How They Caught Their Stalker
An elusive hacker humiliated a group of high-school girls. Then they helped the police set a digital trap
Belmont, New Hampshire (population 7,200) is an old mill town in the north-eastern United States sur-rounded by lakes and forests. A hardware store and a hair salon are about all Main Street has to offer. At the local police department, a donation box is stuffed with change and dollar bills to support Vito, the department’s dog. “We don’t have a lot of people who are rolling in the dough,” says Raechel Moulton.
For years, Moulton, 42, was the town’s only detective. She grew up about 32 km away, in Concord. A bold kid, she would stride up to uniformed police officers to ask them about the things on their belts. When she was in fifth grade, an officer came to her school to run a drug-aware-ness course. That’s when she decided she was going to be a cop.
In high school, Moulton enrolled in a law-and-policing course, during which she was assigned to ride along in a patrol car with a male officer. He told her that women shouldn’t become cops. That cemented her ambition. In 2005, she was hired onto the Belmont police force. “This job picks you,” she said, sitting straight-spined in the police department, her brown hair pulled back in a tight bun.
Crime in Belmont tends toward opioids, thefts and burglaries. But before long, Moulton was fielding complaints from parents and staff at Belmont High School about teens sending nude photos, often to people they were dating. Channeling the officer who inspired her as a fifth grader, Moulton offered workshops at the high school about safe online behaviour. She warned students that a nude photo might get sent around to unintended viewers or uploaded online. The results weren’t all she hoped for. “One girl told me, ‘What I got from your class is, as long as my head isn’t in the picture, it’s OK,’ ” Moulton says.
In the spring of 2012, after Moulton had been promoted to detective, a student walked into the police station and said that someone she hadn’t met and knew only as Seth Williams had been texting and hounding her for naked photos. When she wouldn’t send any, he broke into her cell phone account—she wasn’t sure how—and found some nude photos. Then he copied and sent them to her friends. Hoping it would make Seth stop pestering her, the girl gave in and sent him an explicit photo. But he didn’t stop.
A few weeks later, another Belmont High girl showed up at the station. A guy was harassing her too. Then more girls came in. Some were ashamed, some were in tears, and some were ac-companied by furious parents. Moulton had an epidemic on her hands.
IN 2011, MAY was a 16-year-old student at Belmont High when her family moved to a nearby town and she enrolled in a new school. “I wasn’t that popular, I guess you could say,” May said.
So when she got a Facebook friend request from someone named Seth Williams, whose profile photo was cute, she accepted it. They exchanged numbers, and he began texting. He said nice things and seemed to want to get to know her. He’d ask about her favourite ice cream flavour and her pets.
When he asked for photos of her body, she hesitated. “I still was like, no guy shows me this attention,” she said. “He actually seems like a nice guy. Maybe it’ll be OK.” May sent him a photo she thought was fun, of her rear in jeans, plastered with handprints from her freshly painted room.
He wanted more. She sent him a picture with her in underwear, then one of her bare bottom. When he demanded a full nude, she told him, “No. That’s where I draw the line.”
“No picture, no Facebook,” he replied. When May tried logging in to her accounts, she couldn’t access them: He’d hacked her Facebook account and her email and changed the passwords. She begged him to return the accounts; he refused. She blocked him on her phone; he texted from a different number. She changed her number; he still found her. “He always came back,” she said. “Always.” One night in the autumn of 2012, a text pinged on her phone. It was Seth, again demanding photos. This time, the text included nude photos of other girls. May recognized a friend from her Belmont days. She called the friend, who urged her to talk to her mother and go to Detective Moulton in Belmont.
“I remember taking in a deep breath and going up the stairs. I sat on my mom’s bed, and I said, ‘Mom, I have something that I need to tell you, and I don’t know how,’ ” May says. The next day, May and her mother went to the Belmont police station.
May met with Moulton, who was spending more and more time on the mystery. Seth had sent nude photos to other girls, too, and with their help, Moulton was able to track down a dozen or so victims and see a commonality: They all had, at some point, attended Belmont High. She knew some of the girls were really suffering. One began sleeping in the same bed as her mother. Several feared Seth would attack them. One girl cried herself to sleep. Another routinely called her mom at work, sobbing, terrified about being alone. They battled depression, anxiety, nausea.
Moulton talked to New Hampshire’s computer- crimes unit and was told that there weren’t any known perpetrators who followed Seth’s script. She took over one girl’s phone to try to elicit in-formation from Seth, suggesting they meet up at a teen hangout nicknamed the Arches. He didn’t seem to recognize the name, and she wondered whether he was a local.
In response to a subpoena, the messaging service TextFree sent information that identified Seth’s phone. With that, Moulton was able to subpoena the phone’s registration and billing in-formation. The results pointed to Ryan Vallee, a 19-year-old graduate of Bel-mont High, class of 2012.
Moulton needed more evidence to know it was Vallee for sure. But she told a few of the girls that he was a suspect, hoping it might ease their fears. “They really had a sense of this big, huge, brute of a person,” Moulton said. “When they found out who it was, some of them were like, ‘Really?’
”If they could place him at all, classmates remembered Vallee as quiet and awkward. One girl had sat with him at lunch occasionally. She’d even told him about her online stalker. Vallee offered his help to unmask ‘Seth’. May knew Vallee from the school bus and had made a point of being friendly towards him. What did I do for him to feel that I deserved this? she wondered.
As Moulton tried to gather more information, she was staring down another problem. Even if she could find the proof to arrest Vallee, the most she could charge him with was harassment, a misdemeanour carrying a sentence of less than a year. “For a couple of those girls, it became their lives for a year and a half,” she says. “I didn’t think the laws of this state were enough for that kind of fear.” So Moulton reached out to federal authorities.
In October 2013, the feds learnt that one of the victims was close to suicide and charged Vallee with extortion. But under a tight time frame, they dismissed the case, opting instead to gather more evidence with the goal of arresting him again on stronger charges.
Five months after they took over the case, a new expert came on board: Mona Sedky, a lawyer in the Department of Justice who specialized in computer crimes and corporate hack-ing. A few years earlier, she had been enlisted to help with a case against a man who had threatened to spread naked images of a young mother online. The man pleaded guilty, but soon after his sentencing, the victim killed herself. Then Sedky learnt that someone in her own extended family had experienced something similar at age 14. “I can’t unring that bell for her, but I can help make sure that other women don’t have that happen to them,” she says.
Since then, Sedky has worked on about a dozen ‘sextortion’ cases. While sextortion isn’t a federal crime, prosecutors can charge people with computer fraud and abuse. Most states outlaw non-consensual sharing of sexual images, but generally these carry far lighter sentences than the federal laws Sedky relies on.
Matthew O’Neill, a Secret Service agent in New Hampshire, reached out to Sedky for help with the Vallee case. (The Secret Service investigates computer crimes and identity theft.) Sedky jumped in, issuing subpoenas to Amazon, Skype, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and others. She unearthed the trail all Internet users leave: log-in IP addresses, time and date stamps and registration information. Investigators then went back further, to the Internet providers, to find subscriber and location information.
With these details in hand, O’Neill and other agents mapped the locations where Seth had logged in. They all had some plausible link to Vallee: a restaurant near his mother’s house, an air-conditioning business belonging to his mother’s ex-boyfriend. A random per-son’s Wi-Fi in New Hampshire, turned out to belong to his sister’s neighbour. These were crucial bits of circumstantial evidence, and investigators needed as many of them as possible.
“In these cyber cases, you have to defeat the SODDI defence,” O’Neill says—that is, ‘Some other dude did it’. By studying the exchanges, O’Neill cracked one way that Seth accessed his victims’ accounts. When Seth was making friendly chatter with the girls—such as asking May her favourite ice cream flavour and the names of her pets—he was really collecting clues that he then used to answer the security questions on their accounts.
Finally, in 2016, federal prosecutors had enough evidence to charge Vallee with interstate threats, aggravated identity theft and computer fraud and abuse. The indictment listed 10 unnamed victims—the women who had been persuaded to come forward.
Vallee was released on bail and ordered not to use the Internet. Though the evidence was strong, Sedky was worried; she knew from experience that putting vulnerable victims on the witness stand in court could be enormously distressing, “so there were incentives for us to try to get him to plead guilty to avoid a trial.” But Vallee was adamant that it wasn’t him—that some other dude did it.
AFTER GRADUATING from Belmont High in 2011, Mackenzie moved to North Carolina. Her mother had banned her from social media in high school, so she “went a little crazy,” she says. When Seth contacted her, she responded. But then Seth took over several of her accounts and demanded a photo of her breasts.
“I won’t send one. I’ll fight back,” Mackenzie wrote him.
Mackenzie, who says she was a victim of abuse when she was younger, was determined not to cower. She printed out her exchanges with Seth and took them to the police in her town. “The policewoman told me, ‘Honestly, we don’t really have the technology to be able to deal with something like this, and there’s a very low probability that anything will come from this,’ ” Mackenzie says.
“This job picks you,” says Detective Raechel Moulton, who decided in primary school to become a police officer.
A year later, in 2013, Seth started using a Belmont girl’s hacked Facebook page to harass Mackenzie further. Mackenzie messaged the girl, who told her about Detective Moulton. Mackenzie passed along dates and screenshots, adding to the thick case file.
When the trial team called Mackenzie, she told them that Seth had stopped bothering her for a bit but that in recent months he’d contacted her again, using the same hacked Facebook page of the Belmont girl, identified in court papers as M.M.
This information was critical: It meant Vallee was back online, breaking the terms of his bail. If agents could catch him with whatever device he was using, they would have his browsing and messaging history. With evidence that strong, they could circumvent Vallee’s ‘some other dude’ defence.
The government got an order that required Facebook to deliver daily reports of IP addresses and login times for the M.M. Facebook page. Meanwhile, Secret Service agent O’Neill took over Mackenzie’s Facebook account. Copying the instant-messaging patois he’d learnt from his teenage daughters, O’Neill posed as Mackenzie on Facebook Messenger. He alternately flirted, challenged and acted mad at ‘Seth’, who, the Facebook reports showed, accessed the app with a cell phone. The investigators were determined to get it.
On a windy March morning, Secret Service agents in black SUVs pulled up outside Vallee’s mother’s house and his sister’s apartment. They figured Vallee was staying at one of them. O’Neill, acting as Mackenzie, once again used Facebook Messenger to connect with the hacker of M.M.’s Facebook page.
Just after O’Neill signed off, Vallee left his sister’s apartment. Secret Service agents followed. When he stopped at a traffic light, the officers jumped out of their SUVs, guns raised. Vallee took off, weaving through traffic. The Secret Service and local police tailed him until he hit a dead end. As he got out of the car, a police officer yelled at him to get on the ground. In the car was a backpack. Inside the backpack was a phone.
Five months later, Vallee pleaded guilty to 31 counts, including aggravated identity theft, computer hacking and cyberstalking.
Mackenzie was determined not to cower. “I’ll fight back,” she wrote to her harasser.
ON 6 FEBRUARY 2017, Ryan Vallee sat in the Concord federal courthouse for sentencing. Sedky told the judge about the emotional devastation Vallee had wrought. She called his acts a “remote sexual assault” and argued that Vallee should go to prison for eight years—the higher end of federal sentencing guidelines.
Investigators had identified 23 victims and suspected there were even more. Most declined to speak at the hearing. “I can only guess they were just as ashamed as I was,” May says. But she decided to attend, as did Mackenzie and a third victim. Sitting behind Vallee in the courtroom, Mackenzie studied him. He was wearing glasses, his eyes cast down. He looked, she says, “quirky and small, and someone who I probably wouldn’t have been as afraid of if I had actually known who he was.” But when she got up to make her statement, she tried to avoid looking his way. It wasn’t Ryan Vallee she’d feared, she told the judge, trying not to cry, but Seth, who was “everywhere, all the time.”
Judge Paul Barbadoro asked Vallee whether he had anything to say. He shook his head and said, “No.” The judge sentenced Vallee to the eight years in prison that prosecutors had requested. “It should send a message to other people out there that you can’t do this,” Assistant US Attorney Arnie Huftalen said. “This is real crime. It really hurts people, and it creates injuries that will last for a lifetime.”
From WIRED (July/August 2019), Copyright © 2019 by Stephanie Clifford, WIRED.COM.