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Moulton had an epidemic on her hands.In 2011, May was a 16-year-old who had spent most of her life in Belmont and was living with her mom and two siblings in a duplex with a nice yard. Then, midway through her sophomore year at Belmont High, her family moved to a nearby town and she enrolled in a new school. She barely knew anyone. “I wasn’t that popular, I guess you could say,” May said. So when she got a friend request from someone named Seth Williams, who had a cute profile photo, she accepted it.
Seth started messaging May frequently, making idle conversation, and after they exchanged numbers, he began texting. He said nice things and seemed to want to get to know her. He’d ask about her favorite ice cream flavor and her pets. She enjoyed the back and forth. When he asked for photos of her body, she hesitated at first but talked herself into it. “I still was like, no guy shows me this attention,” she told me. “He actually seems like a nice guy. Maybe it’ll be OK.” May sent him a photo she thought was fun, of her rear in jeans, plastered with handprints from her freshly painted room. He wanted more. She sent him a picture with her in underwear, then one of her bare butt. When he demanded a full nude, she told him, “No. That’s where I draw the line.”
No picture, no Facebook, he replied. When May next tried logging in to her accounts, she couldn’t access them: He’d hacked her Facebook and her email and changed the passwords. She begged him to return the accounts; he refused. She blocked him on her phone; he texted from a different number. She changed her number; he still found her. “He always came back,” she said. “Always.”
By April 2012, Seth had escalated his threats. Citing the “ass shots” May had sent, he wrote to her: “If you don’t send me a nude by 8, Im sending this picture to people and uploading them to Facebook.”
“Get off my FB,” she responded.
“Take your clothes off.” “Get fucking naked on camera.” “I’m going to have fun fucking you this summer,” he replied.
May didn’t send a naked picture, and Seth retaliated by using fake Facebook accounts in her name to message her friends at her new school. Friends became jumpy, and their parents did too, forbidding them from hanging out with May. “I never felt so alone in my life,” she said.
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Seth would disappear for a while but then resurface, finding May even as she went through a slew of phone numbers. She trusted only those few friends who’d stood by her. If she was home alone, she locked the door to her bedroom. Strangers made her tense up. “You could be crossing somebody in the road,” she said, “and you don’t know if that’s the person you’re messaging.”
By the fall of 2012, Seth had been silent for a while, and May thought maybe, finally, he had decided to stop bothering her for good. But one night, while she was sitting in her living room, a text pinged on her phone. It was Seth. “I just felt like I lost hope,” May said. He was again demanding pictures. This time, though, the text included nude photos of other girls.In one of the images, May recognized a close friend from her Belmont days. Seth had bragged that he had photos of this girl, but May hadn’t been able to bring herself to ask the friend about Seth. “I was very ashamed of myself,” May said, “and I was very upset about what I had done” by sending explicit pictures. Now, with the photo in her possession, she called her friend, thinking maybe she would have advice. The conversation was brief. They didn’t break down or comfort one another. But May’s friend did urge her to talk to her mother and go to Detective Moulton in Belmont.
“I remember taking in a deep breath and going up the stairs, and I sat on my mom’s bed, and I said, ‘Mom, I have something that I need to tell you, and I don’t know how,’” May said. The next day, May and her mother went to the Belmont police station.
May met with Moulton, who was spending more and more of her time on the mystery. Seth had sent nude photos to other girls, too, and with their help, Moulton was able to identify more potential victims and cold-call them. She checked with neighboring towns for related cases. Girls would come into the station with parents, whom Moulton sometimes would send out of the room while she interviewed their daughters. “Some of the parents were blaming the girls and were really hard on them,” Moulton said. Finally, after she’d tracked down a dozen or so victims, she could clearly see a commonality: They all had, at some point or another, attended Belmont High.Like pretty much every high school, Belmont High had its cliques and hierarchies. At the top, former students told me, were the jocks and the preps, kids whose parents had jobs like nurses or managers. (“When you pull up to someone’s house, and there’s not a speck of rust anywhere on it, the siding’s brand new,” Kyle Bjelf, a 2012 Belmont High graduate, told me, “you could tell they came from money.”) The middle kids identified themselves by their activities (chorus, soccer) or their style (emo, goth). The “fringe” was made up of poor kids and oddballs. Each grade had about 120 students, many of whom had been together since kindergarten. In such a small town, everyone’s relative status was inescapable.
Some of the girls were really suffering. One began sleeping in the same bed as her mother. Several feared Seth would attack them. One cried herself to sleep. Another routinely called her mom at work, terrified.
Before she left Belmont, May was part of the middle group: Raised by a single mom, she rode the bus and worked at an after-school job. She was outgoing and made a point of being nice to everyone, even the fringe kids who rode the bus. Those kids were often mocked. One graduate told me that the preppies went after the fringe kids: “Like, ‘You smell bad and you need to go sit somewhere else,’ and they’ll do it as loud as they can.”Sex—or supposed sexual behavior—was wielded like a weapon. Boys spread rumors about girls who got “passed around”; pregnant girls were heckled. The word skank rang out in the hallways. “It was crazy,” said a 2012 graduate about rumors of girls’ sexuality. “You couldn’t not know about it because of how many times they were yelled about on the bus; some jack would yell across the caf, ‘Blah blah blah’s a slut.’ ”Dan Clary spent eight years as assistant principal of the high school and, in 2012, became principal. “Kids preyed on the fact they were popular, and they would cause a lot of problems,” said Clary, who is now retired. There wasn’t much to do in Belmont, and after school, kids would head home and fire up Facebook. “It would be a bunch of drama and talking back and forth to each other in the comments sections,” one student said. Clary told me that he instituted consequences as severe as suspension for harassers when students reported cyberbullying.The problem was that a lot of students were not reporting the behavior. They were trying to get through, heads down, not wanting to attract the wrong kind of attention. Seth’s victims seemed to share that trait. A girl named Mackenzie, who was harassed by Seth, told me that when she learned who a few of his other victims were, she realized that none were in the popular crowd. They were consigned to the insecure middle, where every misstep was perilous. Staying quiet seemed a reasonable choice.
Moulton began tracking down new victims. She quizzed the state’s computer-crimes unit and was told that they didn’t have any known perpetrators who followed Seth’s script. She took over one girl’s phone to try to elicit information from Seth. In that guise, she suggested meeting up at a teen hangout, an outdoor spot nicknamed the Arches. He didn’t seem to recognize the name, and she began to wonder if he wasn’t a local. The pressure was getting to her. She imagined getting a phone call from a parent telling her that a child had been abducted. She still had no idea who Seth was.Then, around the time May first met with her, Moulton received a truly useful piece of information. Moulton had learned that Seth was able to text from four or five different numbers by using services like Textfree, a voice-over-internet-protocol service that allows users to text without subscribing to a cell phone plan. Moulton sent out subpoenas, and the developer of Textfree sent back information that included the Apple universal identifier for Seth’s phone. With that she could subpoena Apple for the phone’s registration and billing information. The results were confusing but included the name Ryan Vallee. He was a 19-year-old graduate of Belmont High, class of 2012.With some digging, Moulton learned that Vallee lived with his mother in Belmont and worked short-term jobs. Even in a small school, Vallee had not made a big impression on his peers. If they could place him at all, classmates remembered him as quiet and awkward.Kyle Bjelf had been close with Vallee in middle school. They’d played a lot of videogames at Vallee’s house, pounding Mountain Dew, and sometimes Bjelf would have dinner there. Bjelf was impressed by his friend’s computer savvy. Once in high school, though, Vallee started hanging out with a new group—two or three guys who were into screamo music and raves. A Facebook photo of Vallee in 2012 shows a bathroom-mirror selfie of a guy with lank brown hair and a long face. In posts, he talks about his favorite movie, Gran Torino; watching South Park; playing laser tag. “He wasn’t a tough kid,” Bjelf said, but as he got older he changed. He started acting out. In class, Bjelf said, Vallee would say “Pass” when he was called on; outside of class, he would provoke fistfights.
He also made clumsy efforts to talk to girls online. “do u go to my skool?” he wrote, with his real name, to Mackenzie after she graduated. “i dnt thnk ik u. I jst felt like talkin to sum1 new lol.” Mackenzie didn’t remember him but chatted briefly, saying that she was bad at starting conversations. “lol im bad at tht too,” he said. Later, he would approach her again, this time under the name Seth, and with a profile picture of a handsome, outdoorsy young guy.Moulton now had a choice to make. She didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Vallee. The Apple information was the strongest link between the harassment and a suspect, but she needed more evidence to know it was Vallee for sure.
She also knew some of the girls were really suffering. One began sleeping in the same bed as her mother. Several feared Seth would attack them. One cried herself to sleep. Another routinely called her mom at work, sobbing, terrified about being alone. They battled depression, anxiety, nausea. So Moulton told a few of the most troubled girls that Vallee, their former classmate, was a suspect. She hoped it might ease their fears. “They really had a sense of this big huge brute of a person,” Moulton said. “When they found out who it was, some of them were like, ‘Really?’ ”
Some barely knew Vallee, but one girl was friendly enough with him that she had sat with him at lunch occasionally. She’d even told him about her online stalker . Vallee, the computer expert, offered his help to unmask “Seth.”
May knew Vallee from the Belmont school bus, had dated a friend of his, and had made a point of being friendly toward him. “What did I do for him to feel that I deserved this?” she wondered.
One day Vallee showed up at the clothing store where May worked.
“All feelings just fell out of me, and I froze,” May said. He made no sign of recognizing her and just wandered around looking at merchandise. She hid in the employee lunch area, behind a locked door, talking to her mom on the phone until he left.As Moulton tried to gather more information, she was also staring down another problem. Even if she could find the proof to arrest Vallee, under New Hampshire law at the time the most she could charge him with was harassment, a misdemeanor carrying a sentence of less than a year. “A couple of those girls, it became their lives for a year and a half,” she said. “I didn’t think the laws of this state were enough for that kind of fear.”
So Moulton reached out to the Feds.
In October 2013, five months after they took over the case, federal authorities learned that one of the victims was close to suicide. They charged Vallee with extortion. When Vallee turned himself in to the Belmont police, Moulton was struck by his affect. “He came in and he sat down and basically closed himself up,” Moulton said. “He just kept rubbing his legs and his arms like he was taking a shower in the office.”The harassment stopped. But, under a tight time frame, the government decided to dismiss the case rather than go to trial. Meanwhile the team gathered more evidence. For this stage of the investigation, a new expert came on board: Mona Sedky.Sedky, a lawyer in the Washington, DC, headquarters of the Department of Justice, specialized in computer crimes and corporate hacking. A few years earlier, she had been enlisted to help with a case against a man who had threatened to spread naked images of a young mother online. At that point, the term sextortion was still new to Sedky. She’d spent the bulk of her career as a litigator at the Federal Trade Commission before moving to the Justice Department’s computer crime and intellectual property section. Looking at the documents in that first case, Sedky was struck by how the harasser demanded precise poses and gave his victim strict deadlines. It was a remarkable “level of control over her sexuality,” Sedky said. The man pleaded guilty, but soon after his sentencing, Sedky learned the victim had killed herself.At about the same time, Sedky learned from police that someone in her own extended family had experienced something similar, at age 14. A boyfriend had taken a topless photo of this relative without her knowledge and texted it to others. “She and I have a very close relationship, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why she wouldn’t feel like she could tell me,” Sedky said. “I can’t unring that bell for her, but I can help make sure that other women don’t have that happen to them.”
Since then, Sedky has worked on about a dozen sextortion cases. While sextortion isn’t a crime spelled out in federal law, prosecutors can charge people with crimes like computer fraud and abuse. Most states outlaw nonconsensual sharing of sexual images, but generally these carry far lighter sentences than the federal laws Sedky relies on. Still, this is new legal territory. According to a Brookings Institution study, as of 2016 only about 80 sextortion cases had been brought in the federal and state systems combined. One challenge is getting local police and prosecutors, who take victims’ initial reports, to understand the harm, said Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer specializing in civil sex-crime lawsuits. “Mona,” she says, “is correcting that.”Matthew O’Neill, a Secret Service agent in New Hampshire, reached out to Sedky for help with the Vallee case. (The Secret Service is known for protecting government officials, but it has a lesser-known duty to investigate computer crimes and identify theft.) Sedky jumped in, issuing subpoenas and other requests to companies like Amazon , Skype, Pinger, Yahoo, Google , AOL, and Facebook. Sedky unearthed the trail all internet users leave : login IP addresses, time and date stamps, and registration information. Investigators then went back further, to the internet providers, to find subscriber and location information.With this information in hand, O’Neill and other agents mapped the locations where Seth had logged in. They all had some plausible link to Vallee: a burrito place near his mother’s house, an air-conditioning business belonging to his mother’s ex-boyfriend. A random person’s Wi-Fi in Gilford, New Hampshire, turned out to belong to his sister’s neighbor. These were crucial bits of circumstantial evidence, and investigators needed as many of them as possible. “In these cyber cases, you have to defeat the SODDI defense,” O’Neill said. That is, “Some other dude did it.” By studying the exchanges with the girls, O’Neill also cracked one way that Seth accessed his victims’ accounts. When Seth was making friendly chatter—like asking May her favorite ice cream flavor and the names of her pets—he was really collecting clues that he then used to answer the security questions on their accounts.Finally, in 2015, federal prosecutors had enough evidence to charge Vallee with interstate threats, aggravated identity theft, and computer fraud and abuse. The indictment listed 10 Jane Doe victims—the women that the government could convince to come forward, including May, Jane Doe No. 4.
Seth took over several of her accounts and demanded a photo of her breasts. “I won’t send one. I’ll fight back,” Mackenzie wrote him. “You get off on tormenting innocents like this?”
Vallee was released on bail and ordered not to use the internet. The federal judge hearing the case scheduled the trial for the spring of 2016.
Though the evidence was strong, Sedky was worried; she knew from experience that putting vulnerable victims on the stand could be enormously distressing, “so there were definitely some incentives for us to try to get him to plead guilty to avoid a trial.” But Vallee was adamant that it wasn’t him—that some other dude did it. The investigators, meanwhile, were going back to interview the victims again, solidifying their case. One day, they followed up with a young woman who had moved far from Belmont: Mackenzie.After graduating from Belmont High in 2011, Mackenzie moved into her grandparents’ house in North Carolina. Her mother had banned her from social media in high school, so, finally equipped with a phone and out from under her mother’s rules, she “went a little crazy,” she says. She was happy to message with strangers, and when Seth contacted her, she responded. But then Seth took over several of her accounts and demanded a photo of her breasts.
“I won’t send one. I’ll fight back,” Mackenzie wrote him. “You get off on tormenting innocents like this?”
Mackenzie, who said she was a victim of abuse when she was younger, was determined not to cower. She printed out her exchanges with Seth and took them, in 2012, to the police in her town in North Carolina. “The policewoman told me, ‘Honestly, we don’t really have the technology to be able to deal with something like this, and there’s a very low probability that anything will come from this,’” Mackenzie said.
The WIRED Guide to Personal Data
A year later, Seth started using a Belmont girl’s hacked Facebook page to harass Mackenzie further. Mackenzie messaged the girl, who told her about Moulton. Mackenzie passed along dates and screenshots of her interaction with Seth to Moulton, adding to the thick case file.When the trial team was reinterviewing all of Seth’s victims, they called Mackenzie. She told them that Seth had stopped bothering her for a bit, but in recent months he’d contacted her again, using the same hacked Facebook page of the Belmont girl, identified in court papers as M.M.This information was critical: It meant Vallee was back online, breaking the terms of his bail. Moreover, if agents could catch him with whatever device he was using, they would also have his browsing and messaging history. With evidence that strong, they could circumvent Vallee’s “some other dude” defense. The government got an order that required Facebook to deliver daily reports of IP addresses and login times for the M.M. Facebook page. Meanwhile, O’Neill took over Mackenzie’s Facebook. Copying the instant-messaging patois he learned from his teenage daughters, O’Neill posed as Mackenzie, alternately flirting, challenging, and being mad at him. “The more he talks, the more he logs in,” O’Neill said. “The more he logs in, we can identify where he is.”
The Facebook reports showed that “Seth” accessed Facebook with a cell phone. The investigators were determined to get it.On a windy March morning, Secret Service agents in black SUVs pulled up outside Vallee’s mother’s house in Laconia and his sister’s apartment in Gilford. They figured Vallee was staying at one of them. O’Neill, acting as Mackenzie, messaged with the hacker of the M.M. Facebook. Then, just after O’Neill signed off with M.M., Vallee left his sister’s apartment. The Secret Service agents in Gilford watched as he drove off in a silver sedan and followed him in their SUV. When Vallee stopped at a traffic light, the officers jumped out of their car, guns raised. Vallee took off, weaving through traffic. The Secret Service and Gilford police tailed him until Vallee hit a dead end. As he got out of the car, a Gilford officer ran up, yelling at him to get on the ground. After getting a search warrant, agents looked in the car and found a backpack. Inside were pajama bottoms, a New Testament, Vaseline, and a Nintendo gaming console and case. Inside the case: a Windows phone, internet-enabled.The next day, Judge Paul Barbadoro sent Ryan Vallee to jail. Five months later, Vallee pleaded guilty to 31 counts, including aggravated identity theft, computer hacking, and cyberstalking.On February 6, 2017, Ryan Vallee sat in the Concord federal courthouse for sentencing. The hearing lasted nearly three hours, as lawyers debated whether Vallee’s victims should be classified as vulnerable, which might increase his sentence, and whether he knew the effect his harassment had on the victims.Jonathan Saxe, the public defender representing Vallee, discussed psychological reports suggesting his client was on the autism spectrum. “The response to the overwhelming evidence was just no response at all, which was unusual and troubling,” Saxe said. “To him, this was stuff he was doing on a computer, and it didn’t really connect.” On the Windows phone that law enforcement recovered from Vallee was a trail of his searches during the time he was out on bail. Between searching for child pornography and queries like “your laws mean nothing to me,” Vallee visited a Christian web page. Its title: “Why can’t I just be a good person?”
Sedky told the judge about the emotional devastation Vallee had wrought. She called his acts a “remote sexual assault” and argued that Vallee should go to prison for eight years, at the high end of federal sentencing guidelines.
Prosecutors had asked Vallee’s victims if they wanted to speak at the hearing. Most declined. “I can only guess they were just as ashamed as I was,” May said. But she decided to attend, as did Mackenzie and a third victim. When they all met, May realized she went to college with the third victim. The three sat together, May and Mackenzie clutching the statements they had prepared, waiting through the fog of proceedings in a courtroom crowded with unfamiliar faces. Then, the judge called them up.
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May had put off writing her statement for weeks, but she pushed herself to speak up in court that day. “The emotional scars that he has caused will never go away, and I’ll never stop hurting,” she said. (Later, when speaking with me, her emotions were even more raw. “I’m not who he put me out to be,” she said. “I’m not just some skanky girl who sent pictures.”)
Sitting behind Vallee in the courtroom, Mackenzie studied him. He was with his lawyer, wearing glasses, his eyes cast down. He looked, she told me, “quirky and small, and someone who I probably wouldn’t have been as afraid of if I had actually known who he was.” But when she got up to make her statement, she tried to avoid looking his way. It wasn’t Ryan Vallee she’d feared, she told the judge, trying not to cry, but Seth, who was “everywhere, all the time.”After the third victim spoke, Judge Barbadoro asked Vallee if he had anything to say. He shook his head and said, “No.”
“This is a difficult case to sentence because of the extraordinary harm to the young women who have been injured here and also to try to understand the defendant’s conduct, which is difficult to comprehend, even for a judge like me who’s been doing this for 25 years,” Barbadoro said. He sentenced Vallee to the eight years in prison that prosecutors had requested.
After the sentencing, Vallee’s mother, who had also attended the hearing, came over to the girls, crying. She hugged them and apologized.
Ryan Vallee wasn’t one of the popular kids at Belmont High. But he had two advantages his victims did not. He was a boy, and therefore not as vulnerable to slut-shaming. And he understood how to harness technology to seem powerful, controlling and terrifying victims for years with only a smartphone and a computer.
Investigators eventually identified 23 victims and suspected there were even more. These teenagers barely discussed their stalking while it was happening. Even after Vallee was sentenced, few spoke out. No one held a rally. No one said “never again.” “Virtually all young girls in this circumstance are going to feel a sense of shame about this,” Barbadoro, the judge, said at the sentencing hearing. “They’re afraid of the unknown, and their tendency is to repress it, deny it, not—not confront it.”Many people from Belmont—including teachers and guidance counselors—didn’t know about the Vallee case until I contacted them. Amanda Titus, a classmate of Vallee’s, told me that she remembered walking a close friend to the Belmont police station during their senior year to report that she’d been threatened online by an apparent stranger and pressed for nude photos. But Titus hadn’t heard about Vallee until we spoke this year. “I don’t know exactly what happened afterward,” Titus said of her friend. “She didn’t say. Teenage girls are very private.”Vallee, who is in federal prison in Massachusetts, did not respond to several letters I sent him. His case is on appeal. I tried his mother many times before she responded by text: “Why didn’t the Belmont police let me know this was happening when he was 16? Instead they let it go to build the case.”
When May and I were trying to find a place to meet, I had suggested a diner or a coffee shop around Belmont. May demurred: Not private enough, she said. We ended up meeting in the lobby of the motel where I was staying. Her mother joined us. Now 25, with wide, blue eyes that never rested long on anything, May spoke in a soft voice that got fainter when she described how Vallee’s threats had isolated her. Still, speaking out seemed to give her a new confidence. She considered using her full name in this article. “If I say, ‘Yup, this is who I am. This is what happened to me, and this is me now,’ then it’s empowering,” she said. In the end, she decided to use her middle name; the last thing she wants is an easy way to be identified that might lead to more online harassment.
“Any type of security thing can happen,” she said. “They can hack anything.” Her shoulders slouched, and she directed her voice to the table where we were sitting. “I just never envisioned that, and it’s just … We shouldn’t have to live in a world where we don’t know if people are real or not.” She folded her arms around herself and bit her lip to stop herself from crying.
The opening image is of a model and does not depict an actual person discussed in the story.Stephanie Clifford (@stephcliff) is a journalist focusing on criminal justice and business, as well as a novelist. This is her first piece for WIRED.This article appears in the July/August issue. Subscribe now .
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