The first few men looking for Sarah seemed to be lost or confused. But then more showed up, so many that the couple on Patriot Lane in Upper Merion installed a surveillance camera and posted a sign telling intrepid suitors that, no, Sarah doesn’t live here.
She doesn’t live anywhere — “Sarah” isn’t real. And the Montgomery County man who pretended to be her on a variety of online dating apps pleaded guilty this week to a scheme that spanned more than a month and ensnared 40 men.
Howard Helbert Jr., 59, of West Pottsgrove, will be sentenced in May on a misdemeanor harassment charge for the deception. But in the course of piecing together Helbert’s online activity, county detectives found evidence of a much more serious crime: Hundreds of images of child porn were saved on the smartphone Helbert used to create Sarah’s dating profile.
In an interview with detectives, Helbert admitted he had created the profile and initiated conversations with the men, promising them sex at the home in Upper Merion. He said he chose the house at random after scanning addresses in the area using Google Maps. Helbert himself had never visited the house, and did not know the couple who lived there.
Judge William Carpenter deferred sentencing at Helbert’s hearing Tuesday, ordering an investigation that will examine his mental health. He remains free on $25,000 unsecured bail. No matter what sentence Helbert receives, he will have to register as a sex offender because of the plea to possessing child pornography.
Helbert’s attorney, Gail Marr, said Friday that Helbert is remorseful and that the post-sentencing investigation ordered by Carpenter will uncover “mitigating evidence for his actions.”
“There’s no indication that he’s ever engaged in any activity like this in the past,” Marr said. “At this point in time, we’re trying to explore what motivated him to act in this way.”
Helbert was arrested in December 2018, after the couple who became his unwitting victims finally discovered why dozens of men were showing up at their rented house unannounced.
One of those men showed them “Sarah’s” profile, as well as the conversation that had directed him to the house, according to the affidavit of probable cause in Helbert’s arrest.
The victims, one of whom works from home, said the constant disruptions made them fear for their safety, and inspired them to install a security system at the house.
Detectives handling the case found identical profiles on dating apps including PlentyofFish, Tinder, and Scout. They obtained information about the profiles’ creator through a warrant, and traced an email address associated with the accounts to Helbert, the affidavit said.