between November 2017 and December 2018 looking for “Sarah.”
One of the men showed the victims his cellphone which displayed a profile for a woman named “Sarah” on a dating app and the man said he had chatted with “Sarah” and was directed to the Patriot Road address to meet her, according to the criminal complaint.
“(The victim) told me that the visits have interrupted his normal routine as he works from home. Further, (the victim) stated that he now fears for the safety of both him and his wife,” Nakahara wrote in the criminal complaint. “As a result of these safety concerns and disruptions, the property owner had a security system installed at the house. Additionally, (the victim) installed an electronic doorbell system capable of video recording and had a sign installed at the front door warning potential visitors looking for ‘Sarah’ that they had been defrauded.”
Howard J. Helbert Jr., 59, of #WestPottsgrove pleaded guilty in #MontcoPa #Court to harassment in connection with incidents between 2017 & 2018.Detectives alleged he used dating app to send dozens of males, some seeking sexual encounters, to #UpperMerion couple he never met.— Carl Hessler Jr. (@MontcoCourtNews) February 25, 2020
The investigation determined the male visitors reported meeting “Sarah” on the dating apps Skout, Tinder, Jaumo and PlentyOfFish, according to the criminal complaint.
Detectives subsequently obtained a warrant to gain information from the owner of the Skout dating app site and Google Inc. and uncovered an email address associated with the creation of the Skout account that purported to be “Sarah,” according to court documents. The search identified Helbert as the account holder, according to the arrest affidavit.
Brittenburg praised Nakahara for his extensive investigation that uncovered the conduct.
“He executed dozens of search warrants on various social media providers and Internet service providers and did cell site location warrants that ultimately led him to the defendant,” Brittenburg said. “The investigation was one of the most thorough that I have seen. The detective cared immensely about protecting these victims and the public, in general, and his work product showed it.”
When detectives went to Helbert’s West Pottsgrove home on Dec. 20, 2018, he cooperated and admitted to participating in numerous chats via the dating apps in which he directed “random individuals” to the Patriot Road address.
“He stated that he had been conducting this activity for approximately one year which is consistent with the timing of the visits reported by the victims,” Nakahara alleged. “Howard further acknowledged that he had created a fictitious profile of a young female bearing the name ‘Sarah.’”
Helbert allegedly claimed to have randomly selected the Patriot Road address and the investigation determined the victims did not know Helbert and that Helbert had never physically traveled to the house.
“Howard admitted to using Google Maps street view in order to view the home so that he could describe it to potential visitors,” Nakahara alleged.
When detectives searched Helbert’s cellphone to gather evidence regarding his conduct, they also uncovered files containing images of child pornography, according to the criminal complaint. Some of the images depicted female toddlers and others under age 18 engaged in prohibited sexual acts or poses, according to arrest documents.
“In the interview, Howard admitted to saving child pornographic images to his phone. Finally, Howard admitted to saving 300-400 images of young females (child erotica) to his phone,” Nakahara alleged in the arrest affidavit.