Francesca Rossi was cyberstalked by a former boyfriend who destroyed her reputation and terrorized her and her family. No police agency could help. Hers is an extreme example of how law enforcement is ill-equipped to handle the growing threat of online crime.
NEW YORK — Nearly two dozen times, Francesca Rossi called law enforcement to complain that an ex-boyfriend was harassing her online, posting nude images of her, sending notes to her bosses that she had a sexually transmitted disease and making it appear she was running guns and trafficking in child pornography.
But they couldn’t make it stop and couldn’t even make an arrest for almost a year, until the man set off a national panic by posing as Rossi to make bomb threats against Jewish centers across the country. That turned it into a major federal case that ended with her tormentor, Juan Thompson, arrested within days and eventually sentenced to five years in prison.
Rossi spoke to The Associated Press in her first interview since the criminal case ended in December.
“It went on for months. I thought I was going to die and no one could help me,” Rossi said. “In the end, the only way that my abuse was legitimized is because he went after such a large community of people, and because there was so much hysteria over it.”
Police officials didn’t comment on Rossi’s criticism, except to say her case was closed due to insufficient evidence to support a charge.
Growing threat of online crime
Legal and policing experts say her experience is an extreme example of how law enforcement is ill-equipped to handle the growing threat of online crime, even though laws have recently been passed in 38 states addressing cyberstalking and revenge porn.
“The response by and large is: Ignore it and turn off your computer,” said Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor and author of “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.”
Technology gave him utter access to me. Every time my phone buzzed, I felt sick. I mean, I thought he was going to kill me. I felt like my life was over.” - Francesca Rossi, tormented by cyberstalker
Four in 10 internet users are harassed online and women disproportionately suffer, according to a Pew Research Center report. But only about 5 percent report it.
“Fran is a strong resourced individual, and she barely made it out of this,” said her friend Sarah Mikhail, 33. “Imagine if she were someone less strong, if she had no money. Imagine some of the women who experience this who don’t have the emotional wherewithal, the family, the support. What happens to them?”
Part of the complexity in the Thompson case, for example, was that Thompson used 25 different devices that allowed him to mask his identity. That made gathering evidence difficult, officials said. There are no fingerprints, no DNA, no surveillance footage.
The nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum recently issued a report on the subject that recommended, among other things, that law-enforcement agencies hire more people with more technological expertise.
“The internet is like the Wild West of technology,” said Chuck Wexler, the group’s executive director. “It has no speed limits and no cops.”
Sustained harassment of Rossi, her family
Rossi told the AP that she met Thompson through an online dating site in late 2014. He worked as a journalist with The Intercept; she as a social worker. They bonded over their commitment to reform. And for a while, their relationship was great.
But by the spring of 2016, he’d moved into her Brooklyn apartment and trouble came with him. She started getting harassing texts from ex-boyfriends. The wife of another ex-boyfriend sued, saying she’d given him a sexually transmitted disease, a lawsuit that turned out to be a hoax. Another posted a naked picture of her online.
Rossi panicked. She contacted Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer specializing in online harassment and she quickly figured out that only one man was behind the harassment: Thompson. He’d been posing as her exes for months. Rossi believes he was trying to make her feel bad so he could intimidate and control her.
“Juan was going through all of my stuff and I had no idea,” said the 33-year-old Rossi. “He somehow gained access. I never gave him access to any of my passwords. But he had everything on me. He had been reading my texts and my emails for at least a year.”
Rossi broke up with him, but then things got worse.
Thompson telephoned, emailed and texted her relentlessly, she said. Sometimes, he posed as others, terrorizing Rossi and her family, including her 92-year-old grandmother. He called and wrote her office. He used every major social-media platform to trash her. He even posted her information on a website where men promote violence against women.
“Technology gave him utter access to me,” she said. “Every time my phone buzzed, I felt sick. I mean, I thought he was going to kill me. I felt like my life was over.”
Nowhere to turn
But since she didn’t know his physical address, she couldn’t get a permanent restraining order. Police at her local precinct closed Rossi’s harassment case in October 2016. The FBI was still slowly looking into the case.
Meanwhile, other NYPD divisions kept investigating Rossi after someone phoned in a tip that she was going to shoot up a police station. A detective notified her they’d gotten a threat against her life. The police showed up again after an anonymous report she was running guns.
Police officials noted it was imperative to probe any threats made against police stations or public institutions.
“Detectives will thoroughly investigate that claim until we determine there is no threat,” said Lt. John Grimpel, a police spokesman.
Rossi said she told anyone who would listen that Thompson was behind it.
“They said they couldn’t help me until it got worse.”
Eventually, it did get worse. More than 150 bomb threats were reported against Jewish community centers and day schools in 37 states and two Canadian provinces. It was national news. Authorities blamed most on an 18-year-old Israeli-American Jewish hacker arrested in Israel last March. But federal officials said Thompson made a dozen of the threats.
Thompson was arrested in his native St. Louis early last March. By June, he’d pleaded guilty to making hoax threats and cyberstalking. His lawyers didn’t respond to calls for comment.
At sentencing in December, the 33-year-old Thompson apologized, conceding, “There are wounds … that will probably never heal.”
A composed Rossi wearing a T-shirt that read: “Believe women” captivated the courtroom. “I know there are other Juans out there, doing this to other women,” she said.
“The police diminished my abuse because my life-threatening attacks came from phones and computers. This is what domestic violence looks like now.”