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(Washington, DC-NBC) April 4, 2006 - As Congress investigates how to crack down on internet predators, an amazing story unfolded at a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday about a 13-year-old California boy who unwittingly became a porn star, and later, a federal witness in fear of his life.
Justin Berry was an honor student, class president, and a typical teenager looking for friends online. But he found the wrong kind of friends, and ended up enduring years of abuse before finally getting help - and getting his life back.
When 13-year-old Justin Berry hooked up his new webcam, he was hoping to use one of the popular social sites to connect with other teens. Instead, he was contacted by 1,500 online predators - doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and even teachers, who slowly seduced Justin into their world.
Berry says, "I was popular. Everyone wanted to know my thoughts, give me things. I was king of my universe."
"After my first molestation, I began to act out sexually. I was reckless. Part of me wanted to die. And, every day on camera, part of me did."
Justin started his own website, selling his explicit sexual acts. To egg him on, customers sent expensive gifts, mostly better cameras and faster computer equipment.
Justin says Ken Gourlay was one of them. Gourlay refused to testify, "I will decline to respond based on my Fifth Amendment privilege."
Despite his mother's vigilance, Justin earned hundreds of thousands of dollars right under her nose.
One man even rented him an apartment so he could continue making videos in secret.
New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald says, "They are 1,500 people, acting to subvert the actions of a single parent. And they win."
Eichenwald convinced Justin to turn in his customers, but they came after him. Now, Justin lives in hiding, frustrated by the slowness of federal authorities to follow up, "These people, these predators are not going to stop. They're not going to stop doing it. They're just going to find another kid. I hope they get life."
Experts testified there are hundreds of teenagers like Justin hosting their own websites and selling their bodies online.
They are criticized by some as precocious teens trying to turn a buck, and pitied by others as helpless victims lured into crime.