A male airline passenger was caught sending texts about sexually assaulting children.
The messages were seen by female passenger who was sitting behind the man on a July 31 flight from Seattle to San Jose, reports The Associated Press.
The woman is a Seattle-area preschool teacher who asked not to be publicly identified, reports The Mercury News.
"It was in large font, and she sees certain words and starts contemplating there's something bigger there," said San Jose sex-crimes Detective Nick Jourdenais. "Then the conversation transitions to children. That's the moment when she decided to preserve the evidence as best as she could."
Took photos of his smartphone screen using her own smartphone. Then she alerted the flight crew, and a flight attendant notified an officer stationed at Mineta San Jose International Airport.
Upon landing, San Jose police arrested Michael Kellar, 56. His text messages led to the arrest of Gail Burnworth, 50, in her Tacoma, Washington, home, officials announced on Aug. 3.
Seattle detectives and FBI agents from that area confirmed that two children, ages 5 and 7, who lived at Burnworth's home were being sexually abused. Kellar was making sexual requests for the children, and Burnworth was carrying them out, investigators contend.
Kellar is being held without bail on suspicion of two felony counts of attempted child molestation and solicitation of a sex crime.
Burnworth is jailed in Pierce County, Washington, on suspicion of felony counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, rape of a child, and dealing in depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
Meanwhile, the preschool teacher is being hailed as a hero.
"It's kind of mind-blowing," said Detective Jourdenais. "She gets on a plane, a normal citizen minding her business. A couple of hours later, she's intervening on quite possibly the most traumatic thing children can go through. This was life-altering for them."
"Kudos to his young lady. She went a step further," said Sgt. Brian Spears, commander of the SJPD Internet Crimes Against Children task force. "Without us responding right away, he would have been lost."
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, "child sexual abuse is difficult to determine because it is often not reported; experts agree that the incidence is far greater than what is reported to authorities."
A 2003 National Institute of Justice report, cited by the organization, indicates that 3 out of 4 adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.
The same report says that children who are sexually abused for a prolonged period develop low self-esteem and an abnormal view of sex, and can ultimately become suicidal.
Children who live in "homes marked by parental discord, divorce, or domestic violence, have a higher risk of being sexually abused," the report adds.