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[whitespace] Deirdre Des Jardins
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Net Loss: Deirdre Des Jardins says that her ex-boyfriend-turned-cyberstalker has made her virtual and real lives hell.

Caught in the Web

As the popularity of the Internet skyrockets, so does the problem of online harassment known as cyberstalking

By Mary Spicuzza

NIGHTS SPENT staring at a computer screen can get pretty lonely--especially when those nights stretch until 2 or 3 in the morning. Deirdre Des Jardins, like other computer-science students at UC-Santa Cruz, often found herself working long hours in silent isolation. And like many, she started logging on to an electronic bulletin board on the university's server to keep in touch.

At first, the bulletin board was just a way to chat with her peers--until the night in 1994 when she turned on her computer and realized that her ex-boyfriend Mike had made good on his promise to find her. Anywhere.

It was just a quick note to say hello and update her on his growing gun collection.

Deirdre's voice cracks into a near-whisper as she remembers the night 10 years ago, when she and Mike were both undergraduates at UCSC, that he learned of her plans to leave town.

"He told me, 'Wherever you go, I'll find you, even if it takes the rest of my life,' " she says softly. She has hardly seen Mike since then, but as Deirdre shrinks back into a shadowed corner of the sunny cafe courtyard, she describes how her former boyfriend continues to terrorize her.

It's been years since Mike, who moved to Colorado after the breakup, followed her around campus or sent obsessive love letters and flowers. But Deirdre says that since discovering she returned to Santa Cruz, Mike has been relentlessly stalking her in cyberspace.

Mike may live hundreds of miles away, separated from her by state boundaries and the Rocky Mountains. But Deirdre says that he is invading her life through her computer screen.

Mail-Order Stalker

THROUGH EMAIL messages and bulletin board postings, Mike has stalked his ex without ever having to leave the comfort of his home. Since 1994, when he visited Santa Cruz and regained access to the UCSC computer system, Mike has posted hundreds of messages and sent countless emails to Deirdre. Many describe detailed revenge fantasies, torturing and killing animals and his growing collection of guns. Others accuse Deirdre of having AIDS and mental disorders, and divulge intimate details of her life to her online peers.

In 1996, after two years of harassment, Deirdre finally turned to campus police and administrators--but they told her they couldn't help her. They reviewed her case and determined there was no evidence of an immediate threat, and no crime had been committed. At the time, California's stalking laws included no mention of computer crimes. California law was only amended to include cyberstalking this past summer.

Three months ago Attorney General Janet Reno released a report titled "Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry," written at the request of Vice President Al Gore. With the help of the new study, a small but determined group of activists is pushing for a federal cyberstalking law to address the explosion of online harassment.

Meanwhile, Deirdre says she's spent years living in fear as she tries to convince law enforcement and the Internet community that she's being stalked.

Deirdre flips through the pages of Mike's emails and postings, her hands shaking as she shows me dozens of messages. She compares them to Eric Harris' written warnings found after the Littleton High School shootings.

"Some of you think about us, 'they will be quiet, because they have been quiet and obedient until now.' No more," one of Mike's messages reads. "Over about the last week, I have reached a plateau. Nothing else, from anyone, ever. Not the BATF, the IRS, the fuckers at work, the lezbo-fuckhead-liberal-commie shitbrained fuckers, NOBODY. Anyone who doesn't like it can step up to the plate and get blown away."

Despite assurances that his postings are empty threats, Deirdre says she's tired of waiting around to find out.

"There's this belief that if the person hasn't been physically present, there isn't a credible threat. Like you're not in danger until somebody shows up and bangs your door down," Deirdre says. "But by the time it reaches that threshold, it's usually too late. Meanwhile he's totally invading my life. I don't feel safe."

Web Watchers

MORE THAN 90 million people in the U.S. say they regularly log on to the Internet. It's a great big web out there, full of possibilities. And for web-savvy criminals, it's an exciting frontier.

"The Internet is just as weird as the rest of America," says Colin Gabriel Hatcher, founder of the San Jose-based Internet watchdog group SafetyEd International. "Every small town in America has a weirdo. Just imagine that they can all log on, so it can be thousands of weirdos who, with a point and click, can be chatting with you. Or your children."

Hatcher lives in the Santa Cruz mountains and studies high-technology law at Santa Clara University. Before starting SafetyEd last year, he co-founded the revolutionary web activist organization known as CyberAngels. Established in 1995, CyberAngels is the oldest and largest Internet safety organization in the world. He has worked with some 700 victims of cyberstalking during the last five years, and conducts prevention education workshops and training for federal agents.

Estimates of the number of Internet users who have been cyberstalked range as high as hundreds of thousands in the U.S. alone, according to the attorney general's report. But while terror movies like Fatal Attraction and high-profile celebrity cases have raised awareness about stalking, few realize it's also an online phenomenon.

"The number of people at risk is unbelievable. It's in the millions," Hatcher says. "Ten years ago you had to be skilled with computers to go online. But we've moved very rapidly to ease of use, and now millions of people are chatting all over the world. Still, there's this kind of taboo over talking about the dangers on the web."

And few understand that being stalked online can be just as terrifying as being watched in your living room. Deirdre and other victims have turned to police, Internet service providers and victim advocates, only to discover the law has not caught up to the explosion of criminal activity in cyberspace.

"As people become more dependent on the Internet community, being terrorized online has a significant impact on the victim's life," says Susan Howley, acting public policy director for the National Center for Victims of Crime. "It's the last frontier where stalkers can operate with impunity."

Obsession, for Men

DEIRDRE SAYS that when she started dating Mike in the spring of 1989, he seemed like a sweet twentysomething kid who'd had a rough time growing up. She was his first girlfriend, to whom he started confiding his memories of past abuse and domestic violence.

"At the time, I had this optimism that if you were honest and loving with someone they would never hurt you," Deirdre says. "But I started realizing that Mike really wasn't OK."

When Mike began making "pillow confessions," his constant references to violence didn't seem just like innocent joking anymore. He told her stories of taking a drug dealer into the woods and beating him senseless with a group of high school friends.

During that time Mike began posting violent fantasies on an online bulletin board, an early cousin of the Internet and the World Wide Web. He believed a UCSC administrator was responsible for a housing mix-up that left him homeless--until he moved in with Deirdre and her housemates. He began writing detailed descriptions of sacrificing a rat to the gods and praying for the bureaucrat's death.

One night Deirdre left a party with a male friend to go to dinner. Hours later Mike came home in a drunken rage, convinced she was cheating on him. He held her down and vomited on her.

Six years later, in a 1996 email message, Mike wrote, "One major regret was that when I threw up on you, I could make no claim to sobriety. Barfing on you sober would have been sublime."

The night Mike vowed to find her anywhere, he had burst into her room while she was studying for final exams. When she couldn't get him to leave, he followed her onto the bus and sat nearby, silently glaring at her.

When Mike threatened to kill Deirdre's ex-boyfriend, she left him.

Soon after the breakup, in the spring of 1990, Mike was kicked out of their house for detonating homemade bombs in the backyard. He returned to Colorado, but he soon began sending Deirdre email messages about being together, even offering to find her a job where he was living. He also wrote messages asking, "Why did we break up, anyway?"

Blasts From the Past

MANY STALKING VICTIMS skip town to escape the nightmare. Like nearly one-fourth of targets, Deirdre moved out of state, left no forwarding addresses and closed her email accounts. After two relatively quiet years, Deirdre returned to Santa Cruz to finish her degree. That's when she began using the on-campus electronic bulletin board.

Mike was visiting an alumnus living in Santa Cruz in 1994 and gained access to the system. He posted messages using his former login name, "Carny"--short for Carnivore--including fantasies about beating his father with a baseball bat and slaughtering animals in front of a woman who looked like Deirdre.

After tolerating the messages for two years, Deirdre decided she'd had enough. She posted a message saying she didn't appreciate his obsession with violence. When the messages continued and she threatened to file a police report, things took a turn for the worse.

"Have you ever heard the scream of an injured rabbit? ... An injured horse is worse. I used a slightly over-powered rifle for the job and tried to tear their heads off with the first shot," Mike wrote in an email to Deirdre. "Remember, if you fuck with me, I'll fuck with you."

The next day, he sent another email, this one with the header "Don't like to be humiliated, do you?"

Deirdre says that when she contacted the campus police, one officer assured her that "people who talk about this never do it."

Campus Police Chief Jan Tepper says that they took Deirdre's case seriously, but determined Mike had done nothing illegal.

"The bottom line is that the public doesn't want us intervening when no law has been broken," Tepper says. "We can't arrest him, and don't want to. But we still try to help."

Tepper, who has been a cop on campus for more than 20 years, says the UCSC police force has extensive training in technological and stalking crimes and has a behavioral risk assessment team. But Deirdre was less impressed.

"The response from campus police officers was often, 'Just turn off your computer," or 'You're going to have to find another way to communicate with your friends,'" Deirdre says. "It made me think that they didn't use computers much."

Due to Deirdre's objections, the university has since removed the board from the campus server. It is now operated by an off-campus host.

Colin Gabriel Hatcher
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Guardian Angel: Colin Gabriel Hatcher, founder of SafetyEd International, says that millions are at risk online. He's worked with more than 700 victims of cyberstalking.

Lost in Cyberspace

PARRY AFTAB, executive director of CyberAngels, says that those who don't use computers or the Internet frequently don't understand the significant role it plays in people's lives.

"When you go online there are certain places you go. It's just like having a favorite restaurant. It's a matter of people going where they want without being harassed, whether online or in real life," Aftab says. "You wouldn't tell someone not to pick up the phone [or] open their mail."

Aftab is one of the first cyberspace attorneys in the country. She specializes in web-based intellectual property and computer lawsuits, and has advised CyberAngels since 1997. Aftab expected her position at CyberAngels to be temporary, until an anonymous web user started sending her cyberporn.

"Someone emailed me a picture of a 4-year-old girl being raped," Aftab says. "It broke my heart,"

CyberAngels has worked to pass state cyberstalking laws, which exist in 21 states. Such laws make it clear that using computers or technological devices like pagers to stalk and harass others is, like physical stalking, illegal and subject to prosecution.

CyberAngels also provides prevention education, legal advice and counseling sessions for victims.

"It's like a call into your home or a fear that somebody can tap you on the shoulder at any time of the day or night," Aftab says. "Many victims are afraid to go online again."

Aftab says that treating cyberstalking as a precursor to a crime, rather than a criminal violation in itself, means victims often live for years feeling terrorized before any laws are broken.

"Just because a cyberstalker hasn't gotten physical yet doesn't mean they're not going to," Aftab states. "We need to understand that these victims feel terrorized."

With 40 percent of the country regularly using the Internet, a number that grows every day, the "just turn off your computer" response means shutting people out of the emerging web community. Hatcher and Aftab liken it to telling women not to leave their homes at night. And because many cyberstalking victims are scrutinized--often accused of putting themselves at risk by using chat rooms--advocates compare these accusations to the way rape survivors have historically been blamed for the crime.

Down by Law

IN DEIRDRE'S CASE, campus police determined that Mike's messages weren't against the law. And after reviewing the case, campus administrators found that Mike's postings didn't violate campus policy.

"Although there is no way to predict with absolute certainty the risk potential in situations, based on the information you provided to us during our investigation, I did not see any direct or implied threats conveyed to you," Tepper wrote to Deirdre in August 1998. "Moreover, when the individual in question has no connection with the campus, or even the state, our choices are few."

The limited jurisdiction of local police departments often allows cyberstalkers to harass their victims for years. But Tepper says that Deirdre's case does not fit the definition of a clear-cut stalking case.

Lieutenant Steve Ronco of the San Jose Police Department's High-Technology Crimes Unit says that since 1986 his department has been exploring ways to clear the confusion around computer crime.

"If you take away the mystique, all these clowns are doing is using a machine to hurt someone," says Ronco. "It's like any other weapon."

San Jose's department was the first high-tech crime unit in the state, and is one of the most established. Ronco and other officers have helped develop similar units in Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Francisco.

"In Silicon Valley, we really felt like we need a unit like this. We've become dependent on these technologies. People need to realize that this is a form of harassment," Ronco says.

Yet even with growing police awareness, stalking laws were drafted before most people had ever entered a chat room. And current California stalking laws require that there be a "credible threat" to the victim, which is assessed on a case-per-case basis. Direct statements like "I'm going to kill you," or "I bought a gun and a plane ticket. See you soon," expressing the intent to harm or harass, help make the case a priority.

Many of Mike's email messages and postings on the bulletin board are not direct threats to Deirdre, but instead describe violent revenge fantasies.

Deirdre, who has filed a complaint against UCSC's handling of the case with the Federal Office for Civil Rights, says that she felt campus administrators were more concerned about protecting Mike's free speech than her safety.

Tepper says that arresting someone for posting obnoxious messages would violate free speech, and she doesn't want to cross that line. But she says the UCSC police would make an arrest for a clear-cut web crime.

World Wise Women

JAYNE HITCHCOCK, the co-president of the Maryland-based Women Halting Online Abuse, says that what many see as free speech is truly illegal harassment.

"I don't understand the free speech argument. It's like saying that if it happens face-to-face it's a crime, but if it happens online, it's OK," she says.

Hitchcock says she has lived the difference. In 1996, she and her husband began receiving email bombs--often 200 messages would flood into their mailboxes, disabling their accounts. Her stalkers also posted her name and address in numerous chat rooms, saying she was looking for people willing to help her live out sado-masochistic sexual fantasies. Her "cybertormentors" also sent notes to her employer, the University of Maryland, saying that she was planning to quit teaching.

Hitchcock was able to trace the harassment back to a web-based scam she had helped bust in 1996. The Woodside Literary Agency, an alleged book publisher, charged high reading fees and boasted an exclusive client list, but as Hitchcock discovered, they had never actually published any books.

She has since lobbied for cyberstalking laws in more than a dozen states, and in September testified before Congress when the new federal legislation was introduced. The bill, HR 1869, was introduced by Congresswoman Sue Kelly (R-New York) and passed the House Judiciary Committee last week.

Since it began in 1997, WHOA has provided assistance for hundreds of victims. Hitchcock is currently working with a New Hampshire family whose daughter was murdered on Oct. 15. In that case a cyberstalker was obsessed with a 22-year-old student and had posted graphic details of his murder plans online, including photographs of the gun he intended to use.

"He had three websites about her with a diary of what he was going to do to her," Hitchcock says. "There were direct threats with her name, but Tripod and Geocities didn't monitor what was going on."

In both the recent murder and Hitchcock's own precedent-setting case, the cyberstalkers had clearly violated the terms of service of their Internet service providers. But nobody was watching.

Women Halting Online Abuse and CyberAngels are both pushing Internet service providers to work to create a national database of accounts, so that a user whose account has been closed for harassment can't simply open a dozen other sites or email addresses. Until now ISPs have focused more on fighting unsolicited "spam" emails than cyberstalking prevention and victim assistance.

"Until it happens to you, you don't know how much it affects your life," Hitchcock says. She says that in the past, hearings have caused her online stalkers to step up their harassment. "This has been going on for three years. I hate living like this, and I don't want anybody else to have to, either."

Getting Schooled

DEIRDRE HAS BEEN on a leave of absence from her doctoral program for more than a year. She has suffered from medical problems as well as "inescapable shock" syndrome. According to Melita Schaum and Karen Parrish, authors of Stalked: Breaking the Silence on the Crime of Stalking in America, many stalking victims develop severe anxiety problems due to such unpredictable and inescapable stress.

As Deirdre prepares to return to the university, she's unsure what messages from Mike are waiting on the posting board. During her leave she has at times gone months without even turning on her computer, much less going online.

Regardless, Mike has continued to post antagonistic messages on the electronic bulletin board about her.

"I am pleasantly surprised," he writes. "A certain person has gone through two of her six-month insanity cycles without accusing me of various and sundry atrocities."

Since Deirdre began her leave of absence, California stalking laws have been amended to included cyberstalking, largely due to the outspoken political organizing of Hatcher and his San Jose-based SafetyEd group.

Another catalyst was last year's notorious cyberstalking incident in Los Angeles. A 50-year-old security guard got revenge on a 28-year-old woman who rejected his romantic advances by impersonating her in chat rooms. Claiming to be her, he posted her name and address and claimed that she was looking for people to help her live out rape fantasies.

She was repeatedly awakened in the middle of the night by men banging on her front door, shouting that they were there to rape her.

Deirdre says she is sick of waiting for her stalker to arrive at her doorstep and is organizing a new group, Monterey Bay Students Against Violence.

As far as she knows, Mike is still in Colorado. But one of the problems with cybercrime is that as the Internet makes global communication cheaper and easier, he could be anywhere--across the country or across the street.

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From the November 10-17, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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