The worst tragedies we tend to associate with cyberbullying, or cyberstalking, involve suicides by the victims of the despicable behavior.
Cases have popped up since the beginning of the social media era. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself after being duped into thinking that a boy liked her, only to have him turn on her in their MySpace conversations, calling her “fat” and a “slut.” The “boy” ended up being a family a few doors down, along with some friends who managed the fake profile.
There was the case of 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who had just come out as gay when his roommate rigged his room with a webcam and broadcasted a sexual encounter live on the internet. After writing “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry” on his Facebook wall, he plunged to his death in the Hudson River.
Then there was the 2014 case of a woman who encouraged her friend to commit suicide through text messages until one night, he finally did.
In 2013, at least 9 teenage suicides were linked to a Ask.fm, a social network popular with teenagers.
Rarely are these cases prosecuted under laws specifically meant to combat cyberbullying or cyberstalking, as laws struggle to catch up with Internet culture. Instead, in the case of Clementi, two students were prosecuted and convicted under “invasion of privacy” statutes. The woman who encouraged suicide by texting her friend was charged with involuntary manslaughter; the case is ongoing. In Meier’s case, the mother was convicted of three counts of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but the charges were later thrown out by prosecutors after legal experts raised red flags about the legal precedent the case would set.
Last month, though, a potentially landmark cyberstalking case came to a head in federal courts, as the prosecutors gave three family members lifetime sentences relating to the death of two women. It was the first time defendants were convicted of “cyberstalking resulting in death,” a charge that had been on the books since 2006.
The case could have huge implications for how future cyber-related death cases are prosecuted, say experts.
There was one important wrinkle in the case, though. Contrary to what might be expected in a “cyberstalking resulting in death” case, the death of the two women did not come from suicide.
It came from murder.
Christine Belford, 39, and her friend Laura Mulford, 47, were shot to death in the lobby of a Wilmington, Delaware courthouse in 2013. The shooter was Belford’s ex-father in law.
In the three years leading to the double murder, Belford had been harassed online and offline by her ex-father in law, ex-mother in law, and ex-sister in law, at the direction of her ex-husband, according to prosecutors.
“I’m done playing Mr. Nice Guy,” David Matusiewicz wrote to his sister in a prison letter that set the chain of events in motion. Only twelve days earlier, he started a stint in federal prison for kidnapping his own children and taking them out of the country.
“I’m done playing Mr. Nice Guy.”- David Matusiewicz
The letter, cited in federal court documents, was an ominous clue of what was to come. In it, he directed his sister Amy Gonzalez to begin an online campaign against his ex-wife Belford, telling her to “begin making complaints anonymously” about Belford on websites, and to make their efforts were “well publicized.”
The narrative that he allegedly asked for his sister to spread in the campaign: that Belford sexually abused her and Matusiewicz’s eldest daughter—an allegation that the courts and the eldest daughter herself said was untrue and unfounded. His sister Gonzalez obliged the request, as did his mother and father Lenore and Thomas Matusiewicz, prosecutors say.
The family was relentless in their campaign, both online and offline, court records show. A website dedicated to bolstering the allegations of abuse was set up. Polygraph tests, which the family said corroborated their concerns, were mailed to at least 20 people. YouTube videos were uploaded. Fake social media accounts were set-up to monitor her personal life. Family friends were dispatched to conduct surveillance on Bedford’s home. Letters detailing the allegations were sent to the children’s schools, and then to Belford’s church.
After a bitter divorce years earlier, Matusiewicz had kidnapped the three children, taking them to a small village in Nicaragua for almost two years, ducking authorities.
While Matusiewicz was in prison for the stunt, Belford got his parental rights terminated. A few months after, she wrote to her Family Court attorney about the harassment, which was already underway:
David has nothing to lose at this point, he has lost everything. He may allow me to survive to suffer. I may survive long enough to watch the girls be harmed. I may even go missing. All of this could be possibilities [sic].
Things took a marked shift in late 2012, when Matusiewicz was let out of a halfway house. He went to live with his parents in Texas, and began petitioning the court to let him travel to New Jersey to visit family. On his third attempt, the court let him.
Even though he told the court he would be traveling alone, Matusiewicz, along with his mother and father, set out in two cars.
Before leaving, father Thomas left a note to his daughter inside his home, detailing what she should do with his property, and giving her funeral instructions, court records show. Included in the note: “HOPEFULLY WE CAN END THIS BS NOW — UP TO DAVE.”
A few days later, a few seconds after she walked into the lobby of a courthouse in Wilmington, Delaware, Thomas opened fire on Belford with a .45 caliber pistol, killing her instantly. He also killed her friend Laura Mulford, before getting into a shootout with Capitol Police, wounding two of them. He was hit once in the chest, before he shot himself in the head, ending it all.
The following day, Gonzalez wrote a $80 check to the Family Court of the State of Delaware, asking for custody of the children now that their mother was deceased. Four days later it arrived at the courthouse, records show. By that time, the whole family was already being investigated.