‘That’s ok, you can ignore my calls. I will find you’: six years of cyberstalking.

Text and photos by Jackson Barnett / Design by Hayla Wong

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Renee lives on the ground-floor of a claptrap apartment building in Boulder. It is tucked away on the border of where the patchy, beer-soaked lawns of student housing meets the manicured hedges of homeowners with retirement savings. One Sunday night last fall she lumbered into her kitchen and threw her keys onto the fake-wood countertop. Sinking into one of the equally fake wood stools, she rested her head on her hands as a sigh escaped from her tired lips.

“What’s up?” Her roommate asked, standing over the sink scrubbing at his dinner’s charred remnants in a sauté pan.

“I have another stalker,” she said.

Almost 25 million people in the U.S. have been stalked in their lifetime; the vast majority (18.3 million) are women, according to Department of Justice statistics. American Indian and Native Alaskan women experience the highest percentage of stalking with almost 25 percent of Native women being stalked at some point in their lives.

Stalking is not just a shadowy figure lurking at the end of a dark alleyway; the practice has taken full advantage of internet camouflage. A camouflage Renee’s stalker had cloaked himself in. Now, victims are more likely to be stalked online than in person.

Renee is a bottle-blond Texan, the type that punctuates sentences with a twangy “y’all” and a touch of southern charm. She likes her salsa spicy and her drinks strong, preferably with Tito’s Vodka. A consummate socialite, her affable disposition often magnetizes new friends whenever and wherever she goes, sometimes where she does not want to.

Over the six months of reporting this story, almost every woman I mentioned it’s premise to – editors, fellow reporter and friends – shared similar experiences. Sometimes it was just a creepy message from an acquaintance more easily said behind a screen. Or an unwanted dick pic received late at night. Other stories ranged on the more sinister side, ex-lovers turned cyber attackers who hack into email and social media accounts.

Renee’s stalker opened with a text in May of 2017.

“Hey Renee you are coming back to Savors?!” texted an unsaved number with a Denver area code. Savors was a restaurant in Denver she had worked at for the past few years during breaks from school.

Being the youngest busser had sparked the interest — often sexual — of many of Renee’s older coworkers. As with many restaurants, the close-knit staff meant flings came with strings attached: gossip — “everyone [knowing] everyone’s shit,” as Renee put it — harassment and heartache. Despite the drama, Renee loved working in the fast-paced and high-pressure environment. With her first semester at CU coming to a close, she eagerly awaited her return to make extra cash and work with her old friends.

“When do you come back[?]” the same number asked again, ignoring Renee’s requests to know who was texting her.

“Friday,” she responded, “‘ol’ mystery-ass.”

Renee reunited with old friends and fell quickly back into the restaurant’s rhythm. Her curiosity to find out who had been text her simmered all week, but on her first shift back there was no reveal. No coworker came up to her to show off a new phone or fess up to their prank.

The anonymous texts continued, multiple times inviting her to parties and cookouts at their house.

“I am not just going to roll up to some random house and just hope it is someone I know, that is how people die,” Renee said.

They slipped from obnoxious to hurtful, poking at old heartbreaks from Savors. The salt only fed her desire to know who was sending the texts.

Things got even worse when she went to management. She was now a rat, a snitch, someone trying to expose whoever was texting her, according to the messages that started to pour into Renee’s inbox after she asked a manager to call the number. Other numbers started sending her texts calling her a “whore” and “fake,” some threatening to “expose” her.

Even though whoever was texting her referred to the managers and other details only someone at Savors would know, no number matched. Likely, whoever was texting her used cheap and readily available call spoofing apps, ways to change your caller ID. When I tried calling the numbers they all were disconnected except for an unsuspecting man in Los Angeles who had never been to Denver.

What she thought was just a coworker prodding her from a new number turned into an onslaught of sexual harassment. Repeated, unwanted messages continued, raising harassment to full on cyberstalking, according to Colorado law.

One text—this time from an Atlanta area code—messaged her late one night:

“That is ok u can ignore my calls I will find u.”

For someone who knew where she worked, when her shifts would be and who she had hooked up with, finding Renee would not be too hard.

“It’s that perceived anonymity—they feel no one will be able to catch them,” said Jayne Hitchcock about cyberstalkers. Hitchcock is the founder of Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), an anti-cyberstalking organization.

Hitchcock was stalked herself in the mid-‘90s. At the time, cyberstalking was still a relatively new form of an old crime. The problem has only gotten worse as the internet has connected more people. Hitchcock says that many of the cases WHOA handles start with texts or emails, then grow to much more invasive harassment.

The threat to “find” Renee was more easily fulfilled online. In late June, a twitter account @urawhoreUSA started a self-declared crusade of “letting the world know who is a whore,” according to the account’s bio. Its main target: Renee.

“We sent you a box of condoms and pregnancy test should be arriving soon,” read one tweet.

Renee’s friends fought back against the account, having it taken down within a few days. Like a weed not yanked from its root, a new account popped up in its place. The new one sent threats to kill himself if Renee’s friends didn’t get her to call him, according to several friends that were direct messaged by the account. “I can’t wait until you end up pregnant with some dude’s baby because of? how much of a whore you are,” A new account said in a direct message to Renee when she didn’t call.

In July, Renee didn’t talk to anyone online. Fine-tuning her Spanish outside of cell range in southern Mexico, she disconnected from texting and her online life. It was a welcome reprieve from the escalating harassment building over the past month.

Out of cell service, she picked up a new language and a new lover, sparking a romance in the balmy, Mexican summer with the son of her homestay family.

A mirror hangs on Renee’s bedroom wall, ringed by photos and handwritten notes, some from friends and some from family. They remind her of her first year at university in Texas, her relatives, her friends from high school. Years filled with happy memories, but tinged by the annoyances of her first stalker, from before the texts began.

For five years, when Renee’s phone rang she answered anxiously, waiting to hear if she would be greeted by the sound of someone masturbating. The slap slap slap would be paired with the same deep, gravelly voice detailing what he was doing to himself and what he wanted to do to her.

They started back in Austin when she was 15 years old. At first they were just weird, sometimes even funny. When Renee got a call while hanging with her friends, they held back giggles as they huddled around her phone trading turns cursing him out.

The calls’ frequency came in (presumably) libido-linked waves. Her phone would blow up with dozens of calls a day, followed by weeks, sometimes months, of silence.

Eventually it all just felt normal. To Renee the harassing calls seemed just like an unwanted buy-one-get-one-free deal of being a woman and the faceless harassment inherent to the connectivity she had through her phone.

Cyberstalking is a vastly under-reported crime, according to law enforcement officials. Even less reported is the legal, but still inappropriate contact amplified by connectivity.

The calls followed Renee after she left high school, after she left her first university in Texas to move to Denver and after she molted back into a college girl in a college town, this time at the University of Colorado Boulder in the spring of 2017.

When she lived on campus, CUPD’s only advice was the same thing everyone else had told her: just change your number.

Law enforcement is often understaffed and under-resourced to tackle the wide reach cyberstalkers have. Boulder Police Department has two full time detectives in charge of handling cybercrimes, but that is not enough, said Boulder Police and Fire Department spokesperson Shannon Aulabaugh.

“Cyber crimes and specifically cyberstalking cases are particularly time intensive,” Aluabaugh said.

Renee’s first stalker, who she presumed was a jilted acquaintance from high school, finally stopped in the spring of 2017, just weeks before her second stalker started messaging Renee.

Now, reverberating off her memories and the wall they are tacked to, every night are the words of love-laced Spanish. Her affair in Mexico had stretched into an international, long distance relationship.

The borders of real life and online had thinned to where she couldn’t separate her relationships from it, good or bad. The device that gave her such easy access to the world, also gave easy access for the world to her, making checking it a crapshoot for finding a love note or a death threat.

More people told her to just change her number. One friend put her foot down, saying she would not listen to Renee talk about her stalker anymore until she did.

Renee easily could have transferred her contacts and posted her new number to Facebook. But advertising her new number — or even texting friends at Savors from it — posed the risk of tipping off the elusively close stalker. There was little technical escape from the man who loomed in the background of her offline life and hid behind the anonymity of her online one.

Despite the predicament, Renee often would brush off the severity of the stalking. Ironically, the same easy going attitude she felt attracted so many creepy men helped her cope with their invasive behavior once they latched themselves into her life.

She also felt like her number was a part of her. The first three numbers cemented her to her former home of Austin, the last 6 digits numbers burned into her memory from rattling them off almost in song.

Spyware has become more and more common in domestic abuse and cyberstalking cases. Renee had no reason to believe her phone was bugged, (despite a few strangely timed texts like when she had just finished telling her parents about the stalking and was warned “you are about to regret everything you just did.”) Still, changing a phone number doesn’t guarantee to stop a stalker.

“I just want to know who was doing this,” she said to me later.

It had to be someone who worked with her; no one else knew about all the details referenced in the messages. SheHer and I would review screenshots of the messages in the evenings to try and piece together who had done it.

They painted a bleak portrait of a man desperate for love and redemption. To him, Renee was just some “whore” that had “played him,” (a phrase he regularly used)..) Renee’s stalker’s desires for affections did not always bubble up in venom-spitting rage. After she got back from Mexico, he sprinkled a more tempered side between the threats.

“I just need to be loved,” read one message.

“I am really sorry for being such a jerk,” read another.

Caught off-guard by the newfound niceties, Renee even felt bad for him at times.

“I think he was switching it up to get attention from me,” Renee said in retrospect. Other texts tried to explain his behavior. “I thought you were interested in me for a while until you hooked up with [other] people at Savors,” the stalker said.

He, wanted her full attention, he wanted to meet in person.

Renee texted him back, “yes let’s talk about this,” adding, “nothing is going to get solved until you tell me who this is I hope you understand that?”

Renee agreed to meet face-to-face later that ??. Meeting cyberstalkers in -person can be dangerous, but the urge to know who was behind the screen was overpowering. It was a draw that I felt too, one that eventually led me to my own encounter with the would-be stalker months later.

Renee’s rendezvous hit a snag. Down for the count with a cold, she couldn’t venture out that night.

“Oh sorry to hear that,” the stalker said, offering to call her instead. She again pressed for his identity.

“It really doesn’t matter who I am forget it,” the stalker said before launching into another tirade. Back and forth they went, him accusing her of “playing with my emotions” and hershe defending herself against the still nameless coworker.

The stalker ended the conversation with “fFuck it, I am done.”

Reviewing the messages months later, we spotted another clue. The stalker mentioned another one of Renee’s flings in their exchange. “What about Dan, remember that?” he said. Dan had only worked at the restaurant for a brief period of time during Renee’s early months there. The people the stalker referenced were our strongest assets. Dan’s dates of employment drew the circle of who it could be even smaller.

Between apologies and scathing insults, the stalker started spoofing other numbers, including Renee’s own number, to not only harass her, but her friends too.

In the fall, one of her friends started getting dozens of calls a day from Renee. Late in the night her friend would text her back asking if she was OK, figuring the relentless buzzing of his phone translated to a distress call. But Renee had never called him. Her stalker was calling, branching out to spoof Renee’s number and calling her friends. Her friend’s number was public and had tweeted at the stalker’s accounts back in July.

Renee was stuck. Stuck not being able to trust her messages, or her friends being able to trust hers. Stuck not being able to change her number, as it likely would not solve much. And stuck between a relationship she needed her phone to maintain, and one that allowed for her stalking to continue.

While both of Renee’s stalkers knew her, many online cyberstalkers target strangers. Some strike from as far as halfway around the world, exploiting lax cybercrime laws and rapidly growing connectivity.

“Many times, people who are doing this to someone are able to reach to the victim from anywhere in the world,” said CUPD spokesperson Scott Pribble.

In contrast to in-person stalking where 75 percent of stalkers know their victims, online, “half are complete strangers to the victims,” Hitchcock said. Other differences are an increased number of men that are stalked, making up roughly half the number of online victims in recent years.

But since Renee’s stalkers knew her, we had an idea of who they were. The first one, an ex-high school acquaintance. The second, a coworker. A coworker we had narrowed down to three possibilities, and one main suspect.

My windshield wipers struggled to brush away the sleet flirting between rain and thick, wet snowflakes. Spurred by a mix of adrenaline and obsession I had shed my late-night studying clothes for a brightly patterned button down and dark blue jeans before speeding down Highway 36 to Denver.

Resting on a library desk my phone had buzzed awake, cutting through the fluorescentflorescent-hued silence. The text showed an address in residential Denver and instructions to come ready to party.

Denver’s cityscape rose over the horizon wrapped in a plasticky haze as I plotted my undercover identity. Disclosing myself as a reporter would jeopardizing my sources, risking retaliation to Renee. I would boost my ex-restaurant industry credentials, omitting that I was a reporter, and try to see if I could get someone to slip “Renee’s” name into a conversation and watch his reaction.

The single-story house was identical to the rest except for the thin haze of cigarette and cannabis smoke seeping into the cold night. The wintery mix spitting from the sky had chunked into waves of black ice on the roads, making it nearly impossible to stay upright on the walk to the door. Once inside, I had the opposite problem. My shoes clung firmly to the worn-wood floor, glued to a thick layer of soda, beer and sugary liquor.

The man I was looking for perched himself against the piss-yellow tiled kitchen countertop, grabbing at any girl’s attention he could. Balancing a beer or shot glass in one hand, his free fingers looping through their (usually blonde) hair. He held them close with awkward jokes and a firm grip. Some even got a back rub. I asked a newly minted friend to bring Renee’s name up in a conversation about past restaurant coworkers.

He slammed his drink on the counter.

“Don’t say that fucking name in this house,” he snapped back.

I prodded, trying not to sound like a total NARC. Why? What’s up with Renee?

His lips squirmed to shape his next words, his jovial attitude soured by the questions.

“I’ll tell you about [Renee]…” he said, pulling away from his latest back-rub victim and leaning into my ear.

Before he could spit anything out, a smoke alarm cut through the hazye air.

At first, I didn’t believe it. Really? Just as I was about to hear something that might put me one step closer to figuring out who had stalked Renee for five months, and a smoke alarm goes off?

He whipped around and scuttled through the mob that had quickly formed to try and pull the alarm from the wall. The minutes slowly passed in rhythmic shrieks as person after person tried and failed to remove the over-sized Alka-Seltzer looking alarm.

I caught up to the stalker on the porch. He rocked slowly back and forth with his hands tucked in his sweatshirt’s marsupial pocket, stumbling through his sentences. He sensed my urgency, my questions had gotten to forceful and he too drunk to answer. “You good, bro?” he asked, refusing to talk anymore.

Every road had led to a dead end, no proof was definitive. At best, all I had gathered in the winter of reporting was circumstantial testimonies from coworkers that “he seemed like the type of guy to do it.” He knew what the stalker knew, but that still didn’t prove it. Apparently, cyberstalking someone was not a popular thing to brag about, or easy to corroborate. Months after my failed undercover attempt, I messaged him on Facebook with everything I knew and thought he might have done, this time disclosing myself as a journalist. He claimed to not have any clue as to what I was talking about.

Renee’s inbox has filtered into less of a toxic mess of anonymous messages. It was back to more of the usual: reminders from her mom, messages from her boyfriend, and requests for naked photos from creepy former friends.

Eventually, trying to find the stalker seemed irrelevant. The texts had stopped, she wanted to move on and no one else was going to talk.

“He has all the power in this situation, and will continue to have all the power in this situation,” Renee said. “Nobody knows who this mystery kid is…he still has all the power and nobody will be able to take that away.”

Renee didn’t share her story with me just to find out who her stalker was. She spoke to share a story of the everyday harassment amplified by online connectivity, one that won’t be stopped by exposing one stalker.

“Fuck Harvey Weinstein, but [he] is only like a super small population of the entire thing that is happening, and been happening forever,” Renee said, referring to the famous Hollywood producer who for years sexually harassed and attacked women. Media coverage of his behavior sparked the #MmeTtoo movement.

Her first stalker was menacing but predictable, always the same horny boy calling for the same horny reasons. Her new stalker was only predictable in how menacing he was. Her prediction for the future is that some other guy will send her harassing messages. (Since towards the end of reporting this story, one of her old friends from Austin asked for naked photos of her.)

The fact is, unlike a lot of #MmeTtoo stories, this one has no ending. There is no culprit to put their head of a silver platter to be fed to the Twitter-verse. Renee’s stalker won’t lose his job, he won’t lose his power. There is no satisfaction of a politician stepping down to “spend more time with their family.” It ends with a woman, her phone and the harassment embedded to the existence of each.

The complex irony of her story is she both hated and needed her phone. It’s too easy to just say she should have changed her number, or that we should spend less time on our phones. It was the only line she had to stay connected with her friends, family and boyfriend. But the good of her phone, the access to connectivity couldn’t be decoupled from the access to evil.

Harassment has simmered in the embers of humanity and phones just doused it with gasoline.