On December 21, 2015, a Minecraft YouTuber with over 600,000 subscribers appeared to tweet out naked, pornographic photos of an underage fan. “I have fooled all of u and have made plenty of money while doing it,” one tweet said, with another adding that since the fan was 15 years old, "her and I have had several sexual exchanges on Skype."
The tweets were soon deleted, but not before plenty of people saw them, including other young fans. Minecraft, which has sold more than 22 million copies on the PC alone, is hugely popular with kids: children under the age of 15 are reportedly the game's largest demographic.
Much of that multi-billion-dollar popularity is the result of a thriving community of YouTube and Twitch personalities who combine Minecraft gameplay videos with personal commentary and open dialog to build doting teen and pre-teen audiences. As Motherboard looked into the LionMaker story, it became clear that this wasn't the first time an adult allegedly preyed on children through the game.
LionMaker (real name Marcus Wilton), 27, is a Belgian-based Minecrafter who makes videos for a teen and pre-teen audience of 600,000 YouTube subscribers. His gambols through colossal, blocky wonderlands have been viewed over 200 million times. His nasal, mugging style clearly takes inspiration from videos which have made millions upon millions of dollars for top YouTube gamers such as Pewdiepie. If anything, though, his videos are more saccharine.
LionMaker would spend hours each day hanging out on Minecraft and in group Skype chats with his adoring teen and pre-teen fans. But people privy to these conversations report that his chirpy demeanour would occasionally slip. LionMaker would sometimes lurch into long, emotional spiels about his own mental instability, or rant at people who displeased him. Of course, none of these moments ever made it into his public YouTube videos.
The young girl in the photos posted to LionMaker's Twitter account is known online as "Paige Thepanda." Her family is now involved in police proceedings against LionMaker, one family member said. They believe he took advantage of the 16-year-old. "You have no idea how badly she has been affected," this family member, who asked not to be named to protect the family and Paige's privacy, told Motherboard. "She is utterly brainwashed. All we want is to protect her and keep her from meeting up with him, but we can’t watch her all the time.”
Paige was not the only child that LionMaker befriended.
JUNE 12 2015
Twelve-year-old Chantelle Wiseman started chatting with LionMaker in 2014, her mother Suzie told Motherboard. LionMaker and her daughter would trade messages when either of them was feeling down, chatting about their lives: “normal kid stuff,” she said.
LionMaker might not be as well-known as the child-sexting rap star Tyga, but to hordes of teenagers, he’s a bona fide celebrity. Even the 52-year-old Wiseman didn’t think anything of it when he befriended her daugher. “He’s famous and so he’s almost safe. If he was maybe making some youngster’s dream come true, good on him, how sweet."
Then, on the night of June 12 last year, Suzie said LionMaker asked Chantelle to send him nude photos.
As Suzie tells it, LionMaker first sent Chantelle Twitter direct messages, then asked the 12-year-old to Skype him privately and not tell anyone that he had messaged her.
Spooked by the odd request, Chantelle ran down the stairs of their home in Sweden to tell her mother what was going on. “My kids are well trained about online safety, and when LionMaker asked Chantelle ‘not to tell anyone about the conversation’, that was an immediate warning,” Suzie said. She intervened and started talking to LionMaker, identifying herself as Chantelle's mother. LionMaker seemed to think Chantelle was pretending to be her mother, asking "So you fake ur mom all the time?" He then asked, "Can you send me Nudes?"
A typical LionMaker video from May 15, 2015
Suzie Wiseman now believes that LionMaker deliberately preys on the insecurities of young, vulnerable children, trading on his wholesome persona to attract their confidence. "He’s a predator. There’s no dad in my daughter’s life, and she’s nice and vulnerable. He sits, he watches his prey and he pounces.”
Indeed, Chantelle Wiseman wasn't the only minor LionMaker allegedly solicited that night.
Stephen Cheenks, a 16-year-old Minecraft fan from California who started chatting privately with LionMaker when he was 15, also says he had a conversation with the YouTuber that turned sexual.
“LionMaker is very good at making people feel sympathy for him,” he told Motherboard on Skype. “I used to go through serious depression, and he’d tell me that he had the same feelings. We would say gay things and joke around, but that was just acting like two really good bros, you know? Even when I wasn’t joining in, he would constantly say inappropriate things, that he was going to barge into my house and rape me. I was creeped out, but I didn’t think anything too much of it.”
On June 12, the same night Wiseman said LionMaker approached her daughter, Cheenks says that the older man offered him $500 for full-frontal, naked images of himself. Cheenks refused the offer, but not before LionMaker transferred the money through PayPal. A recording of a conversation with a PayPal employee appears to confirm that this payment was made on the date in question.
DENIALS AND ACCUSATIONS
Initially, Wiseman, her daughter, and other Minecraft players who knew her daughter couldn't believe that LionMaker would engage in this kind of behavior. They started posting about the story and sharing screencaps of the conversation and reaching out to his friends. The online buzz was that LionMaker must have been hacked, explaining his odd behavior.
The next day, LionMaker resurfaced to claim that he wasn't the one who solicited the nude photographs. Instead, he explained, he had been simultaneously hacked by a blackmailer and spent the night in jail for an unspecified, unrelated offence.
LionMaker in one of his video from January 26. Image: LionMaker Studios/YouTube
But Suzie Wiseman slowly realised that something didn’t add up about his story. In particular, it seemed suspicious that LionMaker's arrest would neatly coincide with the blackmailer hacking his account. She pursued LionMaker through all the channels available to her. The Swedish police took a look at the case, but said they didn’t have enough evidence to act on it. Wiseman found herself blocked on Twitter and muted on Skype whenever she tried to contact LionMaker. On one occasion, she found herself watching LionMaker interacting with children at a virtual charity meet-and-greet on Twitch, but was muted on Twitch's chat function when she tried to join the conversation. Her daughter was also accused by LionMaker’s fans of faking the Twitter DMs where he asked for nudes—something Wiseman says her daughter found as traumatic as the initial approach itself.
Eventually, she contacted Drama Alert, a YouTube channel that churns out reporting on the petty squabbles in the online gaming community. On September 15, Drama Alert ran the story, and there was a mild outcry.
On September 16, LionMaker issued a statement in response to the story. He repeated his alibi of having spent that night in jail and having been blackmailed by an “aggressive” individual who held a grudge against him. He says this individual discovered that he had a history of substance abuse and mental health problems, and that he had been discharged from the army after attempting to commit suicide. As well as financially blackmailing him with this information, he claims that the hacker sent Chantelle, Suzie Wiseman's daughter, the request for nude photos in an attempt to frame him (Cheenks's story was not yet public).
Most of LionMaker’s fans appeared willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He kept interacting with young fans online and at conferences such as July’s Minecon, and he kept uploading videos featuring his crew of teenage acolytes. These included regular appearances by a digitally-rendered panda operated by a young fan from England, a girl who went by the pseudonym Paige Thepanda. The controversy seemed to die down.
PHOTOS OF A 16-YEAR-OLD
Archived tweets from December 2015.
On December 21, after several Drama Alert videos aggressively accused him of being a pedophile, LionMaker seemingly broke cover again with a shocking tirade on Twitter. One tweet read, "Im a pedo perver[t] that should just kill himself." Another tweet said, "I have fooled all of you and made plenty of money while doing it…" while others professed that Drama Alert had been right all along.
The account then tweeted two pornographic photographs of a young-looking girl: one in her underwear, and one entirely naked. The pictures have since been deleted, but Paige tweeted to confirm that the images were of her.
LionMaker went underground for a while, though he still uploaded previously recorded videos to his YouTube channel. When he resurfaced two weeks later, he released a video statement in an attempt to clear his name.
In the video, LionMaker doesn't explicitly deny that he had a relationship with Paige. Instead, he argued it is legal for a 27-year-old to date a 16-year-old in both Belgium, where he lives, and in Britain, where Paige lives.
"It's just one of those lines that have been traced, and those lines have been traced this way here and in a lot of surrounding countries as well," LionMaker said. "[In some countries] the consent age goes all the way down to 14, and so be it."
However, under both British and Belgian law, a naked photograph of a 16-year-old would still be classed as child pornography.
He also claimed that "it has been proven" that the tweets containing the nude images of Paige came from an IP address that couldn't have been his. However, this doesn't seem possible as only Twitter can see what IP addresses tweets are coming from.
LionMaker claims that he was hacked on two separate occasions, months apart, with both hacks aiming to frame him as a pedophile: Once on June 12, when LionMaker or someone pretending to be LionMaker asked Cheenks and Wiseman's daugher for nude photographs, and again on December 21, when LionMaker's Twitter account posted nude photographs of Paige.
Another crucial part of LionMaker's argument in the video is that the widely-circulated screenshot of his Twitter DMs to Chantelle had been crudely Photoshopped, pointing to inconsistencies in text size. However, the inconsistencies in text size are to be expected if the screenshots are legitimate. That's because it looks like at the time of the conversation, Chantelle Wiseman included a screenshot of a previous chat in one of her messages, asking, "Wait…. Was this you?" That screenshot would have been automatically resized, accounting for the difference in text sizes.
On the left: the image with the difference in text sizes LionMaker claimed was clearly photoshopped. On the right: the conversation that appears as a screenshot in the image on the left, accounting for the difference in text sizes.
Another argument LionMaker makes in the video is a character assassination of Keemstar (real name Dan Keem), the frontman of the Drama Alert team who initially brought LionMaker’s actions to wider attention.
Keemstar has himself been caught on camera threatening people with violence, brawling at gaming conferences, and calling black gamers the N-word. Worryingly, he falsely identified an innocent 62-year-old Runescape streamer as a recently-released sex offender, making him burst into tears during a live video broadcast.
LionMaker has not been convicted or charged with any crimes. He has been unable to explain, however, how the hacker or hackers he alleges took over his account also obtained nude photos of a teen girl with whom he had a relationship. And his controversy isn't the only reason to believe that the Minecraft YouTube community may not be safe for children.
NOT THE ONLY ONE
There is one celebrity YouTuber who has been convicted of sexual misconduct. Lee Carson, alias "L for Leeeeee," had 350,000 YouTube subscribers when he was busted for a string of sexual offences last summer (though he himself was only 16 at the time). According to news reports, he sent threatening messages and obscene photos of himself to a number of women, and broke into one woman’s house to use her underwear in a sex act. He is still uploading Minecraft videos to a warm reception from his fans. “I know you and I would do anything to make you scream,” he wrote to one 18-year-old.
There are other stories of predatory behavior among celebrities who attract young fans in the gaming community.
Yamimash (real name is Aaron Ash), a 26-year-old YouTuber with 1.3 million subscribers who plays Minecraft and other games on his channel, was accused of sending obscene messages and photos of himself to a 14-year-old last year. He took to YouTube to clear his name in a statement rank with victim-blaming. While he admits that he flirted with the 14-year-old, and that the police stepped in to “warn” him against “grooming” young children, he argues that the child was “manipulative” and “trying to entice him”, and that she “looks a lot older than she is.”
Like LionMaker, he paints himself as a benevolent, avuncular figure. “I felt bad for her so I spoke to her for a while,” he claimed. “She wants to be the victim.” Fans commenting on his YouTube videos appear to accept he was sexting the child out of a spirit of charity.
Miniladdd, real name Craig Thompson, 2.6 million subscribers, 21 years old, has admitted to to messaging the same 14-year-old. (“Your breasts are really perky,” he wrote. “The fact they don’t sag is a giant bonus.”) In his defence, he argues that “the girl was suicidal, so I followed her to show her that life was worth living.” Again, judging by YouTube comments, his fans overwhelmingly agree that this justifies the messages he sent to the girl.
There are millions of dollars sloshing around in the gaming entertainment industry, with top vloggers pulling down seven-figure sums each year. While LionMaker wasn't making that kind of cash, he was certainly doing well—and he had about as much power as one could get within an online gaming community. When stars like LionMaker get accused of misconduct, the community has an incentive to look the other way.
LionMaker's logo. Image: LionMaker Studios/YouTube
People in the industry knew that LionMaker preyed on his underage fans, said Jason Leisure, another Minecrafter and a former friend of LionMaker.
“Other YouTubers know about it and keep quiet just because they want to work with them and make money,” he told Motherboard via Skype. “What sickens me is the YouTubers that knew their friends were like this and kept quiet.”
Cheenks, the 16-year-old who LionMaker offered $500 for naked pictures, has come to the same conclusion. “LionMaker was a big YouTuber," he said. "He had connections, he had a big channel, he was very popular. There’s money to be made from it, and people stick around because their channels will go into a shithole and die if his goes down.”
Similarly, Wiseman says that she wants to see more of the top YouTubers break ranks in condemnation of LionMaker. “Where are the big guys? Why aren’t they standing against it? You don’t even have to mention Lion, you just have to get the message out there.”
LionMaker himself twice turned down the chance to give his side of the story to me, adding: “I am personally moving on with my life and my channel will continue as long as YouTube will allow it. To me this is all in the past.“ Motherboard also asked LionMaker for any evidence that he had spent the night of June 12 in jail as a simple way to clear his name regarding some of the allegations. He refused this offer as well.
A spokesperson for Microsoft, which acquired Minecraft in 2014, said, “Helping promote a safe online experience for children has always been a priority for us. We encourage parents to play an active role in monitoring their children’s online activity.”
But though Suzie Wiseman was as active a monitor of Chantelle’s online activity as any parent could reasonably be expected to be, she could not prevent an online predator from abusing her child's trust. “Chantelle is not the same girl any more,” she said.
Correction: This story originally said Lee Carson was 18 at the time of being investigated by police. He was 16 at the time.