Former Breckenridge man to face additional charges in sprawling cyberstalking case
October 27, 2016
New charges have been filed in the case against John McCallister, a former Breckenridge resident who was extradited from Texas two months ago to face harassment, stalking and extortion charges. He now also stands accused of criminal impersonation, obscenity and violation of a protection order.
McCallister's attorney, Dana Christiansen, said that his client denies the allegations and argued that little of the evidence directly points to McCallister.
The new charges came as investigators continued to digest the reams of electronic correspondence that allegedly took place between McCallister and his victim, a Breckenridge woman, via a sprawling web of online aliases. Charging documents say he used phony emails and social media accounts to anonymously threaten and harass the woman since June 2014, when she allegedly ended their friendship.
"It's hard to wrap your head around a 500-page binder of print-outs," said the victim's lawyer, Bob Gregory. "It only scratches the surface."
Tracing anonymous online correspondence to a real person can be tedious and uncertain, particularly when dozens of distinct email addresses and social media accounts are involved.
The complexity is borne out in the dense, 11-page arrest affidavit compiled by retired Breckenridge detective Alex Blank that outlines the case against McCallister. It's a tangled web of online accounts and the corresponding internet provider (IP) addresses they were accessed from, many of them masked or unverifiable.
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"There's very little (in the affidavit) that actually does connect," said Christiansen. "In that regard, there's not a lot they can say, that this IP address was used by Mr. McCallister."
The affidavit nonetheless documents what appears to be a concerted campaign of terror against the victim that in some instances extended beyond cyberspace; in addition to emails and social media messages, she received texts indicating someone was watching and following her. According to documents, the perpetrator also created fake dating ads using the victim's personal information and photos to string along unwitting suitors in email chains. Eventually, the imposter handed over the victim's real phone number, and she received lascivious requests to finally "hook up."
A tangled web
According to the Justice Department, upwards of 850,000 people a year, mostly women, are victims of some form of cyberstalking. And in a 2014 study, Pew Research found that 26 percent of female internet users reported being stalked and 23 percent reported being physically threatened online.
"Very generally speaking, it's a widespread problem that hasn't gotten enough attention," said Rob Murphy, executive director for Summit Advocates for Victims of Assault.
Despite anti-cyberstalking and harassment laws on the books in some jurisdictions since as early as 1999, and a federal law against it in 2006, relatively few cases have been made. Part of that has to do with the sheer complexity of piecing together all the loose threads that can be used by an abuser determined to stay anonymous.
"It's a very modern problem. Laws and organizational practices have not been adequately updated to deal with it," said Murphy. He added that while physical stalking conjures up terrifying images in the public mind, notions of how serious cyberstalking can be haven't caught up.
"It's different than traditional cases that law enforcement are used to investigating," explained Gregory. "You aren't going out and interviewing witnesses, bringing in suspects. It's very hard to determine who's behind a text or email. It's easy to hide your identity online."
One way to determine the source of an internet communication is by matching it to an IP address — a unique code that corresponds to a particular device and sometimes a physical location. But IP addresses can be masked with proxy servers and a host of other tools, and internet companies won't usually reveal IP addresses linked to their accounts.
That means investigations can require tremendous law enforcement resources, and there's still no guarantee that the evidence will stand up in court.
"Overcoming that initial hurdle is the biggest challenge: condensing local law enforcement resources to investigate a possible dead-end," Gregory said.
That forced him to first turn to a still-ongoing civil suit where he was able to subpoena internet companies for IP addresses. He then brought those to detective Blank, who through search warrants was able to get more information from Comcast, Google and other web companies.
The results of those inquiries — outlined in a dizzying array of interconnected email accounts, phone numbers and 11-digit IP addresses — allegedly implicate McCallister in at least some of the online harassment the victim suffered.
Accounts that were used to harass the victim, for instance, were accessed from IP addresses linked to McCallister's parents' house in Bellaire, Texas, at a time when he was allegedly visiting them. A Google Voice account that was used for harassment was also linked to that house and the condominium complex where McCallister lived in Breckenridge. Data from Google also linked a device registered to McCallister to several email accounts that targeted the victim, the affidavit says.
But there are gaps and dead-ends throughout, highlighting the difficulty of piecing together so many disparate threads of data and pairing them to the near-constant stream of unwanted and threatening messages sent to the victim.
The affidavit, however, is merely the tip of the iceberg, said Gregory, who claimed the district attorneys office was still wading through thickets of documents that catalog a vast criminal conspiracy.
How that material might be condensed and packaged into a convincing case for a jury is another matter. A trial date is expected to be set soon, and if the case is argued in court, it could provide an instructive precedent for how similar charges might be pursued in the future.
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