Timothy Barnett embodied the essence of a typical 13-year-old boy. A seventh-grade honors student at Alice Drive Middle School in Sumter, South Carolina, he adored baseball, held a yellow belt in Karate from the Academy of Martial Arts, and passionately played the saxophone. He had dreams of becoming a major league baseball player one day.
Timothy’s radiant smile lit up every room he entered. He was the life of every party. He loved cracking jokes and making people laugh.
To those who knew Timothy, he was a son, a brother, a friend and a diligent student – but most importantly, he was still a child.
To everyone who knew and loved Timothy, their world came crashing down in the early morning hours of April 6, 2023 when his stepfather discovered his lifeless body in the front yard of their home – with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. For Timothy’s mother, Betsy Hauptman, the nightmare that unfolded that fateful Thursday morning was just the beginning.
In the hours before his death, Timothy could be seen on security camera footage sitting in his mom’s car for anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours – frantically scrolling through his phone. She immediately noticed he seemed distracted and wondered whether he was on drugs, but the toxicology report run by the coroner indicated no drugs were in his system.
What Betsy didn’t know at the time – what she couldn’t have known – was that Timothy had been the victim of sextortion. What she didn’t know – and couldn’t have known – was that in the final moments of his life he was pleading with a nameless, faceless criminal not to expose him.
“Please, I’m just a child,” Timothy is said to have pleaded with this unknown blackmailer.
Betsy also had no idea that to uncover what truly happened to her son – and to obtain the justice he deserves – she would have to fight a protracted battle with local law enforcement.
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For those of you unfamiliar with sextortion scams, they typically target young men between the age of 14-17 – and are occurring with increasing frequency in our country, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The agency has seen an especially large uptick in financial sextortion – in which teens are coerced into sending explicit images and then extorted for money.
Over the past year, law enforcement has received over 7,000 reports related to the online financial sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims – mostly young boys – and more than a dozen suicides, the agency noted in a December 19 press release.
Timothy Barnett became another tragic casualty of this alarming trend. Betsy, his mother, believed she was diligently fulfilling her role as a parent to safeguard him from online predators. She routinely inspected his phone and supervised his online activities. In fact, during the summer before his death, Betsy had found inappropriate communications from a woman on her son’s Snapchat account and had taken it away from him as a punishment.
After Timothy eventually persuaded her to restore his access as an early birthday gift, they engaged in a crucial conversation about responsible usage of the platform – a discussion some parents find challenging to broach with their children.
“We had the conversation with the kids, like bad people are really out there,” she said. “We don’t talk to strangers in real life. We don’t talk to strangers on the internet because sometimes internet strangers are more dangerous.”
During that conversation, Betsy says she told her young son, “remember, only friends.”
Just a few weeks before his death, Timothy came to his mother and told her someone else had messaged him. Betsy asked him what he did about it and Timothy assured her he had blocked the person.
Timothy was still worried she would take the app away from him again but she assured him she wouldn’t.
“As long as you blocked them, you’re good,” she said.
She wonders now if he really did block the person, though …
‘LIKE ANY OTHER MORNING …’
The morning of April 6, 2023 started out like any other morning at the Hauptman house. Betsy said good-bye to her husband as he prepared to leave for work and headed to the kitchen to make her morning coffee.
“Tim’s usually the first person to greet me in the morning,” she said. “Normally I start my hot water for coffee and by the time the kettle is done … Timothy is at the coffee bar, hugging me.”
This morning, though, Timothy was nowhere to be found.
Around this time, her husband Geoffrey called her and instructed her to lock the front door. According to him, someone was sleeping in their front yard. He told her he was going to call 9-1-1 and hung up. Moments later he called her back and told her to check on the kids – which she did.
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With a growing sense of unease, Betsy began a systematic check of her children’s rooms, ensuring their safety by counting their sleeping bodies. When she reached Timothy’s room, her heart sank as she realized he was not there. Her search quickly moved to every familiar corner of the house where she thought Timothy might have ventured, including the bathroom, kitchen and pantry.
“At that point my stomach dropped because there’s a person in the yard, and now my son’s not here,” Betsy said. “And come to find out, it was my son laying in my yard with a gunshot wound to his head.”
The Sumter, S.C. police department responded to the scene and opened an investigation. Among their initial actions was a review of the home’s security camera footage. Sumter police also took Timothy’s phone and school-issued Chromebook as part of their investigation. Betsy made sure investigators understood Timothy’s communications were primarily through the Snapchat application so they would know where to look.
There was a problem, though. Timothy had recently changed the passcode to his phone and Betsy did not know the new one. This meant investigators would need to unlock it using software created for that purpose. On April 18, 2023, lead detective Kelsey Wade assured Betsy investigators were hard at work doing just that – and promised to keep her apprised of their progress. Wade also indicated they would be sending a subpoena to Snapchat to obtain records related to the case.
Betsy went back to picking up the pieces of her shattered family – confident investigators were hard at work figuring out what was on her son’s phone that left him so distraught that he took his own life. She called twice every week to get updates – and to ask investigators if there was anything she could do to assist investigators with the process of unlocking his phone. Twice a week she left a message with investigators asking for an update. And not one time did she receive a response.
On June 27, 2023, frustrated by the lack of communication from law enforcement, she called the chief of police and explained to his secretary what was happening. Shortly after her call, she received a call from detective Wade who finally provided her with an update. They still hadn’t been able to get into Timothy’s phone, but they were able to obtain a partial download. Wade also told her they had subpoenaed Snapchat for records relating to Timothy’s account and planned to send a second subpoena to Snapchat along with one to CashApp. Wade assured the weary mom she would let her know of any updates.
Last month, Betsy got a notification from Life360 that Timothy’s phone had just completed a three-mile drive – over five months after he died. Wondering if police had gotten into his phone, she called and texted Wade – but received no response. On October 14, 2023, Betsy decided it was time to go back to the police department and get some answers. Armed with a paperback book and nothing but time, she sat on the bench in the reception area and waited. When someone finally came to speak with her, it wasn’t detective Wade. It was another detective and a staff sergeant.
The staff sergeant told Betsy he was sorry to inform her that they were unable to get into Timothy’s locked phone – that it was now the equivalent of a “paperweight.” He then told her the investigation into her son’s death had officially been closed. According to Betsy, investigators told her “it wasn’t their job to figure out why her son killed himself.”
Feeling sad – but also feeling an odd sense of relief at the closing of this chapter – Betsy initially accepted their conclusion. Shortly thereafter, though, she learned evidence existed which pointed to her son as being a victim of sextortion. She learned in October that the CashApp account he tried to send money to – in the hopes of stopping the release of whatever materials he sent – belonged to a 51-61-year-old female residing in Los Angeles County, California.
More importantly, she learned that as a result of this new information – a new investigation into the circumstances surrounding her son’s death had been opened.
Count on this news outlet to track the latest developments in that investigation – and conduct additional interviews – as we we continue our coverage of this case.
SEXTORTION IN SOUTH CAROLINA …
With the enactment of Gavin’s Law in South Carolina, sextortion is now a felony punishable by lengthy prison sentences. But while the legislative language notes points to collaboration amongst government entities “to implement a policy to educate and notify students of the provisions of this act which includes adequate notice to students, parents or guardians, the public, and school personnel of the change in law,” there is no mention of a plan to educate those tasked with enforcing it and prosecuting it.
After learning Timothy’s case would be investigated more thoroughly by federal law enforcement agencies, Betsy decided to file an official report. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are now conducting an investigation into Timothy Barnett’s death.
“Unfortunately, it seems like the national law enforcement (agencies), like the FBI and Homeland Security, take it extremely seriously,” she said. “However, it took me going into the police station and figuring it all out saying, where’s this standing? To find out it was buried within a police file, a closed case. My fear is how many others committed suicide and it was brushed off as a depressed teenager? It was brushed off as a depressed middle aged man? It was brushed off as a depressed young girl rather than for what it is … someone’s extorting somebody and giving them no other option.”
Click here for information on Gavin’s Law in South Carolina. To report possible exploitation of a young person or child, contact your local FBI field office, call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it online at tips.fbi.gov. Take a moment to learn how sextortion works and how to talk to your children about it. Information, resources, and conversation guides are available at fbi.gov/StopSextortion.
Remember, “no shame is worth losing your life over.”
Finally, if you know someone who is suicidal or who is considering harming themselves – including yourself – please call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at “988.” Launched in 2022, this organization is a national network that provides crisis support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at email@example.com.
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