What it takes to actually stop a determined, vengeful cyberstalker

In 2012, Courtney Allen was having a difficult time in her marriage and she struck up an online affair with a gamer in her alliance named Todd Zonis; when her husband Steven found out about it and she refused to break it off, he emailed her family, his family, and Zonis's family.

After that, the Allens — newly reconciled — experienced a horrific, years-long ordeal of internet stalking and harassment, with sexually explicit photos of Courtney Allen emailed to her entire circle of friends and family, all the way down to the daycare where they sent their small son. They were prolifically impersonated in online messages and social media accounts that sought to discredit and defame them, and subjected to threats of violence and ruination, with imprecations for Courtney Allen to kill herself, which she nearly did.

Neither the law enforcement in Washington where the Allens lived, nor in Arizona where Zonis lived, were able to help in any way, despite mounting peril, including SWATings.

Finally, the Allens got pro-bono help from a top law firm that specialized in cyber harassment and stalking, and hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of free legal assistance, secured a jury verdict for more than $8 million. Zonis has vowed to appeal, and a website that bears his name describes his grievances against the Allens (which are nonsensical) and includes the nude images of Courtney with an exhortation to spread them.

The story is horrific both in the depravity and terror that the Allens experienced, and the inability of the justice system to make any sense of their plight or help them with it.

By the end of arguments, the Allens' legal team had introduced 1,083 exhibits into evidence. The chart Van Engelen made just to organize the emails was 87 pages long. It was a level of scrutiny that few cyberharassment cases ever receive—and an illustration of what victims face when dealing with such a complicated case, especially if they don't have access to pro bono help. K&L lawyers and paralegals had spent thousands of hours digging 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 time questioning Courtney and Jennifer, and introducing endless emails that he said 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 says. "This is somebody who's very strong behind a keyboard. And when the opportunity arises to actually prove himself and be vindicated, he just folds like a flower."

On Thursday, March 30, Van Engelen stood up to deliver her closing argument. 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 gun. She reminded them of a message promising isolation, shame, 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 toy he had sent) that were in both the anonymous messages and voicemails from Zonis. She talked about 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."

[Brooke Jarvis/Wired]