I tried to provide an overview of what online harassment actually can become, and how it actually can ruin people’s real lives. I mentioned that, in USENET days, even the most vituperative flame wars didn’t really rise above the level of name-calling and “saying mean things”. Participants in flame wars just hoped to “rustle people’s jimmies”, by and large, and that was as far as they typically went.
But, as I also said, there were a few notable exceptions, and one highly notable exception in particular. This fellow may turn out to be the Ur-Online-Harasser. He’s been at it for twenty years now.
In 1995, a COBOL programmer from Seattle named Charla met a guy named Chris. She went out with him a time or two, and decided there was something a little “off” with him and declined to see him any further. Chris was rather disappointed. To put it mildly.
Rather than getting over his hurt feelings and moving on, Chris decided to spend the next four years attempting to destroy her life, through USENET. He enacted this campaign by posting to a wide range of USENET groups — all of them related to where Charla lived, such as talk.seattle and seattle.eats, or to her professional career like comp.lang.cobol. And when I say “posting”, we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of posts, as a search on Google Groups still shows, twenty years later.
In a 1999 post to a number of law-enforcement-related USENET groups, Charla relates her story:
I have been cyberstalked for sometime now by a couple who I have every reason to believe are J. Christopher Hughes < pr...@linuxstart.com > and his wife Vanessa < abortre...@yahoo.com >. Chris sent me a private email threatening to post this kind of material to Usenet before the harassment began and some of it has been posted from his wife’s email account to Usenet as well. Usually they hide behind DejaNews accounts.
Chris is somebody who I dated very briefly 4 years ago.
I would like to know what various types of legal address I have. Most recently their tactic has been to take what I post and then repost it attributing it to me but mangling my words. I will include below an example of this. First my original post and then what they posted in reply. I believe that what they have posted in my example below may fall under the category of a hate crime.
They also continue to say I use drugs and that I have a cocaine and/or meth habit. This is ludicrous and untrue. Among the Usenet groups they post this to are professional computer newsgroups which I frequent. I am a computer programmer by profession and have been for 20 years. I believe they are attempting to interfere with my livelihood with their postings to professional newsgroups.
They are also calling me a prostitute and posting vile sexual material. Does this fall under some category of sexual harassment?
Briefly, Chris’ claims included that Charla was a prostitute, a crack cocaine addict, a witch, mentally unstable, and wanted “rough” anal sex from strangers. He’d post to programming groups that she used a “crystal ball” and “Tarot cards” for writing COBOL programs. He referred to her as a meth-using “Yeti”. Sometimes, dozens of times a day. For years.
If any of this is sounding vaguely familiar in general outlines, go look back at the previous installment and reread the description of “Anna Mayer”‘s online harassment.
Some people simply don’t handle rejection well, and Jason Christopher Hughes handles it even less well that that.
I first encountered Hughes — or thought I had, it took me a little while to connect him back to his decade-earlier USENET activities, and I was astounded when I did make the connection — in 2003, when I maintained a Livejournal under the user name “stonemirror” and Hughes had one under the ID “antisense”. At the time, he was using Livejournal to harass a 19-year-old woman posting under the ID “acidexia”. According to him, she’d stayed at his house, pissed in his bed, and stolen a bottle of vitamins, but — as with Charla Williams — even if you believed the claims to be true, the abuse he was directing at her was grossly disproportionate.
His vendetta at one point spilled over into the comments of my Livejournal postings, and I made it pretty clear what I thought of his harassment and of him as a generally poor excuse for a human being. At that point, I became another one of his targets.
At first, his claims were mainly that I was a pedophile. He downloaded a photo of me holding up a sign, taken from my Livejournal, and ‘shopped a pro-pedophilia message onto it, posted claims that I had an “Asian houseboy”, and other absurdities. After a few weeks of this, I brought the situation to the attention of Livejournal, and Hughes was permanently suspended from the site.
(Hughes was, in fact, involved in so much harassment, of so many people on Livejournal, that the support team there actually had a nickname for him, based on his apparent fondness for the no-longer-extant thylacine — the tattoo on his upper left arm represents this creature. They referred to him as the “Extinct Marsupial”.)
His suspension, and the loss of his journal, enraged Hughes. He not only created a series of quickly-suspended sockpuppets on Livejournal to attack me, under clever names like “stonedmirror”, “stonermirror”, “sconemirror”, etc., but began taking his abuse to the broader Internet.
In 2005, I was working at Palmsource, the newly-spun-off software division of Palm, Inc., where I had been a manager since the beginning of 2001. A popular web site at the time relating to Palm handhelds and Palm OS was PalmInfoCenter.com (no longer online). At one point, a number of comments were posted by a variety of throw-away, Whack-a-Mole sockpuppet IDs, with names like “scone_mirror” claiming that I was a pornographer, a blackmailer, a Satanist, a drug dealer, a serial killer, and a number of other things, and demanding that readers contact Palm to insist on my immediate firing, before I could single-handedly destroy the company and the platform that readers of that site were fans of.
Palm HR also received regular phone calls from someone identifying himself as Jason Christopher Hughes, demanding that I be sacked; these only stopped when he started getting forwarded to the Corporate Counsel, who made it clear that he was skating on very thin ice indeed, and if he wasn’t looking for real trouble, he should find another hobby.
The online harassment, however, continued. In 2007, I had the honor of being invited to present at the Ottawa Linux Symposium, one of the oldest and most “academic” of Linux conferences. I mentioned this in a blog posting, only to get comments from Hughes about how “security” at OLS “was probably non-existent”, an obvious attempt at intimidation. I mentioned this threat to the organizers when I arrived, and went on to do my presentation without incident.
As with most online harassers, Hughes is an extreme coward in real life, from all accounts. I’ve had multiple reports that he refuses to enter the state of California at all, out of fear of running into me. Nevertheless, his efforts to defame me on a variety of sites related to my professional career, such as LWN.net and LXer.com, continued non-stop, and continue to this day.
Impersonation and Claims of Pedophilia
I had maintained a website on the domain stonemirror.net for a number of years. In 2005, having seen that the .org domain was unregistered, I expressed an intention in a blog posting to go ahead register the domain stonemirror.org for some other plans I had, and went to bed. I woke up the next morning, went to actually register it, and discovered — to my amazement — that “someone” had not only beaten me to it while I’d been sleeping, but had registered the domain for ten years.
I went to see what was on the domain, and found this:
Many of the photos used on that site were, in fact, taken by me on my first trip to Tokyo, and had been stolen off of my blog, where I’d posted them. Taking a closer look at the WHOIS information on the domain registration, I discovered that the domain had been falsely registered to a non-existent address in Billings, Montana — Hughes’ hometown, by the way — with a non-working telephone number for contact. I alerted ICANN to the illegality of this registration.
ICANN’s response in cases of falsified registrations like this is to demand an immediate correction, and if one is not received in short order, the domain is locked and rendered useless for any purpose at all. The domain stonemirror.org was locked for seven years, until 2012, when it was re-registered in the name “Aaron Bohannon”, also fictitious — that’s the nickname of one of Hughes’ known associates, Aaron Rossetto, now the ex-husband of Chris’ previously-mentioned “wife”, Vanessa “niwi” Rossetto.
Between 2003 and 2009, Hughes changed his name (semi-)legally, first to “Luis Manuel Arsupial” in Texas, and then to “Michael Rudra Nath” in Washington state. In both cases, he committed perjury on his affidavits to the courts by listing a mail drop as his “residence”.
Harassing My Family
I finally grew tired of this — I had been in increasing contact with a surprisingly large circle of Hughes’ other victims, who’d received similar treatment, many of whom had known him personally and provided me with photos of him. With the Livejournal support team’s nickname for Hughes in mind, I registered the domain extinct-marsupial.org, and put up a site detailing Hughes’ exploits and giving details on his harassment.
Having his face publicly visible online and out of his control gets Hughes, well, out of control. He attempted in every way he could think of to have the site taken down. He filed DMCA infringement complaints on every one of his photos; I replied to each of his complaints with a counter-complaint, basically daring him to sue me. None of the photos were taken down for more than the two weeks the DMCA process demands, and when no response was received they went right back up. (I have a different hosting arrangement now: you send a DMCA complaint, I get it directly. I expect this posting will make him apoplectic: it contains considerably more detail than my “Extinct Marsupial Appreciation Society” site did.)
Having failed in this effort to get the site removed with dozens of DMCA complaints, Hughes went on to target my wife, who was getting close to the end of her seven-year-long ordination process as a pastor in the United Methodist Church at the time. He emailed her directly and incessantly, demanding that she make me take the site down, and promising dire consequences if she didn’t comply.
I configured her email to simply forward me anything from a Hushmail address — he must have had about three hundred of them before the service became unusable for him by demanding an SMS confirmation of the user’s identity to set up an account in response to criminal abuses of the service, go figure — and deleting it from her Inbox.
He then threatened to alert “300 Methodist Churches in California”, or maybe “9000 Methodists” — I don’t think he ever used the same figure twice — to my “crimes”, and actually followed through on this threat, to at least some degree. The message he sent out accused me of the usual things, as well as a few new ones — the attempted murder of his “elderly grandmother”, for example — and questioned how the Methodist Church could put up with someone who was married to someone like me. Most email clients will simply treat a Hushmail address as junk, but a few got through — one made it to the office of the Bishop of the Northern California/Nevada Conference — and we did indeed get some questions.
Typically, they went something like, “Who is this obvious lunatic, why is he so insanely angry at you, and what can we do to help?” Despite the lack of the response Hughes had clearly hoped for — she was ordained right on schedule — the entire thing was understandably upsetting for my wife, but not as upsetting as the threat he apparently didn’t carry out: he sent her an email with a photo of her face, along with a fairly grotesque pornographic photo, threatened to Photoshop the former onto the latter, and send it to even more “Methodists”.
In response, we made a criminal complaint against Hughes with the Merced County Sheriffs Department. It didn’t get very far, for the usual reasons: lack of expertise on the part of law enforcement, a low priority being assigned to such cases, compounded by the difficulty in actually locating Hughes. Hughes, as I’ve mentioned, goes by multiple names. He’s also developed a facility for fleeing for the hills when things get too hot.
One of my biggest motivations for putting up the “Extinct Marsupial Appreciation Society” site was having Google Analytics on a site that was guaranteed to capture Hughes’ interest — and Hughes monitors his targets obsessively and compulsively. Truth be told, the site was not heavily visited, but there was somebody who was viewing it scores, even hundreds, of times a day, every day, without fail. I watched Hughes go from Austin to Seattle, back to Austin, then to New York, and was able to keep a pretty good fix on his current location in this way.
Meanwhile, Hughes was busy working at harassing my ISP, an effort that ultimately proved successful, more thanks to his endurance than to the correctness of his position.
I was told by my tech support contact that Hughes was calling them dozens of times a time, shrieking and cursing at whomever answered the phone over their refusal to force my site offline. Finally, they decided that, while there was no legal issue with the site itself as far as they were concerned, the incidental toll it was taking on their support staff wasn’t really worth the thirty bucks a month I was paying them, and I could either host that site somewhere else, or close my account.
So, I took that site down, and ultimately let the domain expire. Apparently the moment that it did, it was bought up by an “M. R. Nath”. Any record of my site has also been scrubbed from the “Wayback Machine”. (Hughes is going to have a fit over this posting. Good.)
As long as this post is — over 3000 words — believe it or not, this only represents the high points of Hughes’ attempts to harass me. He’s still harassing “acidexia” — her efforts to do a Kickstarter were shut down thanks to his trolling them, and the story made the Daily Dot. Unsurprisingly, Hughes weighs in in the comments section, under the ID “na_koja_abad_don”.
Currently, he’s using this Twitter ID, under the name “David Powell” for purposes of harassing me, and probably others as well. (The “David” is in reference to me; “Powell” is the last name of another of his victims, not otherwise mentioned here.)
In November 2013, while Hughes was living in Austin at Aaron and Vanessa Rossetto’s residence — he seems to have since fled from there — someone set his car on fire while it was sitting in the driveway, reducing it to cinders and twisted metal — Hughes sent me a large photo gallery on Facebook. Hughes is certain I’m behind it, and accuses me repeatedly of being responsible, although how I could torch a car in Austin from California remains unclear.
It’s also evidently unclear to Lt. Jack Garner, an arson investigator with the Austin Fire Department, with whom I had a phone chat of about forty minutes around the time of these events and whom I’ve never heard from again. Garner admitted to me that there were “way too many potential suspects”, that “Hughes seems to make an awful lot of people very angry”, and also that Hughes’ accusations “didn’t make a lot of sense” — he was “identifying” me as the ringleader of a gang whose “members” were in Indiana and New York, and who had somehow conspired to have his car immolated 1500 miles from any of us.
I commented that, to my knowledge, Hughes went by three different names, and Garner replied, “Yeah. ‘Raymond Johnson”, too.” So far, no arrests have been made in this crime, but Hughes is happy to tell anyone who’ll listen that I’m “guilty” of arson. (I’ve challenged him to sue me; he hasn’t taken me up on the offer. I’d happily sue him if I had an address to serve a subpoena.)
The threatened “real law enforcement attention”, not to mention “real attention from the FBI”, has completely failed to materialize.
Despite that, he continues his harassment and his accusations, anonymously, of course, on places like Tumblr, where he maintains a number of sites. Here’s one dedicated to “acidexia”.
Here’s a Disqus ID created under the name “Melanie Saffka” — he seems to have some sort of fixation on this 1960s singer/songwriter, in spite of not knowing how to spell her name — purely to demand that Disqus support shut down my account for posting “illegal revenge porn” of “her” “husband”. When Disqus declines to take his complaints seriously, they’re told that they’re “totally unprofessional, uncaring and indifferent to abusive and illegal use of its system”.
Here’s an ID he set up on Reddit for no other purpose than to post a single harassing and defamatory comment:
Here he’s set up an ID on Amazon (using the nickname of yet another one of his own stalking victims) to post a negative review of “acidexia”‘s book (since deleted — he was conspicuously not a “Verified Purchaser”):
Here’s a Tumblr site dedicated to a completely different target (and note that he uses a “David Powell” Twitter ID here as well, since suspended).
Just to show how low Jason Christopher Hughes is willing to go in his harassment, during his USENET career, he had multiple altercations with Tim Maroney, an Apple co-worker, a friend, and a well-known occultist. Tim, tragically, died very suddenly in his early forties in 2003.
In response, Hughes sent multiple emails to his long-time girlfriend, crowing over Tim’s death and even claiming responsibility for it, via a “death curse”. He pulled similar shenanigans on another one of his stalking targets whose girlfriend had been killed in a motorcycle accident, again claiming “credit” for her death, commenting that she “had finally found a way to get thinner”, and including multiple photos of graphic motorcycle accidents.
Hughes leverages Google heavily: as I’ve said, he’s not only obsessive about keeping on top of what his victims are doing, but he also uses it as a offensive weapon: his activities are calculated to create an impression that his victims are, in fact, victimizers. His efforts turn out to be largely in vain in my case — I share a name with a former chief editor of Reuters, and unless you search on a pretty specific set of keywords, you’ll find him and not me (and not Hughes’ various lies about me). He wants his victims to have results for a name search, but he wants those results to be the ones he’s created. His goal is for a search on my name to return results creating at least the superficial impression that I’m an arsonist, a pedophile, and so on.
So, that’s what we’re talking about here. Through his anonymous sockpuppetry and his propensity to run and hide, Hughes remains at large, and has never been arrested for his activities, in spite of criminal complaints against him in (at least) California, Washington, Texas and New York.
His victims — I’m personally acquainted with no fewer than two dozen, I’m certain there are others I’m unaware of — continue to hope to see him brought to justice.
[This is a third of an ongoing series on the “Broken Internet”; part one is here
, part two is here
. In the next installment, I’ll discuss what I see as the core design flaw which enable monsters like Jason Christopher Hughes to get away with this sort of thing for two decades: online anonymity.]