Behind a "most heinous crime": How a killer used Facebook to court teen victim
Nona Belomesoff was found facedown in a creek outside Sydney, Australia.
The 18-year-old was fully dressed, wearing a white shirt with a purse and a sleeping mask, and though she suffered bruises and slight blunt force trauma, her body was largely unharmed. She wasn’t bleeding, wasn’t battered. Her mouth and nose simply went underwater in the low-flowing creek.
There was nobody at the scene to report on her death, to tell the authorities what happened or when. She was found in the middle of the Smith Creek Nature Preserve, a marvel of natural beauty about an hour outside of Australia’s largest metropolis. She’d come there to start her career working in the industry that she loved, but she never made it back.
Police received word of Belomesoff’s disappearance the morning after she went missing. Hours later, they’d uncovered a case that one judge would later classify as “a most heinous crime,” a saga enabled by the Facebook era.
It’s a devastating story about digital deception and betrayal—the personal and intimate vulnerabilities routinely exposed through our modern obsession with social networking—and the lurking predators that have taught themselves when it’s best to strike.
Her killer, Christopher James Dannevig, already had a track record before he logged onto Facebook. In fact, he’d actually been arrested twice.
The first occurred nearly five years ago in Dannevig's native New South Wales, when police arrested him for pulling a knife on a woman walking along the bushland. Court reports noted that Dannevig cut the woman with the knife and threatened her "severely." She escaped when Dannevig noticed "the oncoming presence of other walkers in the area."
Dannevig fell under legal fire again in December 2009 for an offense that occurred on Nov. 15, 2008, in which Dannevig was found to have lured a 16-year-old girl into the Ingleburn brush to retrieve a bag he claimed to have left in the area. Court records indicate that he approached the victim from behind and physically restrained her midway through their journey, again wielding a knife.
"It is unnecessary to recite here the full details," court records show, "other than to say that the sentencing judge noted the seriousness of the offense, that he had been on conditional liberty at the time of that offense, and that he had occasioned extreme fear in the victim."
Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Jeremy O'Dea spoke to Dannevig's character at the 2009 hearing, noting his developmental history, intellectual disabilities, and the problems that he'd had with anger management and his subsequent treatment of the issue. Dannevig, then 19, had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when he was 7, after a two-year spell of intense, regular psychological testing.
"There is also history of depression, self-harm, poly-substance abuse and behavioral issues," court reports would note, "including disruptive and aggressive behavior."
Dr. Susan Hayes, a forensic psychologist and professor of behavioral science at the University of Sydney, administered an intelligence test to Dannevig shortly after his 2009 conviction. The test placed him in the category of "mild intellectual disability at a level lower than 99 percent of the population," allowing Hayes to conclude that Dannevig had a tremendously mild case of mental retardation.
Dannevig was an Aryan-looking man, with blonde hair and blue eyes. He had fair skin and a nervous face, an enlarged forehead and a heavily protruding brow.
"I'm easy going," he'd written of himself on Bebo, a social networking site now owned by AOL. "I love to play football. I'm just looking for new friends to hang out with. I like to go to the city and party."
Dannevig is said to have maintained online photo galleries with "more than 100 photos of teenage girls," girls almost exclusively "Dressed in scantily-clad clothing and striking seductive poses."
Nobody in the galleries resembled the girl police would identify as 18-year-old Nona Belomesoff.
Belomesoff accepted Dannevig’s Facebook friend request on Feb. 20, 2010. It was something she did without prior knowledge of the man: She saw the request, scoped out the head shot, and clicked through without ponderance.
It’s something that happens more than Facebook would probably like to admit. Recently news broke that over 83 million of the site’s personal accounts—more than 8 percent—are fake, and if a fake person has friends, then it’s likely that the two have never actually met.
What’s more, Facebook’s sheer mass of users makes it all but impossible for the social network to maintain an efficient form of checks and balances. The network relies largely on user-submitted flagging to weed out the bad seeds, something that holds true for anybody from spammers to bullies to sexual predators using the site to scope out young girls.
As far as she knew, Belomesoff and Dannevig would never meet face-to-face, though the two would communicate regularly for nearly two months until Dannevig disappeared from her inbox on April 15.
It was just before then that she told Dannevig of her interest in animal welfare, an interest so pronounced that she was taking a class called "Work in the Animal Care Industry" at the Sydney Institute TAFE NSW (technical and further education New South Wales). She wanted to make her living saving animals. She’d considered it her calling since she was a young girl.
Belomesoff had straight brown hair and hazel eyes, rosy cheeks, and a big wide smile. Her friends called her "really funny," the type of girl that "would make everyone our group laugh."
"She was a very gentle person," her friend Fiona Voom explained. "She loved animals, horses especially."
Belomesoff graduated from Canley Vale High School in 2009, and she was living with her parents in Sydney while she attended her class. Her brother Gary, then 20, referred to her as "a good girl" shortly after her death in May 2010.
"She doesn't go out often," he told the Herald Sun on May 15. "She's more of a home girl."
Belomesoff received a second stranger's friend request shortly after she and Dannevig had established themselves as friends on Facebook. This time it was from a man named Jason Green, who made a point to address an association he had with an organization called WIRES, an Australian organization heavily involved in the field of animal rescue.
But Green was different from Dannevig because Green did not actually exist. The account was for a fictional figure that Dannevig created in late April 2010. He assumed ownership of the personality shortly after learning about Belomesoff's inherent interest in animal welfare. (Facebook's terms of service prohibit users from "provid[ing] any false personal information" or "creat[ing] an account for anyone other than yourself.")
On April 27, 2010, Dannevig, posing as Green, reached out on Facebook and offered Belomesoff a job. When she showed interest, he arranged to meet her near the Leumeah train station for the first of several training sessions that would get her acclimated for the job.
The two would plan a series of meetings over the next two weeks, the first on May 5 with subsequent meetings each day after that until Monday, May 10. Each day they'd venture out into the Leumeah brush and take part in initiatives set forth by Dannevig. Shortly after returning from her May 10 excursion, Belomesoff told her parents that Dannevig physically assaulted her "as a demonstration on self-defense."
According to court reports, Belomesoff told her parents that Dannevig hugged her, pushed her to the ground, and laid his body on top of her, such that she could barely breathe and grew scared. Dannevig released her but stressed that the action was part of a defense learning. It was a lesson in case someone kidnapped her or tried to rape her, he told her, then blindfolded her and tied her hands up before pushing her to the ground and asking her, "What would you do?"
Dannevig then laid his body weight on her and ignored her pleas for him to get off. Belomesoff started to cry, and when he finally got up, Belomesoff told him that she'd come under "a bit of shock." Dannevig offered to call for an ambulance, an offer that Belomesoff declined.
Dannevig closed the May 10 training session by arranging to meet Belomesoff that Wednesday at the the Smith Creek Preserve in the greater Leumeah area. The two would go on an overnight training trip together, which he said was essential for her recruitment into WIRES.
Belomesoff didn't often stray far from her parents, and she had never once stayed out anywhere outside of a friends' house. She was reluctant but ultimately agreed, telling her father that "if she didn't go, she would lose her job, and this job was her dream."
Belomesoff left her family's home at 9am on May 12. It was the last time that her parents would see her. She'd die facedown in a small creek in the Leumeah brush later that day.
Belomesoff's family contacted area police the next morning when their daughter failed to arrive at the Leumeah railway station where they'd planned to meet. Her father also called WIRES to inquire about the training. The group returned that it did not facilitate overnight training sessions of any kind. Furthermore, the WIRES employee handling the call informed Mr. Belomesoff that the organization had no knowledge of anybody who went by the name of Jason Green. Belomesoff's parents went to the Liverpool police station that night and reported their daughter as missing.
Police were able to find that Belomesoff's bank account had been accessed at an ATM near the Leumeah train station at 5:24pm on May 12. Using closed circuit television footage, they learned that Dannevig was the individual who'd accessed her account, first submitting an account balance inquiry before filing a withdrawal for the maximum available amount, $170, which left a balance of $8.40 to Belomesoff's name.
Dannevig later told police that he obtained Belomesoff's PIN by telling her that he'd always had trouble remembering his own. She responded by saying that hers was easy: It was the same as her birthday.
The CCTV detail, as well as a "grade sheet" found at the scene of the crime containing his fingerprints, made Dannevig a suspect in the murder of Nona Belomesoff, a truth that Dannevig realized at 12:30am on May 14, when he was awoken by team of policemen at his door. He acknowledged that he knew Belomesoff and that the two had seen each other on Tuesday and last spoken together on Wednesday—the same day as her death. Dannevig also told police that he'd "blacked out" and could offer no explanation as to how Belomesoff ended up drowning in the creek, though he did admit to taking her purse and withdrawing the $170 from her account.
Police arrested Christopher Dannevig at 8:10am on Friday, May 14. Later that day, he led investigators to an isolated brush track in the Smith Creek Preserve, a few traces off from the same remote spot where Belomesoff's body still was. He told police in subsequent interviews that he had provided false information upon their initial arrival at his home. He told them about "Jason Green" and told them that he was the only person present with Belomesoff at time of her death, and he reiterated that he'd "blacked out" for a five-minute period at the moment of her death.
This time, however, he told police that he'd spent some time, between 30 and 120 seconds, staring at Belomesoff's body. He fled the scene when he saw she'd stopped moving, making no effort to take any action: to remove her from the water, obtain first aid, or notify authorities or neighbors.
He also told police that he "probably killed the deceased," according to court reports, "but claimed, having 'blacked out,' he couldn't provide any further details of the incident."
Police charged Dannevig with the murder of Belomesoff immediately after the conclusion of their questioning.
Belomesoff's body was found facedown in a small creek in the Smith Creek Preserve at 9:40pm on Friday, May 14. Police found her fully clothed and wearing a fabric sleeping mask, an item of clothing that crown prosecutor Christopher Maxwell argued served as a chief piece of evidence that the murder was calculated and prepared.
Speaking in custody with a team of undercover cops posing as prisoners, Dannevig recounted his memory of the May 12 scene out by the creek. He said that he'd pushed Belomesoff before knocking her down onto a bed of rocks, forcing her unconscious and taking hold of her body until she'd drowned in the water. (A November autopsy came back inconclusive, though court reports state that it found "features during the post-mortem that were suggestive of drowning.")
Christopher Dannevig pleaded guilty to the murder of Nona Belomesoff in a supreme court hearing in on Aug. 31, 2011. A year later, Aug. 3, 2012, Justice Peter Hall heard Dannevig's case and considered that his recollection to the undercover police in jail had been adequate enough to consider his sanity.
Hall considered Dannevig's remorse the letter he wrote to the Belomesoff family shortly after he'd publicly admitted the crime. He considered the criminal history that had preceded the crime as well as Dannevig’s age at the time, referencing a case (R v. Gordon, 1994) in which the crime was so gruesome that the age got thrown out. Hall also considered Dr. Hayes' 2009 studies and determined that Dannevig's case was not extreme enough to warrant any type of special circumstances. He noted the letter submitted to court on behalf of the family, conveying their reactions to the murder as expressed in "moderate and compassionate terms.”
"The statement cannot by law be used by me to increase the offender's sentence," he wrote, though he "acknowledge[d] the grief and distress of the deceased's family and express[ed], on the community's behalf, sympathy and compassion for them."
Hall considered every possible factor that he could and when he concluded, he ruled that the appropriate starting point for a sentence was 36 years, one that he'd discount to 27 on behalf of Dannevig's guilty plea and supposed remorse.
"Christopher James Dannevig for the murder of Nona Belomesoff, I convict you," he wrote.
"I sentence you to a term of imprisonment with a non-parole period of 21 years, which is to commence on 8 August 2011 and is to expire on 7 August 2032. I set a balance of term of 7 years, which is to commence on 6 August 2032 and is to expire on 5 August 2039. In determining the non-parole period the earliest date of eligibility for your released to parole is 7 August 2032."
Belomesoff’s case is now closed, but the effects of her murder still linger. In the immediate wake of her death, Australian police pleaded with teenagers throughout the country to modify and securitize their Facebook settings, telling them to remove photos from public view and “treat each person you talk to as a complete stranger.”
"For parents, you wouldn't invite a complete stranger into your homes and have them sit down with your child for hours on end,” detective superintendent John Kerlatec told the country shortly after police found Belomesoff’s body. “So don't let them sit on the internet talking to strangers for hours on end."
"Young people can get into horrendous trouble,” added psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg. "They are trusting, and they are being exposed to people who mean to do them harm."
That’s never been more true than in the case of Nona Belomesoff, who in the end was only guilty of putting her trust in a man she never knew—a man who was never even a man from the start.