Sunday, December 03, 2006

Stalking a School

In 1999, a new and bizarre kind of stalking occurred in a small town, as is described in detail by Boston Globe reporter Michele Kurtz. (The “Stalker” Who Stayed at Home: A Town Terrorized Over the Internet, Boston Globe (Sept. 2, 2001)).

Twenty-year old Christian Hunold, who lived in Smithville, Missouri, stalked the students and faculty of the Hawthorne Brooke Middle School in Townsend, Massachusetts.

Hunold, a high-school athlete and honor student, was seriously injured in a 1995 auto accident. He recovered from most of his injuries but lost the ability to walk. According to Michele Kurtz, his disability left Hunold “seething” . . . and bored. She says he turned to the Internet, where he could become someone else: “Someone physically strong, someone living thousands of miles from Smithville. In the cyber world, no one would know the difference.” (Kurtz, The “Stalker” Who Stayed at Home).

He apparently met students from the Hawthorne Brooke Middle School in a chat room devoted to Limp Bizkit, and struck up a friendship with the eighth graders, who invited him to join them in a private chat room.
Hunold decided to pretend he was one of them, and to show them a thing or two about the real world.

By studying the kids' Internet profiles, Hunold was able to learn some of their birth dates, addresses, and hobbies. He created a computer file where he detailed what he knew about each student. Every online conversation with one of the kids contained another helpful nugget about someone else.

`When he talked to these kids, he knew specific things, like where they lived, what their house looked like, if they had a dog, what table they sat at at lunch,’ says Townsend Police Sergeant Cheryl Mattson, who investigated the case.

Within a few weeks, the banter between Hunold and the Townsend kids became more threatening. Hunold bragged he was a serial rapist and would come after them. He pointed students to child pornography online, including pictures of a 5-year-old girl being raped.

(Kurtz, The “Stalker” Who Stayed at Home).

It became increasingly difficult for him to sustain the pretense that he was a Hawthorne Brooke student. The students began challenging him, a “loss of control that infuriated him.” (Kurtz, The “Stalker” Who Stayed at Home). He responded by telling them he was going to blow up the school and then by posting a website that depicted
Hawthorne Brook Middle School seen through the crosshairs of a rifle scope. There was a picture of the school principal, made to look like he was bleeding through bullet holes in his head and chest. And there were references to Columbine, which had shocked the nation only five months before. . . .
(Kurtz, The “Stalker” Who Stayed at Home). He posted a “hit list” that contained the first names of 24 students and the last names of 3 Hawthorne Brooke teachers. Underneath the list he wrote: `You lucky individuals will go home with more holes in your body than you came with.’” (Kurtz, The “Stalker” Who Stayed at Home).

Hunold was halfway across the country, had no weapons and no intention of carrying through on this threats. For him, it was a game – he was manipulating the students (and, indirectly, their teachers and their families) for his own amusement – to boost his ego. (Kurtz, The “Stalker” Who Stayed at Home).

Not surprisingly, the Hawthorne Brooke teachers, students and parents were terrified. They knew the person who was sending the threats “had to be” local because he knew so much about the students. They assumed he was a Hawthorne Brooke eighth-grader; Hunold encouraged this by identifying himself as a particular eighth-grader, who was harassed because of that.

Parents whose children were on the “hit list” didn’t know what to do – whether to send the children to school or keep them at home. Police brought in bomb-sniffing dogs to patrol the hallways and classrooms of the school. Teachers searched student bags and other possessions, and some parents considered arming themselves to protect their children and themselves.

The Massachusetts State Police traced some of the mysterious person’s Internet activity to Missouri. At first they assumed the person was in Townsend and was routing his messages through Missouri, but they rather quickly figured out that the person was in Missouri. (Kurtz, The “Stalker” Who Stayed at Home). Massachusetts and Missouri officers collaborated in searching Hunold’s computer and interviewing him; he readily confessed to what he had done.

In October, 2000, Hunold pled guilty in Missouri to three felony counts of attempted promotion of child pornography and one misdemeanor count of harassment. (Similar charges were filed in Massachusetts but dismissed on the grounds that Massachusetts law did not criminalize the use of computer technology to distribute child pornography.) He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and served 120 days.

For some reason, the Hunold case reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” In that episode, space aliens (who look a lot like humans) manipulate electricity and a few other things to create paranoia in the good citizens of a pleasant suburb. The locals decide aliens are among them and turn on each other. As one source puts it, “total madness breaks out.”

It reminds me of that Twilight Zone episode because there really was no danger to the students or anyone else in Townsend, but Hunold was able to make everyone believe there was. My sense, from speaking to people familiar with the case, is that a little bit of the Twilight Zone episode began to happen in that no one knew who to trust. The mysterious person sending the threats might have been one of the students, might have been a teacher, might have been a staff person . . . might have been anyone. Hunold’s activities are a great example of how someone can use online imposture to break down the trust we assume, and rely on, in our everyday lives.

What I find most chilling about the Hunold episode is not what happened in Townsend, but what might have happened after. When police searched Hunold’s computer, they found evidence that led them to believe he was planning to do the same thing to a school in Georgia. I suspect he would have done an even better job of cultivating paranoia and inculcating terror the second (or third?) time around. What he did in Townsend seems to have been pretty much an accident, something that evolved as he developed an online relationship with the eighth-graders, whom he sought to control. The next time his efforts would have been more calculated and therefore, I think, even more devastating.

In terms of today’s law, Hunold could also have been charged with cyberstalking, which basically means someone used computer technology to engage in a course of conduct that inflicted serious (or substantial) emotional distress on another person. It can also encompass threatening someone with death or serious bodily injury. So I see no reason why Hunold could not have been charged with stalking, at least under current law. What I see as interesting is that he did not merely stalk. He played with the lives of people in Townsend just as the fictive Twilight Zone aliens played with the people in that suburb. Somehow, that seems more than stalking.


Anonymous said...

Has anyone ever sued google?

I ask because I have written their support team (using the term loosely because I don't think they employ humans...) to get down a blog that a stalker has posted posing as my husband and their response (5 times now) has been "we don't moderate the content..."

I think I have a case. Has it been done?


Maria Bray

Susan Brenner said...

You should check with a lawyer who does civil practice to get a reliable answer to this (since I only do criminal law).

But I suspect the answer is no, for the same reason it was no in this recent online defamation case:,0,6189196.story?coll=la-home-headlines

As you can (I hope) see from this story, there is a federal statute which essentially immunizes the operators of sites/services that host blogs and other online publications from civil liability.

The issue you raise came up in a couple of Wisconsin cases, in which someone posed as another person and posted VERY embarrassing, false things about them. There there was, as I recall, prosecution for stalking and/or harassment, which might or might not work, depending on the law of your jurisdiction . . . and the police and prosecutor's inclination to pursue it.

Anonymous said...

Dear writer, this is the person who was affected most by this case. my name shall remain anonymous for now. IM THE PERSON FROM TOWNSEND WHO CHRISTIAN HUNOLD PRETENDED TO BE. I havent lived a normal day of my life since then.

Once a week i attend post traumatic stress disorder counseling and regular therapy as well. to find out he only served 120 days i am appauled. this has left me scarred for life and he "walked". I cannot even begin to fathom what caused him to do this to me.