‘Our life was shattered’: Mother of Ryan Last addresses defendant Jonathan Kassi after he pleaded to extortion charge
SAN JOSE, Calif. — In a case that drew national attention to the blackmailing crime that preys on young people, a man convicted in a “sextortion” scheme that drove a San Jose teen to commit suicide last year was sentenced Thursday to time served and supervised release.
Jonathan Kassi, 26, has been in the Santa Clara County jail since December and was scheduled to be released under the terms of a plea agreement with prosecutors in which he admitted to one count of felony extortion of Ryan Last, 17 years old.
Kassi was sentenced to three years in prison by Judge David Cena, but only half of it was served in county jail and the other half was served out of custody under mandatory supervision. Cena ruled that the in-custody portion had already been met because of the time he had already spent in jail.
Kassi will be monitored by the county Probation Department for the next year and a half, despite the fact that he lived in the Los Angeles area at the time of his arrest, and will be subject to conditions such as warrantless searches of his cell phone and electronic devices, as well as a prohibition from enrolling in any social media platform.
Two additional extortion counts and a misdemeanor count of posting a photograph without consent were dropped as part of the plea agreement.
Kassi’s only statement in a San Jose courtroom during his sentencing hearing was “yes” when Cena asked if he agreed to the terms of his sentence. Last’s mother, Pauline Stuart, had much more to say and described the toll of losing Last, a soon-to-be Sobrato High School graduate and Washington State University college freshman who was also an Eagle Scout and an active member of the Future Farmers of America.
“Our family was devastated by Ryan’s death.” “Our daily life has a huge hole in it because he’s not there,” Stuart said, adding that each day he “wakes up hoping it was just a nightmare.”
Stuart said the impact on her, her husband, and her surviving son has been immeasurable, and she regrets not knowing about the crime that killed Last. Stuart began speaking publicly a few weeks after his death in order to raise awareness of sextortion schemes and prevent similar tragedies from occurring. The FBI issued a national public-safety alert late last year about a tenfold increase in reported sextortion cases since last year, affecting up to 3,000 adolescents and preadolescents, primarily boys.
“I’m using Ryan’s story to raise awareness about this crime,” Stuart explained. “I didn’t get the chance to tell Ryan about this and what to do.”
Last died on February 26, 2022, at his South San Jose home, and on the same day, the San Jose Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force launched an investigation that revealed the teen had been corresponding online with someone he thought was a girl the night before.
According to the investigation, their conversation became intimate, and the two exchanged sexually explicit photos. Soon after, Last was informed that he needed to pay the other person $5,000 or his photo would be made public. The monetary demands were scaled back — eventually to $150 — after the victim expressed his inability to pay. However, even after Last paid the lower amount, the demands persisted.
Last committed suicide the next morning. Detectives determined that he was the victim of a West African-based scam and named Kassi, a resident of the Los Angeles suburb of Reseda, as a suspect. Last December, he was apprehended.
According to investigators, Kassi did not communicate directly with Last, which explains the severity of his charges, but he facilitated the scheme by managing email addresses and a bank account to which extortion payments would be directed. Police also discovered evidence that other adolescent boys had been targeted across the country.
Stuart asked Cena to find a way to limit Kassi’s online activities, claiming that the internet gives him unrestricted access to new victims, prompting Cena to tell her that anything resembling an internet ban was beyond the court’s jurisdiction.
“The court has tried to fashion supervision terms here that will hopefully protect others from this type of crime in the future,” Cena explained.
Stuart told this news organization after the sentencing that she understood the judge’s reasoning and that state laws needed to be modernized to adequately address sextortion and its potentially tragic consequences.
“The law hasn’t caught up to the seriousness of this,” she says. “We need to catch up with the crimes that are being committed.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, 24-hour support, information, and resources. Call the lifeline at 988 or 800-273-8255, or visit 988lifeline.org.