LARGO — The instant message arrived at 9:42 that night in mid-August last year.
"Any luck with your boy?" it said.
Professional puppeteer Ronald William Brown, according to a federal criminal complaint, had been chatting online for months with the man from Kansas who had just asked him that question.
"No," Brown replied, "I still want to eat him, though."
He and the boy, authorities say, attended church together in Largo. The complaint indicates Brown had fantasized about kidnapping and killing the boy. The man from Kansas, Michael Arnett, told Brown he had murdered children before, according to the complaint, so Brown asked for advice.
Brown: "Would you just knock him out?"
Arnett: "It would be the best way, for a boy his age and size yes."
Brown: "With something? Your fist? Or what?"
Arnett: "A good whack to the back of the head, preferably with something like a blackjack."
Brown: "Then just throw him over your shoulder and carry him off."
Last week, when federal prosecutors charged Brown, a 57-year-old Largo resident, with possessing child pornography and conspiring to kidnap the child, he insisted he was just writing his fantasies. It was just casual online chatting between two men who shared a common, albeit horrifying, interest in the idea of snatching, killing and eating children.
But an expert who has studied murderers and sexual predators for decades said behavior like Brown's can indicate more dangerous — and real — intentions.
Kathleen Heide, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, declined to specifically discuss Brown's case, but she addressed hypothetical scenarios matching what authorities say Brown did and said.
Child predators, she said, don't often execute their ideas immediately after they first have them. The steps are incremental.
They seek access to the child, often alone. They test the limits of what the child will do with them. The interactions may initially seem innocuous: hugging, tickling, sharing a board game.
She compared the process to someone inching into a cold pool. The water becomes less and less unpleasant the deeper the person goes.
"The predator," she said, "he's increasing his comfort zone."
Authorities have presented no evidence that Brown actually harmed children. But he certainly had frequent contact with them — mostly boys — where he lived at the Whispering Pines mobile home park in Largo.
Brown would regularly have anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen kids in the neighborhood over to his house for pizza and soda. He would ferry them in a van to the Gulf Coast Church in Largo for activities such as basketball or live music.
Anthony Cummings, 13, lives with his mother and her boyfriend around the corner from Brown's home in the mobile home park. Cummings started attending Brown's Wednesday night dinner and church trips several weeks ago.
Inside Brown's home, Anthony said, was a collection of toys and devices to awe youngsters. Brown owned machines that made cotton candy, popcorn and snow cones. Puppets hung from the ceiling.
"He never touched me or anything, but every now and then, when we'd be eating pizza, he'd rub his arm on my shoulder," Anthony said. "I was kind of weirded out. . . . He would kind of pat me on the back and just give me this weird smile."
Lexis Cummings, Anthony's mom, said something about Brown set off her "mother sense." She said he looked strange just walking down the street at Whispering Pines, taking small steps with his hips thrust forward and back arched.
"I'd see him in the neighborhood," she said, "and the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up."
Michelle House, a 12-year-old who also lives in the mobile home park, stood out among the otherwise all-boy crowd that assembled at Brown's home.
"People thought he was creepy," she said, yet she was drawn to his get-togethers by the promise of three pies from Pizza Hut, provided without fail. She also enjoyed the trips to church.
Her mother, Sharmaine House, said she thought something was "strange" about Brown, so she asked her daughter if he acted inappropriately around her. Michelle said he was nice, although quiet.
There was one thing about Brown's house that Michelle thought was unusual.
"For some reason, he didn't want me going in this room," she said. "It smelled, like, really bad."
Anthony agreed: There was one room, where Brown kept many of his puppets, that he did not permit any of his young guests to enter. Anthony said the stench from behind the door was stale, like the odor of old sweat.
In light of Brown's relationships with the children who surrounded his home, one excerpt of his online dialogue with Arnett stands out.
"Trailer parks and low-income housing are great breeding grounds for even small ones who aren't as well watched," Arnett said, according to the complaint against Brown.
"I have noticed that some," Brown replied.
Predators, Heide said, often seek other people who share their sordid desires. It makes them feel as though their feelings are normal and acceptable
The more often the person imagines the fantasy, she added, the more likely he is to execute it.
Brown and Arnett, according to the federal criminal complaint prepared by U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents, regularly discussed their proclivities via online chat.
Brown, who has no criminal record in Florida, is accused of possessing child pornography, but told agents that his real interest was not pornography but "morgue pictures," and that he was part of a "strangle group" on Yahoo. Agents found an online profile they believe is by Brown in which he states his interest: "I love them young and dead."
Arnett was arrested in May by agents in Kansas City. A criminal complaint in that case indicates that agents believe he was producing child pornography at his home. They seized a photo that shows a toddler posed in a roasting pan inside an oven.
Given the shocking allegations against Brown, some likely believe that authorities have an open-and-shut case. That may not be true.
"He's saying this is all fantasy," said local defense lawyer Douglas de Vlaming. "If this is just talk back and forth and he's part of a group of people who fantasize about abducting children and killing them and eating them — as terrible as that sounds, if it's just talk, it's just talk."
Some legal experts questioned the strength of the government's allegation that Brown conspired to kidnap the boy. That charge requires two components: At least two people must conspire to kidnap someone, and they must also commit an overt act that furthers the conspiracy.
For instance, if a group of men discuss robbing a bank, they haven't committed a crime. If they go buy guns and masks and procure blueprints to the bank, they have committed a crime.
The government's complaint against Brown does not clearly identify an overt act, but experts agreed one detail might qualify. Brown, records indicate, told investigators that Arnett once came to Florida and tried to contact him. Brown said he never responded because he didn't want to carry out his fantasy. Even if that did happen, the attorneys say, it still wouldn't be a clear-cut crime.
"If it weren't for the fact that this was unimaginably horrible, one wonders if they would have even bothered charging him with conspiracy," said University of Florida law school professor Jennifer Zedalis. "Maybe they have more evidence."
Authorities say the other charge, possession of child pornography, carries with it a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Investigators, according to records, found in Brown's possession images of naked boys, bound and gagged. Brown also acknowledged to authorities that he had received and viewed photographs of children who were having sex with each other or were, in some cases, dead.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472. Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.