HOUSTON — James Arnt Aune was regarded as a fine scholar, mentor and friend by students and his fellow professors at Texas A&M University, where he headed the school's Department of Communication.
But Aune, who jumped to his death from the roof of a campus parking garage in January, battled depression in recent years. He struggled with the administrative duties of being a department head, and he was badly shaken by his 2007 battle with prostate cancer, which he survived but which forced him to face his own mortality, his widow said.
"He never really came all the way back," Miriam Aune said of his surviving cancer.
He began drinking heavily, and in December he started a sexually explicit online relationship with what he thought was an underage girl, according to prosecutors. He was soon contacted by a man purporting to be her outraged father, who threatened to expose Aune unless he paid him $5,000.
Aune paid the man $1,500, but he didn't know if he could come up with the rest, authorities say. He confessed to his wife, who pledged to stand by him, but about a week later, the 59-year-old Aune jumped to his death after sending a final text: "Killing myself now. And u will be prosecuted for black mail."
The man who got that text, according to prosecutors, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a Houston federal courtroom to an extortion charge. The 37-year-old Metairie, La., resident was ordered to remain in jail without bail, and his trial is scheduled for May 28. If convicted, he faces up to two years in jail. His court-appointed attorney, Marjorie Meyers, declined to comment about the case.
Authorities allege that Aune was one of many victims of a scheme in which the man used his daughter to lure men into sexually explicit online relationships and later blackmailed them. The Associated Press isn't naming the man to protect the identity of his daughter.
In the criminal complaint, prosecutors contend that the man's daughter told authorities in Louisiana in 2011 that her father took naked photos and videos of her and used them "to scam men" through MocoSpace, a social networking website mainly for mobile devices.
On the site, "she would meet men, get their phone numbers and send them pictures and videos then (her father) would call them and say how she was his daughter and how she would need counseling and they had to pay for it."
At the time of that 2011 interview, her father was facing two counts of oral sexual battery and two counts of aggravated incest. The charges were dropped in February 2012 due to a lack of corroborating evidence, said Rachael Domiano, a spokeswoman for the 21st Judicial District Attorney's Office in Louisiana.
Federal prosecutors on Tuesday declined to comment about certain details of the alleged scheme, and it wasn't clear from the criminal complaint if prosecutors believe the defendant's daughter actually interacted with Aune, or if her image was used to allegedly dupe him.
Miriam Aune, 56, told The Associated Press that investigators told her that the defendant was the person who communicated with her husband and other men, pretending to be his daughter. She said her husband told her he began the online chats sometime in December and that by the third or fourth day after the chats began, the defendant reached out to him asking for money.
According to court records, undated texts show Aune scrambling to put money on prepaid credit cards for the defendant and asking for his forgiveness, saying "I am very sorry. It was a weak moment."
A week before his suicide, James Aune confessed to his wife. Miriam Aune said her husband never told her why he did it.
She pledged her support for him, but said he became despondent after his confession.
"I was just telling him there was nothing that we couldn't get through. We have two autistic children we have raised to adulthood. We've been through rough stuff. I thought we could get through this," Miriam Aune said.
According to a criminal complaint, the defendant continued bombarding Aune with profanity laced emails, texts and voicemails, including a Jan. 7 email in which he warned Aune that he had until noon the next day to pay or else "the police, your place of employment, students, ALL OVER THE INTERNET ...ALL OF THEM will be able to see your conversations, texts, pictures you sent ...."
On Jan. 8 at 9:21 a.m., the defendant texted, "3 more hours. If i don't hear from you the calls start," according the criminal complaint by FBI agent Nikki Allen.
At 10:29 a.m., Aune replied, "Killing myself now And u will be prosecuted for black mail."
He jumped from the parking garage roof about a minute later, shocking the A&M campus, which is about 100 miles northwest of Houston.
Miriam Aune doesn't excuse her husband's actions. She said it was his decision to go online and begin the conversations.
"It just shows you anybody can slip off the path. I know a lot of people are very surprised by this. He was very human with flaws, just like all of us," she said.
But she said it saddens her to know that some people will only remember her husband for what happened at the end of his life.
"To him, being a professor, it was a sacred duty to him. And he cared so much about his students," she said as she cried. "The people who know him, who loved him, they are not going to feel any differently about him."