The first time the police arrived on her doorstep, in March of 2015, Courtney Allen was elated.
She rushed to the door alongside her dogs, a pair of eager Norwegian elkhounds, to greet them. “Is this about our lawsuit? ” she asked. The police looked at her in confusion. They didn’t know what case she was talking about. Courtney felt her hope give way to a familiar dread.
Three days earlier, Courtney and her husband, Steven, had gone to the police headquarters in Kent, Washington, a suburbium of Seattle, and reported that, for the past few months, they had been the victims of a campaign of online harassment. They had seen a fake Facebook page under Steven’s name with a profile picture of Courtney, naked. Emails rained down in their inboxes; some called Courtney a cunt, prostitute, and bitch, and one they felt was a death threat. Her coworkers received emails with videos and screenshots of Courtney, naked and masturbating. The messages came from a wide range of addresses, and some appeared to be from Steven.
There were phone calls too. One to Steven’s grandmother warned that her house might burn down, with her in it, if she didn’t stay out of the Allens’ lives. There were so many calls to the dental office where Courtney worked that the receptionists started to keep a log: “Called and told,’ Set that dumb cunt Courtney on the phone, ’ ” one of them wrote in neat, bubbly handwriting. “I told,’ She is not here at the moment, may I take a message? ’ ” At one point Courtney generated a Google Voice number to ask, “If I talk to you, will you leave me alone? ” Instead, dozens of voicemails poured in: “Do you think I’m ever going away? ” one said. “Now that my private investigator went and got all the tax information? There’s no chore either one of you guys can have that I won’t know about and be there.”
The Kent police officer who took the Allens’ statement seemed unsure of what to build of their narrative. Courtney and Steven told him whom they believed was behind the harassment: a human in Arizona named Todd Zonis with whom Courtney had an online relationship that she had recently broken off. She says she told the officers that she had sent Zonis the videos of herself while they were still involved and that he had sent ones of himself to her, but that she had deleted their exchange. In a report, the officer noted that, while Courtney and Steven insisted that his role was obvious, Zonis’ name barely appeared in the folder full of printouts and Cds that they had with them. The policeman assigned them a example number and advised them not to have any more contact with Zonis.
Now, three days later, the two officers on Courtney’s doorstep explained why they had come: An anonymous tipster, who claimed to work with Steven, had left a report on the Crime Stoppers website. It said that Steven “had been telling everyone for months that his wife was leaving him but he had a plan to beat her into staying.” The tipster added that he had noticed “a lot of bruises.” When prompted for more information on the suspect, the informant wrote that the Allens had a “large gun collection” and two big dogs.( One sleuth afterwards noted that some of such reports seemed designed to trigger “a large/ violent police response.”)
The police left after interviewing Courtney, but three days later, two detectives knocked on the Allens’ door in the early afternoon. Courtney wondered, more cautiously this time, if she would now get a response to her objection. But no–the sleuths were investigating another anonymous tip-off. This one was about an alleged incident at a park involving Steven and the Allens’ 4-year-old: “His son hollered and he smacked him repeatedly on the back, butt, legs, and head, but not the face, ” the tipster wrote. “He then chided his wife, calling her’ whore’ and worse … She covers for him when the abuse is to her, but abuse to the child I don’t know what will happen.”
In her report of the visit, detective Angie Galetti wrote that the Allens’ son “came downstairs and appeared to be happy and healthy.” She described how Courtney had to coax her nervous son into showing his scalp to the sleuths: “There was no suspicious bruising or marks of any kind, ” she wrote. He “appeared appropriately attached to his mother and Detective Lorette and I had no concerns.”
But Courtney’s concerns were mounting. The day before, she had gotten an email to an account she only used for spam. “How did you even GET this email address? ” Courtney wrote back. “Leave me and their own families alone! ” A answer went accusing Steven of also use unsavory cybertactics to find out about Courtney’s online behavior, but added: “I am MUCH better at it. For example. Your Jetta, in the driveway”–and yes, that’s where it was. The message included the car’s vehicle identification number. Courtney had started having nightmares; just going outside made her afraid. She felt violated by the images of her that were circulating who knew where, and anxious about what might come next.
And now this. It was “one of the most serious moments of my life, ” she told subsequently, hoping that help was coming but instead “having to lift up my son’s shirt and show them my son’s body to make sure he had no bruises.” When the sleuths asked for her phone number, she realise she didn’t remember it–she had just changed it in an attempt to evade the endless calls. She found herself sobbing in front of the sleuths. The harassment was so creative, so relentless, so unpredictable. Around the same hour, at the least 15 of her neighbours received a “community alert” in the mail cautioning them that they were living near a dangerous abuser, Steven Allen. It was postmarked from Arizona.
But the most frustrating thing was how hard it all was to explain or prove. Courtney was beginning to feel trapped in a world of anonymous abuse. She didn’t know if she would be able to convince anyone that what she believed to be happening was real.
It began, as relationships often do these days, online. From the beginning it was a strange and tangled story of exposure and distrust in the internet era.
In the autumn of 2012, Courtney and Steven had been together for 12 years but had known each other for 20: They met in a high school biology class and reconnected afterwards when Courtney was going through a divorce. The couple–now in their mid-thirties, with a home full of fantasy books and clay dragons that Courtney sculpted–were avid players of Grepolis , an empire- and alliance-building browser game set in ancient Greece.
One day a player in an opposed alliance asked if he could join theirs. The small council that ran the alliance agreed. This was Courtney’s first introduction to Todd Zonis and she liked him from the beginning: “He was crude and rude and I thought it was actually kind of funny, ” she says.
Courtney’s player name was sharklady7 6. As she recollects it, Zonis sent her a note on the game’s messaging service to say he had once owned a shark, and from there the conversation took off. They talked about gardening and pets. She shared pictures of her elkhounds; Zonis sent ones of his tortoise. The two progressed to video-chats. Both got married, but “it merely kind of grew from there, ” Courtney recollects. “It was a really strong relationship and then turned into not a friendship.”
At the time, Courtney was biding home with her toddler. She and Steven had stimulated that decision together, but still, it was rough on their marriage: Steven was working long hours as an IT instructor and felt the stress of being the sole breadwinner. He often traveled for run. Courtney was a nervous new mother, afraid to let her son stay with sitters, which merely increased her sense of isolation. She was often angry at Steven, whom she began to see as controlling and neglectful.
Zonis was a freelance voiced engineer with a flexible schedule. The relationship with him offered “an escape, ” Courtney says: “He was charming. He told me everything that I ever wanted to hear about how wonderful I was.” She adds, “I just believed the world of him. Because it was online, it was very easy to not find the flaws someone has, to not find warning signs.” Eventually Courtney was spending a lot of hour online with Zonis and pulling further away from Steven. She kept telling herself that they were just good friends, even when Zonis sent her a penis-shaped sex plaything. One day, nearly a year after Zonis first joined the alliance, Steven noticed Courtney’s email open while updating her laptop. He read an exchange between her and Zonis. It was explicit, and it mentioned videos. He tackled Courtney. She was furious that he had read her emails but said she would stop communicating with Zonis. Instead, she moved the relationship to her tablet, behind a password; she also labeled Zonis’ contact information with a fake name.
She wanted to be sure Steven wasn’t the mastermind of a complex scheme.
Steven, sensing his marriage falling apart, turned to Google. He searched “adultery” and “online affair” and determined a website called Marriage Builders that bills itself as “the# 1 infidelity subsistence site on the internet.” It was founded by Willard F. Harley Jr ., a psychologist who fosters his readers to work to understand and meet their spouse’s requires but also recommends a radical response when a spouse won’t end an affair: attaining it public to the family of the people involved. Love, he writes, should be based not on trust but on transparency. “Imagine how little crime would be committed if everyone’s activities were videotaped.”
Steven tried to follow Harley’s advice for mending a marriage. He apologized for being distant and tried to get Courtney interested in answering the site’s questionnaires. But Courtney, often busy on her tablet, was leery of the Marriage Builders philosophy.
In November of 2014, only over a year after first watching Courtney’s emails with Zonis, Steven noticed her tablet unlocked on the counter. She was in the shower, so he looked. He find messages from a name he didn’t recognise but a writing style that he did. He then observed more messages. The relationship hadn’t ended. His mind went to the advice from Marriage Builders: “Exposure helps prevent a recurrence of the offense. Your closest friends and relatives will be keeping an eye on you–holding you accountable.”
A few days later, Steven contacted his parents and Courtney’s parents and told them about the relationship. He observed Zonis’ wife and wrote and texted her. He looked up Zonis’ mothers on a people-finder site. “I would ask that you promote your son to stop this affair before it wholly ruins our household, ” he wrote, adding that he had heard that the Zonises had an open relationship. “If you have any questions or would like to see some of the evidence, please email me.”
Courtney was livid. She told Steven not to come home that night; when he did, she took their son to her parents’ house. She returned the next day, but they slept in separate rooms and Courtney discussed divorce.
Zonis, too, was outraged. He ensure the messages that Steven sent as an attack on his family, and one that was unjustified. Zonis tells the story of the relationship differently. After he joined the alliance, he tells, he noticed Courtney talking about her husband in forums in a disturbing style, saying he was control and would penalise her. He says Courtney reached out and became friends with him and his wife, Jennifer–“The two would chat, you know, for hours, ” he says–though Courtney denies this. She asked a lot of questions about their wedding, he tells, looking for advice. He denies that either he or Courtney ever sent explicit videos, or that they were more than friends.
To Zonis, calling his relationship with Courtney an “affair” was a false characterization and cost him dearly; Steven’s comment about an open wedding, he tells, turned his parents against him. He claimed that his mothers cut off contact and wrote him out of their will, which entailed he would not inherit the “ancestral home.” In total, he says he lost an inheritance worth more than$ 2 million. Zonis began saving for a lawyer so he could take Steven to court. “He destroyed my family, ” Zonis tells, “just to basically maintain his own spouse in line.”
After the “exposure, ” the Allens received bombardments of virulent emails from Zonis’ account. He later denied writing both the anonymous emails and some that received from his account, speculating that perhaps someone to whom he’d told his story had taken it upon themselves to punish the Allens, or that the Allens were harassing one another and blaming him. He didn’t much care, he says, because he considered the harassment trivial: “My rights were violated and nobody cares, and we’re still talking about what happened to poor Courtney? ”
After uncovering the affair, Steven continued asking for advice from other people on the Marriage Builders site. He even posted emails between Courtney and Zonis, and a transcript of a letter that he wrote to Courtney: “I am so very sorry I hurt you and hurt you so deeply for years, by not considering your feelings near as much as I should have, and by demanding and disrespecting your opinion to get what I wanted. I was abusive and controlling. I was so sure I was right, and get what I wanted would help you too, that I didn’t realise the hurt I was causing you.” He didn’t is understood that Zonis had discovered these positions and took them as Steven admitting to being an abuser.
Steven had hoped the exposure allows users to move on; it had the opposite consequence. One of his coworkers received an email accusing Steven of assaulting Courtney. When Steven told Courtney that Zonis must have sent it, she refused to believe him. Zonis “had my ear, ” she says. “I was listening to everything that he told, and I was assuming anything Steve told was a lie.”
But she also felt crackings forming in her relationship with Zonis–she accused him of inducing the threatening call to Steven’s grandmother, which he angrily denied–and asked for space to try to get her head straight-out. She went back to work, trying more independence. In an email to Zonis, the former sharklady described something she’d find on TV: “There is a whale carcass. All the great whites gobble it up, rending huge chunks out of it at a time. That is what I feel like … the whale.” “In my new world, ” she wrote Zonis, “EVERYONE is lying to me. I don’t believe anyone anymore.”
In the meantime, Steven, angry about the message to his coworker, emailed Zonis, writing that he could “look forward to continued exposures to people in your life.” Zonis, who considered this a second attack, forwarded a copy of the email to Courtney, but when she read it she sensed something was wrong. The writer referred to their child as “her” son instead of “our” son, and a boasting about his ability to manipulate her did not sound like her husband.( “I know Steven appears down upon people who try to manipulate, ” she says. “It merely didn’t fit with his character.”)
In a modern act of trust, she and Steven proved their emails to each other. She saw that the version Zonis sent to her had been edited–that Steven’s terms had been changed. Courtney felt she ultimately knew whom to trust. “That, ” she said afterward, “was when I turned to Steve and said,’ I require assist. I don’t has been able to get myself out of this.’ ”
Courtney decided to ease Zonis out of her life. Her messages to him became short, bland, and infrequent, but still she received long, aggressive reactions. Eventually she began demanding to be left alone, then stopped answering at all. But emails and bellows continued, as many as 20 in a single day; even Courtney’s mother was get calls. Zonis said afterwards that he was calling the Allens to get an apology, something that he could show to his mothers. One email from his personal account said that the sender had just been in the Allens’ city — “VERY nice place”–and promised a visit to the region again soon.( Zonis denies writing the message .) There were also voicemails: “I will burn myself to the ground to get him. I told you, you’re going to lose him one way or the other.”
Emails arrived from other accounts too: Courtneythewhoresblog @blogspot. com, CourtneyCallMe6 9 @aol. com, CourtneysGotNoPrinciples @LyingCunt. com, ItsHOWsmall @babydick. com, urtheproblem @outlook. com, Youareaselfishcocksucker @noonewilleverreallyloveyou. com. There were dozens of others.
Some messages to the Allens’ neighbours and coworkers came from what appeared to be Steven’s email. Courtney’s boss got emails from “Steven” with subject lines such as “My Slut wife Courtney” and “Courtney is not who she seems to be.” One night, as Courtney worked on a sudoku puzzle in bed, she received an email that appeared as if it had come from her husband, who was next to her reading a book. The next night, Steven’s cell phone dinged on the nightstand with a new email. He picked it up and turned to Courtney. “Apparently you dislike me, ” he said.
In March 2015, Courtney filed for a protective order against Zonis, which would stimulate further contact international crimes. Steven filed for a similar order for himself and their son the month after the “exposure, ” but Courtney had believed that doing so would be too antagonizing. Zonis and his wife responded in kind by get orders of their own. Two days after Courtney’s order was granted, she got an email from Zonis’ personal account: “Glad that bullshit symbolic gesture is out of the route, ” it said.( Zonis denies writing this too .)
No charges were filed. The Kent police, while sympathetic, “weren’t truly interested in something that was a misdemeanor protective order violation, ” Steven says. The Allens got the sense that because Zonis was in Arizona, and because so much of the harassment was confounding and anonymous, it was hard for the police in Kent to act. At the end of March, Courtney and Steven strolled into the FBI’s office in Seattle to present their lawsuit.( The Kent police, county prosecutor, and FBI all said they were unable to comment for this story .) Three months later the Allens got a letter stating, “We have identified you as a possible victim of international crimes, ” and informing them that the FBI was investigating. Months passed with no term. When they heard about the FBI’s involvement, the Kent police closed their own example. The Allens , not sure what else to do, continued to bringing them evidence of new and ever more inventive harassment.
In early April the Allens received a package in the mail that was full of marijuana. After they reported it to the police, Detective Galetti informed the Allens that there had been more Crime Stoppers reports: allegations that they were selling medications, that the latter are cutting them with butane, that their clients were high school kids.
The Allens began to consider a different alternative. Earlier that year, after Steven started a new job at the University of Washington, he told campus authorities about the harassment. Natalie Dolci, then a victim advocate with the campus police, referred him, as she had many others, to a pro bono program called the Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project at the prominent K& L Gates law firm. The project had been started a year earlier to help victims of what is variously known as sex cyberharassment, cyberexploitation, and revenge porn.( Dolci prefers the terms “technology-enabled abuse” or “technology-enabled coercive control, ” phrases broad enough to include things such as utilizing spyware or hacking in-home cameras .) Often the cases didn’t go to court, meaning the public seldom hear their details. Most people just wanted to settle, get the harassment to stop, keep their images off the internet and their names out of public records.
Steven and Courtney weren’t eager to file a suit, but they hoped the firm–a large one with a cyberforensics division experienced in unraveling complex online crimes–would be able to help them unmask the harasser and prove their story to police. “We were just trying to get law enforcement to do something, ” Steven told later.
On April 29, 2015, Steven and Courtney strolled into a conference room overlooking Seattle’s port and Mount Rainier where they met David Bateman, a partner at K& L Gates and one of the founders of the Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project, and Breanna Van Engelen, a young attorney. A mock trial program in college convinced Van Engelen that she wanted to be a litigator–to stand up in court on behalf of clients she believed had been wronged–but she was fresh out of law school and had yet to try her first case.
The lawyers were skeptical of the Allens’ story at first. It was so outlandish that Van Engelen wondered if it was made up–or if one spouse was manipulating the other. Courtney’s fear seemed genuine, but so many of the emails did appear to come from Steven, who knew his route around computers. Van Engelen wanted to be sure that Steven wasn’t the mastermind of a complex scheme in which he conceals his own abuse, impersonating Zonis impersonating him. She interviewed the Allens separately and then spent a week poring through the evidence: voicemails and social media profiles and native files of emails. By excavating into how they were created, she found that emails from “Steven” had been spoofed–sent through anonymizing services but then tagged as if they came from his email or were sent from an untraceable account. Had Steven been the mastermind, it would have been “like robbing a bank but wearing a mask of your own face, ” she told afterward. “It just doesn’t make any sense.” Van Engelen came to believe the Allens were telling the truth.
But that left another question. What if the instance did go to trial? Even if she could convince a jury–which would entail explaining the intricacies of how identity is both conceal and exposed on the internet–could she get them to care? Cyberharassment is still an unappreciated crime. Gary Ernsdorff, a prosecutor in King County, where the Allens live, used to say people often don’t think it’s that big a deal–it’s just online, after all. Or they blame victims for sharing intimate images in the first place. What, Van Engelen wondered, would a jury construction of the Allens’ saga? Would they believe Steven had gone too far in uncovering the affair? Would they blame Courtney for the videos? Though Van Engelen assured the Allens as victims, she realized a jury might not.
Many people assume that cyberharassment is easy to avoid: They believe that if victims hadn’t sent a naked photo, then such person or persons would have nothing to worry about. But experts say this assumption is basically a comforting fiction in a world in which we’re all potential victims. A 2016 survey found that one in every 25 Americans online–roughly 10 million people–had either had explicit images of themselves shared online against their will or had been threatened with such sharing. For women younger than 30, it was one in 10. The same survey found that, photos or no, 47 percent of Americans who utilized the internet have fallen victim to online harassment of some kind.
Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and the author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace , began studying cyberharassment in 2007. What she found reminded her of her past research on the shocking leakiness of information databases. Virtually all of us are giving away reams of sensitive information about ourselves without understanding how it might be used, whether by a stalker or an unscrupulous company. This includes what we share online–geotags on our photos, workout apps that produce maps to our homes, severely protected Facebook updates or lists that indicate family ties, or posts that uncover innocuous-seeming facts, such as birthdays, that can be used to access other information. We also leave an enormous digital road of personal and private datum with every charge card purchase and Google search and ad click.
People are starting to understand “that the web watches them back, ” says Aleecia McDonald, a privacy researcher at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. But we still don’t appreciate the extent to which it’s happening or what risks we might face in the future. McDonald indicates thinking of the internet as a backward-facing period machine that we are constantly loading with ammunition: “Everything that’s on file about you for the last 15 years and the next 40 years” may someday be used against you with technology that, at this time, we can’t understand or predict. And much of the information that we leave in our aftermath has no legal protection from being sold in the future: “We overcollect and we underprotect, ” Citron says.
Even without access to intimate images, Van Engelen says, “if I was obsessed enough and motivated enough, I could mess up your life.” Many experts now agree that the solution to cyberharassment lies in changing the ways we respond to the release or misuse of private datum: to stop trivializing it, to take it seriously as international crimes, to present perpetrators that their actions have consequences.
“You can tell people,’ Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want to have go public, ’ ” McDonald says. “But what kind of life is that? ”
As Van Engelen prepared to take on the Allens’ case, she maintained determining more social media profiles. There were accounts impersonating Courtney and Steven; one Google Plus account, which included the videos and Courtney’s contact information, birthday, and maiden name, had more than 8,000 opinions. There was an account for their son. A Facebook account in the name of “Jennifer Jones”–Courtney recognized one photo as Zonis’ pet tortoise–sent messages to her friends and family accusing Steven of abuse and of having sent “Jones” threatening emails and photos of his penis.( Zonis denies creating any of these accounts, saying: “I’ve never been on Facebook in my life” and “Who sets a picture of their pet on a secret account they’re trying to hide? ”)
The Allens contacted Facebook, Google, YouTube, and other sites to have the accounts taken down, with mixed success. One of the hardest to remove was the Facebook page in their son’s name. When Courtney filled out a form indicating that she wasn’t the one being impersonated, the site suggested she alert that person to have it removed; there seemed to be no expectation that the targeted person might be a 4-year-old. The account stayed up despite recurred requests.( It was ultimately disabled in late October, after WIRED’s fact-checkers asked Facebook for commentary .) But at the least Facebook had a complaint option; other sites offered no recourse, and the most the Allens could do was ask search engines not to include them in results. Sites that specialize in posting retaliation porn sometimes charge hundreds of dollars to remove images–what Ernsdorff calls “a business model of extortion.”
Van Engelen and her colleagues were subpoenaing tech companies to find out who was assigned IP addresses, but they kept having to send new subpoenas as new accounts maintained popping up. According to tribunal records, they found that many of the early emails–from addresses such as CourtneyCallMe6 9 and Dixienormousnu–could be traced to the Zonises’ house. In one case the same message was sent seven periods by different accounts in just over a day. Some of the accounts were anonymous but traceable to the Zonises’ home IP address or a hotel where they bided; one came from what appeared to be Steven’s email but with the tag “Douchebag” attached–it was routed from an anonymizing website based in the Czech Republic that sent email from fake accounts. Van Engelen construed this spree as evidence that Zonis was trying to get through spam filters, as well as proof that he utilized anonymizers and impersonation. Zonis counters that Steven was fabricating proof against him.
As time passed, the emails and social media accounts became harder to trace. Van Engelen found that many of the IP address, established and disguised with Tor software, bounced through layers of anonymous routing. More came from the Czech website or the other anonymizer. The writing style changed too, as if, according to Van Engelen, the writer didn’t want the syntax or orthography to be analyzable: Sometimes they read as though they were written by someone with limited, fluctuating facility with English.
In the summer of 2015, the Allens found out that a new charge card had been opened in their names and that one of their existing cards had been used fraudulently. They could see that all the attempted charges were to access sites that were likely to yield personal information: ancestry.com, a site that allows recovery of old W2s, a company that does background checks.
Courtney began find a counselor. Her fear had become “an absolute paranoia.” She had night terrors and panic attacks if she saw police in the neighborhood. Zonis had told her that he was able to fly for free because his wife worked for an airline; Courtney dreaded he might show up at any time. She stopped letting her son play outside. “It just changed who I was, ” she says. “I wasn’t functioning.” Almost worse than the fear was the remorse about what was happening to the people in their own lives. “No one can say anything to me about the horrible things that I’ve done, ” she tells, “because I’ve already said them to myself.”
“Me living was how I was going to beat him.”
Courtney had come to see the internet as a danger to which the people around her were oblivious. “Nobody’s safe, ” she says. “If you’re on the internet, you’re pretty much a target.” She was appalled at what she saw her friends post–vacation updates that revealed their places, pictures of their young children. She asked other parents at her son’s school not to post pictures of him, and one asked her, “Aren’t you proud of your son? ” When she offered to share the recommendations that the FBI had sent her about keeping information private, only one friend responded–and merely to ask whether such precautions were really necessary. Courtney locked down her own social media and stopped devoting out her telephone number. “Privacy has become top priority to me, ” she said. “Anonymity has become sacred.”
In late June 2015, K& L Gates filed the Allens’ lawsuit against Zonis, attempting injuries and relief related to defamation, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, electronic impersonation, and intrusion of privacy. Two months later, Zonis filed his own suit in federal court in Arizona, stimulating similar asserts against Steven. The grievance included excerpts of harassing emails that Zonis alleged were sent to him by Steven: “Too bad your prostitute spouse is still without a child … did I mention that I own[ Mrs. Allen] again? ” and “All I had to do was act like the benevolent husband, and let you do the run … I plan on continuing to cause you ache like you can’t even imagine.” It took more than a year of motions and answers for the cases to be combined and endeavoured to Washington, where the first case was filed.
In August Courtney received an anonymous email that objective, “Easier if one help everyone and kill self.” She’d had suicidal thoughts before. If she did kill himself, she thought, that might eventually make the harassment stop. Maybe this was how she could save her family. She went to get a gun that was kept in a safe. Her hands were shaking and she fumbled the combination to the lock. She began to think about all the things she’d miss if she pulled the trigger–teaching her son to drive, retiring with Steven, the books she would never read. At last, still unable to open the safe, she gave up. “I chose he wasn’t going to win, ” she told afterward. “Me living was how I was going to beat him.”
The following month the Allens took a trip to Hawaii. While the latter are away there were calls and emails, but none of them mentioned the trip-up. To Courtney it seemed like a small miracle: one moment in their own lives that belonged only to her. “It was a breath, ” she told afterward. She would hold onto that precious realization for a long time: “I can maintain some things private.”
But it was only a breath. Emails had begun coming to Steven’s account at the University of Washington–a job he believed had gone unnoticed until he got an anonymous email referencing the school’s mascot: “Public record. all. done.” Soon dozens of accounts, from the IT department to the university president, were get emails about the Allens, often with images of Courtney. According to tribunal records, two preschools in the Kent area also get emails that appeared to be from Steven; they said that he planned to come in with a firearm and start shooting.“It wasn’t me! ” Steven exclaimed when the police called him at work. “I’m here! ”
Gradually the Allens grew somewhat inured to the videos and emails–“There’s no one that I know who hasn’t seen me in very intimate detail, ” Courtney tells. “He can’t hurt me that way anymore”–though she continued to worry that their son would find the videos one day.
As Halloween neared, the K& L Gates lawyers received a threat they considered credible enough to heighten security. Later that fall, two FBI agents appeared at the Allens’. The couple hoped again that their difficulties were ending at last. But while the agents were aware of their occurrence, they said they were required to tell the Allens to cease and desist because Zonis had contacted them with evidence that he said indicated the Allens were perpetrating credit hoax against him. Subsequently, Zonis would produce documents that he told demonstrated Steven taunting Jennifer, sending her pictures of his penis, and threatening retribution; in one post, it appears that Steven had asked his Marriage Builders friends to induce the threatening call to his grandmother.
“Everything he’s done, he’s claiming I’ve been doing, ” Steven told later.
“Every bit of everything that we were accused of was what he did to us, ” Zonis says.
In January of 2 017, the lawsuit’s discovery process eventually aimed. Van Engelen and her colleagues had been working on the occurrence for nearly two years. By then Zonis, after cycling through several lawyers, was representing himself, with his wife assisting. Before trial, the parties were required to attempt conciliation. The judge promoted a settlement, telling the Allens that a jury looking at the mess of vying claims would ensure everyone involved as having unclean hands. The Allens and their lawyers sent an offer to the room next door, where the Zonises were waiting: They would dismiss their suit if Zonis dropped his counterclaim and left the Allens alone. Zonis instead asked them to pay a large sum for what he said he lost. The case proceeded to trial.
On Wednesday, March 22, 2017, the Allens, their lawyers, and the Zonises gathered in a courtroom. Van Engelen watched from her seat as a colleague began questioning potential jurors: How many of you have made a friend on the internet? How many of you have ever taken a selfie? If someone takes and shares intimate paintings and they get published online, is that their fault?
Many of the responses were exactly what Van Engelen had dreaded. She summed them up: “This is trivial. Why am I here? I don’t want to be part of someone’s Facebook dispute. This is high school.” More than one person thought that if you made explicit videos of yourself, it was your fault if they were shared. Others felt the Allens, with their table of lawyers, had an unfair advantage. Van Engelen listened with growing nervousness. That night she went home and exclaimed in the rain. She kept thinking: “What if somebody simply decided that they weren’t going to listen to any of the evidence and they’d already made up their minds? ”
Before the trial, Steven made a timeline of the harassment. Bateman decided to present it to the jury during opening debates; because it had so many details, the lawyers had to publish it on a 10 -foot-long poster so that the jurors would be able to see the entries. This isn’t trivial, Bateman told the jury, detailing the false police reports, the enormous number of emails, the videos. Van Engelen felt her anxiety ease. “Right away you could see the jurors’ faces change, ” she says. “I think they got that this wasn’t what they guessed coming in.”
Van Engelen played some of the voicemails aloud. Courtney wept. She told the story of trying to unlock the gun.
Van Engelen called Courtney as her first witness. Courtney described her relationship with Zonis and said that she guessed the videos would be private. Zonis had filed a motion to have the images of Courtney withheld from tribunal.( He said afterward that the images were unimportant “flash” intended to distract the jury from what he had been through .) Van Engelen dreaded their absence would induce the jurors take the lawsuit less seriously. In her questioning she described them as clinically as is practicable, so that Courtney wouldn’t have to: “Do you orgasm? ” she asked. “Do they present your inner and outer labia? ” Courtney witnessed for more than a day, the whole time too ashamed to look at the jurors. Van Engelen asked her to read some of the emails and played some of the voicemails aloud; she then read from the Google Plus profile that Courtney’s name and image. “I am a real whore wife, ” Van Engelen read, continuing, “and have suffered for years with unsatisfying sexuality with a spouse who is hung like a cocktail frank.”
“Did you write that about yourself? ” she asked. “Did your spouse write this about himself? ” “No, ” Courtney replied. Van Engelen continued her topics. Courtney wept. She told the story of trying to unlock the gun.
Zonis gave an opening statement. His wife cross-examined Courtney and later testified as her husband questioned her. Together the couple set out their version of the narrative: that the latter are Courtney’s friends who had tried to rescue her from an abusive husband. They said that Todd wasn’t romantically interested in Courtney and that Steven had been the one harassing them. The Zonises introduced emails and posts that they said were written by the Allens. But the latter are paper printouts with no metadata or digital trail to prove authenticity. When the lawyers requested a forensically sound transcript of Zonis’ data, Zonis replied that his computer had malfunctioned–he blamed spyware that he claimed Steven had installed via an image file–and he had sold it; that he had copies of the files on Cds but Jennifer had hurled them out by mistake.
On the stand, Steven denied writing the majority of members of the emails or posts Zonis claimed were from him. The Allens had kept digital copies of emails that appeared to come from Steven, and the K& L Gates team depicted the jury how those had been spoofed. They also showed that the email formatting on some posts didn’t match that of the Allens’ computer and that the time zone was not Pacific but Mountain, where Zonis lived. It seemed, the lawyers suggested, that Zonis had created the posts himself.
Zonis later countered that the discrepancies were proof that Steven had utilized spyware to steal the emails. The Zonises hired an expert witness to witnes over Skype. He said that it was theoretically possible that the forensic roads resulting back to Zonis could have been faked–though he conceded that he had never seen it done and had not reviewed the evidence.
The lawyers called Andreas Kaltsounis, a cyberforensics expert who used to work with the FBI and the Department of Defense. He explained to the jury how Tor networks and IP addresses function. He then presented a map showing that many of the apparently separate accounts from which the Allens had received anonymous harassment were actually linked by overlapping IP addresses. One of the linked accounts was the Facebook page for “Jennifer Jones, ” the account that used a picture of a tortoise. It could have been, as Zonis argued, an account that Steven, or some unknown person, generated. But the lawyers were prepared. One day, months before the trial, as Van Engelen searched painstakingly through IP address associated with logins on the Jones account, she made a discovery: Among the many address, there had been one apparent slipup, a login not through Tor but from the Zonises’ home IP address. When she found it Van Engelen ran into Bateman’s office, cry: “We’ve get him! ” It would have been unheard of for someone to fake a login using Zonis’ IP address, Kaltsounis told the jury, because of a safeguard called the three-way handshake that requires hosts to establish a connection with the IP address belonging to the account before any datum can be sent.
By the end of debates, the Allens’ legal squad had introduced 1,083 exhibits into proof. The chart Van Engelen induced just to coordinate the emails was 87 pages long. It was a level of scrutiny that few cyberharassment examples ever receive–and an illustration of what victims face when dealing with such a complicated instance, especially if they don’t have access to pro bono assistance. K& L lawyers and paralegals had spent thousands of hours excavating through the evidence. The value of Van Engelen’s time alone was in the ballpark of $400,000.
Zonis never took the stand. He blamed the lawyers for purposefully taking up too much day questioning Courtney and Jennifer, and introducing endless emails that he told had nothing to do with him. Van Engelen was disgusted: “He got his one big chance to tell his side of the story, and he didn’t take it, ” she tells. “This is somebody who’s very strong behind a keyboard. And when the opportunity arises to actually prove himself and be vindicated, he merely folds like a flower.”
On Thursday, March 30, Van Engelen stood up to deliver her closing debate. It was the first time she’d ever done so in a real court.
She began by playing one of the voicemails that Zonis had admitted to leaving–“How does it feel to know that I’m never, ever, ever going to stop? ” Then she turned to the jury: “Someone needs to tell him to stop.” She described Courtney’s lowest moment: going for the handgun. She reminded them of a message promising isolation, dishonor, and ridicule, and the email from Zonis’ personal account after Courtney got a protective order: “Glad that bullshit symbolic gesture is out of the way.”
It was impossible to trace all of the harassment directly to Zonis with cyberforensics, Van Engelen told the jury, so she encouraged them to also consider repetition of details( like the sex doll he had sent) that were in both the anonymous messages and voicemails from Zonis. She “was talkin about a” the problems with the evidence that Zonis had introduced.
“Do not, ” Van Engelen concluded, “let this be another bullshit symbolic gesture. Tell him to stop, hold him liable.”
In his own closing statement, Zonis reiterated that “the stuff doesn’t trace back to me, ” talked about the difficulty of being cut off from his parents, and cast himself as a scapegoat: “And what if I’m not the devil? Then what do you do? Oh, my God, we were wrong. We can’t have that, can we? ” He told the jury that not testifying wasn’t his option; the judge said this wasn’t true.
The K& L lawyers had not asked for a specific amount of compensation. The Allens told their lawyers that their objective wasn’t fund but simply an objective to the harassment.
The next afternoon the jury came back with a decision.
The 12 jurors had been given kinds to explain which of the Allens’ and Zonis’ claims they deemed true and which they rejected. For the first claim, “Did Todd Zonis electronically impersonate the Allens? ” the presiding juror circled yes . The jury also selected yes for “Was the electronic impersonation a proximate cause of the trauma or damage to the Allens? ” The sort offered a blank space to write in the total amount of damages warranted. The jury’s answer:$ 2 million.
And so it ran. The jury detected each of the Allens’ other asserts against Zonis–intentional invasion of privacy, intentional imposition of emotional distress, and defamation–justified, and to each they affixed a boggling sum. The jury did agree with Zonis on one count: The Allens had “intruded upon the seclusion” of the Zonises, but they found that no damage had resulted. When the amounts awarded to the Allens were totaled, they added up to $8.9 million. It was a record for a cyberharassment instance that didn’t involve a celebrity. The jury “didn’t believe it was trivial anymore, ” Van Engelen said with satisfaction.
After the trial was over, the Allens and some of the jurors had the chance to meet outside the courtroom. One of the jurors came up to Courtney, gave her a hug, and said, “You’ve been through so much.” Neither the Allens nor their lawyers expect to actually find the awarding money, but that moment in the hallway felt just as valuable.
“The fact that other people can see it, and they see the crazy in it, helps me feel that I’m not insane, ” Courtney told afterwards. The Allens’ deepest hope, though, remained simple: that the harassment would stop.
For more than a month after the trial, it seemed they would get their want. Then one afternoon Courtney logged on to her computer and saw a new email. It read, “pun ish men t w ailment soo n b han ded out to the wic ked. you rti me is sho rt. mis sin g fam ily we wil lno t. pri ce for act ion to be pai d y et it is.” More emails followed. Courtney felt a mixture of dread and exhaustion. It wasn’t over. “I’d love nothing more than for us to be left alone, ” she tells. “Do I expect that to happen? No. I expect this to be in our lives, in some capacity, forever.”
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At the time this story went to press, law enforcement had not yet indicated whether criminal charges would be filed. Gary Ernsdorff, of the King County prosecutor’s office, let that he kept an eye on the case. Cyberharassment, especially with private images, “is dropping a bomb in somebody’s life, ” he said.
After the trial Zonis filed a notice of appeal. He felt the trial was unfair and that the proceedings hadn’t paid enough attention to what he believed the Allens had done to him. His losses, he told, were real and numerous( to the list he added what he considered stress-induced health problems ), while the Allens’ were petty, only “flash” from a “hot-button issue.” He still denied that his relationship with Courtney was an affair or that he had access to the videos of her or sent the anonymous emails. He also said, in a phone interview, “Anything that I said or did was reactionary” and “If they wanted me to plead guilty to harassment , no problem. What am I harassing them about ? ”
Soon after the trial, a blog appeared in Zonis’ name. In it he questioned the way the trial was run, disputed its findings, excoriated the people involved, and posted much of the same evidence against Steven that the lawyers discredited at trial. “My name is Todd Zonis and I lost my family, my home, my future, and likely my life, and while my life may not teach you anything, hopefully my demise will, ” the blog began. The proof he posted included the images of Courtney and a note: “Please feel free to download any and all of the materials that I have posted here, and use or distribute them as you see fit.”
Brooke Jarvis ( @brookejarvis) is a novelist are stationed in Seattle . This article appears in the December issue. Subscribe now .
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