A Tacoma, Washington, couple has been arrested after a passenger aboard a Southwest Airlines flight on Monday allegedly caught the man sitting in front of her texting his girlfriend about sexually abusing children, PEOPLE confirms.
Authorities suspect Michael Kellar, 56, was using an oversized smartphone with an enlarged font on the early morning flight from Seattle to San Jose, California, when the other passenger — who snapped images as proof — saw his sexually explicit text exchange with 50-year-old Gail Burnworth.
“The passenger was sitting on the plane and happened to notice this very large phone and very large text and glanced over and saw references to children and references to disturbing events,” Seattle Police Department Capt. Mike Edwards tells PEOPLE.
“It was enough for her to look closer, and she believed in her mind the children were at risk of being harmed and that is when she was moved to take pictures,” Edwards says.
After the passenger took photos of the texts as proof, she alerted a flight attendant who contacted authorities at the San Jose airport. When the plane landed, an airport officer arrested Kellar.
“The officer there was able to keep him from leaving the terminal,” Edwards says. “Otherwise he would have been gone and it would have been a huge needle in a haystack to figure out who he was.”
Detectives identified Burnworth, a gas station attendant, through the text messages. She was taken into custody at her home in Tacoma.
“It was all because of an alert and aware preschool teacher ,” Edwards says. “She absolutely saved these children from any future abuse.”
The couple, who police say met on a dating website over the last year, was allegedly discussing plans to sexually assault two children, ages 5 and 7.
“It was clear from the messaging that the two individuals were planning to abuse the children in the near future,” says Edwards. “It was set to occur in a few days. These are two very disturbed individuals.”
Kellar initially told detectives that he had been participating in “fantasy role playing” with Burnworth, Edwards says. “That is how he tried to explain it away.”
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Kellar was booked into the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose on Monday on two counts each of attempted child molestation and solicitation of a sex crime.
Burnworth was booked into Pierce County Jail in Tacoma on charges of sexual exploitation of a minor and dealing in depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
She is also facing charges of rape of a child in the first degree — a “very appropriate charge,” Edwards says. Burnworth allegedly had “very inappropriate conduct” previously with the two children, he says.
It was not immediately clear if either Burnworth or Kellar had retained attorneys or entered pleas.
Kellar remains in custody in California and is set to appear in court on Monday morning, records show. Burnworth has been released; efforts to reach her directly on Friday were unsuccessful.
The investigation, involving the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, is still in its early stages, Edwards says. He suspects more charges will follow: “We anticipate we will be able to connect the dots.”
The couple may never have been arrested if it wasn’t for the passenger who alerted authorities, Edwards says.
“The true message is look around and pay attention to your surroundings, because you very well might witness something,” he adds. “We have no doubt they would have gone through with their plans if they had not been caught.”