The first time the police arrived on her doorstep, in March of 2015, Courtney Allen was elated.
She rushed to the door alongside her dogs, a pair of eager Norwegian elkhounds, to greet them. “Is this about our case?” she asked. The police looked at her in confusion. They didn’t know what case she was talking about. Courtney felt her hope give way to a familiar dread.
Three days earlier, Courtney and her husband, Steven, had gone to the police headquarters in Kent, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, and reported that, for the past few months, they had been the victims of a campaign of online harassment. They had found a fake Facebook page under Steven’s name with a profile picture of Courtney, naked. Emails rained down in their inboxes; some called Courtney a cunt, whore, and bitch, and one they felt was a death threat. Her coworkers received emails with videos and screenshots of Courtney, naked and masturbating. The messages came from a wide range of addresses, and some appeared to be from Steven.
There were phone calls too. One to Steven’s grandmother warned that her house might burn down, with her in it, if she didn’t stay out of the Allens’ lives. There were so many calls to the dental office where Courtney worked that the receptionists started to keep a log: “Called and said, ‘Put that dumb cunt Courtney on the phone,’ ” one of them wrote in neat, bubbly handwriting. “I said, ‘She is not here at the moment, may I take a message?’ ” At one point Courtney created a Google Voice number to ask, “If I talk to you, will you leave me alone?” Instead, dozens of voicemails poured in: “Do you think I’m ever going away?” one said. “Now that my private investigator went and got all the tax information? There’s no job either one of you guys can have that I won’t know about and be there.”
The Kent police officer who took the Allens’ statement seemed unsure of what to make of their story. Courtney and Steven told him who they believed was behind the harassment: a man in Arizona named Todd Zonis with whom Courtney had an online relationship that she had recently broken off. She says she told the officers that she had sent Zonis the videos of herself while they were still involved and that he had sent ones of himself to her, but that she had deleted their exchange. In a report, the officer noted that, while Courtney and Steven insisted that his role was obvious, Zonis’ name barely appeared in the folder full of printouts and CDs that they had with them. The officer assigned them a case number and advised them not to have any more contact with Zonis.
Now, three days later, the two officers on Courtney’s doorstep explained why they had come: An anonymous tipster, who claimed to work with Steven, had left a report on the Crime Stoppers website. It said that Steven “had been telling everyone for months that his wife was leaving him but he had a plan to beat her into staying.” The tipster added that he had noticed “a lot of bruises.” When prompted for more information on the suspect, the informant wrote that the Allens had a “large gun collection” and two big dogs. (One detective later noted that some of the reports seemed designed to trigger “a large/violent police response.”)
The police left after interviewing Courtney, but three days later, two detectives knocked on the Allens’ door in the early afternoon. Courtney wondered, more cautiously this time, if she would now get a response to her complaint. But no—the detectives were investigating another anonymous tip. This one was about an alleged incident at a park involving Steven and the Allens’ 4-year-old: “His son screamed and he smacked him repeatedly on the back, butt, legs, and head, but not the face,” the tipster wrote. “He then berated his wife, calling her ‘whore’ and worse … She covers for him when the abuse is to her, but abuse to the child I don’t know what will happen.”
In her report of the visit, detective Angie Galetti wrote that the Allens’ son “came downstairs and appeared to be happy and healthy.” She described how Courtney had to coax her nervous son into showing his skin to the detectives: “There was no suspicious bruising or marks of any kind,” she wrote. He “appeared appropriately attached to his mother and Detective Lorette and I had no concerns.”
But Courtney’s concerns were mounting. The day before, she had gotten an email to an account she only used for spam. “How did you even GET this email address?” Courtney wrote back. “Leave me and my family alone!” A reply came accusing Steven of also using unsavory cybertactics to find out about Courtney’s online behavior, but added: “I am MUCH better at it. For example. Your Jetta, in the driveway”—and yes, that’s where it was. The message included the car’s vehicle identification number. Courtney had started having nightmares; just going outside made her afraid. She felt violated by the images of her that were circulating who knew where, and anxious about what might come next.
And now this. It was “one of the worst moments of my life,” she said later, hoping that help was coming but instead “having to lift up my son’s shirt and show them my son’s body to make sure he had no bruises.” When the detectives asked for her phone number, she realized she didn’t remember it—she had just changed it in an attempt to evade the endless calls. She found herself sobbing in front of the detectives. The harassment was so creative, so relentless, so unpredictable. Around the same time, at least 15 of her neighbors received a “community alert” in the mail warning them that they were living near a dangerous abuser, Steven Allen. It was postmarked from Arizona.
But the most frustrating thing was how hard it all was to explain or prove. Courtney was beginning to feel trapped in a world of anonymous abuse. She didn’t know if she would be able to convince anyone that what she believed to be happening was real.
It began, as relationships often do these days, online. From the start it was a strange and tangled story of exposure and distrust in the internet era.