An observant and quick-thinking passenger on a recent Southwest Airlines flight helped police apprehend a man and woman who have allegedly been sexually abusing two young children. A Washington-based pre-school teacher (who has asked to remain anonymous) was on a flight from Seattle to San Jose on Monday when she oversaw explicit text messages between 56-year-old Michael Kellar and 50-year-old Gail Burnworth and alerted flight attendants.
According to Mercury News, the woman was seated in the row behind Kellar, and the man was texting in an enlarged font with the smartphone held close to his face, which put the device in her line of sight. San Jose sex-crimes Detective Nick Jourdenais told Mercury News that the witness later told officials that the messages she saw “swiftly escalated from sexual fetishes to far worse.”
“It was in large font, and she sees certain words and starts contemplating there’s something bigger there,” he said. “Then the conversation transitions to children. That’s the moment when she decided to preserve the evidence as best as she could.”
She was able to capture photos of the exchange on her own phone and shared them with crew members, who informed authorities immediately upon landing in San Jose. Police and FBI agents were quickly called and moved swiftly to detain Kellar, a Tacoma, Washington native, before he left the airport.
“Kudos to his young lady. She went a step further,” Sgt. Brian Spears, commander of the SJPD Internet Crimes Against Children task force, told Mercury News. “Without us responding right away, he would have been lost.”
As BuzzFeed reported, officials worked with detectives in Seattle to use data and evidence from Kellar’s phone to pinpoint the Tacoma home of the woman he was corresponding with. Investigators say Burnworth, a babysitter, was carrying out Kellar’s sexual requests on two children—ages 5 and 7—who have since been named victims in the case.
A San Jose Police Department report says Kellar “was booked into the Santa Clara County Jail on two counts of Attempted Child Molestation,” while Burnworth was taken into custody by members of the Seattle ICAC and Seattle Division of the FBI.
Authorities were quick to praise the vigilance of the passenger who spoke up and hoped the incident would serve as a reminder for others to always stay aware of their surroundings.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” Jourdenais said. “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.”
“We always preach ‘If you see something, say something,’” he continued. “It was apparent to her to say something. She wasn’t going to take this home. She sees herself as a guardian and protector. It should be acknowledged.”