Austin Jones enjoyed a particularly 21st century kind of stardom.
A baby-faced 20-something with his blond hair swooped into the helmet cut of an early-period Justin Bieber, Jones has used YouTube to beam out hundreds of videos featuring his own idiosyncratic takes on popular songs since 2007.
His clips featured multiple tracks of Jones’s own voice, creating a one-man a cappella chorus belting out tween ear candy, from emo staples by acts like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy to pop hits by Rihanna and Bieber. The Bloomingdale, Illinois, native racked up more than 40 million views for his videos, and his YouTube channel counted more than 500,000 devoted subscribers.
But there was a much darker side to Jones’s Internet teen idol status.
In June 2017, Jones was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the Chicago Sun-Times reported at the time. A federal indictment would later charge Jones with leveraging his star power to coerce lewd sexual material from underage fans. He faced two counts of felony child pornography.
On Friday, Jones, 26, pleaded guilty to one count in the case.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Jones acknowledged in his 27-page plea agreement that he had conversations online with six teenage girls, ages 14 and 15, from 2010 to 2017. In the chats, he encouraged his teenage fans to send him sexually explicit videos. In one exchange, Jones allegedly told the minor that a sexually explicit video was a way to “prove” she was his biggest fan.
Sentencing has been set for May 3. Jones could face five to 20 years in prison. Jones’s tumble from the heights of Internet stardom underscores how the intimacy of a YouTube celebrity’s relationship with fans can quickly turn criminal.
Rumors about Jones’s behavior surfaced long before his 2017 arrest.
As his online popularity was blooming, Jones turned the clicks into a real-world opportunity by joining the 2015 Vans Warped Tour. But in spring of that year, an anonymous 15-year-old girl started a Change.org petition asking that Jones be removed from the lineup.
“Austin Jones is now taking advantage of his fame. On numerous accounts, he has pressured girls as young as 13 into sending him videos of them twerking. As a 15-year-old girl, I find this disgusting,” the petition founder wrote. “These kind of actions are NOT okay and should not be taken lightly.”
Jones ended up leaving the tour as the petition pulled in 9,076 of the requested 10,000 supporters. In a video Jones posted to his YouTube account in June 2015, the Internet celebrity admitted making mistakes but defended himself against serious charges.
“I used to ask fans for twerking videos – yes, twerking the dance move. It’s not something I’m proud of, it’s not something I think is right, and I shouldn’t have done it,” Jones said in the clip. “Nothing went further than twerking videos. There were never any nudes, never any physical contact. It never happened. “
But Jones’s behavior only kicked into higher gear later, his plea agreement states.
According to the federal indictment filed against Jones, Facebook and Apple’s iMessage were his preferred methods for communicating with his fans.
In August 2016, Jones began chatting on Facebook with a 14-year-old girl.
“Wait . . . you’re 14?” Jones wrote to the girl, according to a transcript contained in the federal indictment.
“Yea I’m, a youngster,” the girl replied.
“[D]o you realize how lucky you are?!?!” Jones wrote. “I seriously shouldn’t even be talking to you.”
“Why,” the girl messaged back.
“Because you’re young,” Jones answered.
“You’re young too tho,” the girl replied.
In the chat, Jones said he knew the 14-year-old was his biggest fan but that she would “have to keep proving your [sic] my biggest fan though!!!”
This meant the girl was supposed to send Jones videos of herself dancing provocatively to music, as well as showing her genitalia on camera.
“I guess you really aren’t my biggest fan,” Jones said when the girl hesitated. “I know you’re trying hardest to prove you’re my biggest fan. And I don’t want to have to find someone else.”
According to the indictment, the girl sent 25 videos to Jones. In eight of the clips, she pulled off her underwear and exposed her genitals.
Jones followed similar scripts in his interactions with a different 14-year-old girl in May 2017. According to the indictment, the YouTuber told this girl the videos were a “try out” and an “opportunity.”
Again, he asked the girl to film a provocative dance, and Jones directed her movements – including where she should place her cellphone and to tell the camera she was only 14 years old.
According to documents filed in federal court by his attorneys, after his arrest in June 2017, Jones entered into “treatment to better understand the root of inappropriate, negative behaviors he had engaged in as well as to process underlying traumas that he had yet to address in any healthy, complete way,” one of his doctors wrote in a letter to the court.
Court documents reveal Jones was sexually abused by a close relative, and also dealt with the unexpected death of a sibling at an early age.
Following his guilty plea last Friday, prosecutors asked that Jones be immediately taken into custody, the Tribune reported. U.S. District Judge John Lee, however, ruled the YouTuber can remain free on bail until his sentencing to continue his mental health treatment.