Gina Kaysen Fernandes: As a ghostwriter, Jody Ortiz preferred to keep a low profile, allowing others to bask in the limelight. The Oklahoma businesswoman ran a successful transcribing service out of her home and immersed herself in dozens of writing projects. Jody wasn't the type who surfed the Web in her free time, looking to pick fights. But all that changed after she stumbled upon a horrifying story of child abuse that turned her world upside down.
Jody's online blogging about the tragic death of a toddler unleashed a torrent of comments from trolling hatemongers who have relentlessly been stalking her online for years now. It's a terrifying experience that has changed her life. "I'm Catholic; I went to church," says Jody. "I never got involved in anything like that."
Due to her effort to expose the injustice surrounding what Jody believes was the wrongful conviction of that child's mother, Jody became the target of cyberstalkers. She spoke out and exposed information, causing an uproar among a tight-knit group of blogging bullies. While cyberbullying is more common with teenagers, outspoken moms are increasingly on the receiving end of online attacks. In Jody's case, the escalating harassment went beyond nasty e-mails. "I have bullet holes in my truck, my truck has been keyed and my home has been burglarized," Jody says.
Jody's nightmare began in April of 2007, after the senseless death of 2-year-old Kelsey Smith-Briggs set off a powder keg of emotions in Oklahoma City. The little girl's stepfather pleaded guilty to enabling child abuse and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The child's mother, Raye Dawn Smith, was about to go on trial for enabling child abuse and faced decades behind bars. No one was convicted of murder; however, Kelsey's mom had become a social pariah, convicted by the court of public opinion long before a court of law.
While the trial dominated the local news, Jody knew nothing about Kelsey's death until a former District Judge of Lincoln County hired her to ghostwrite his life story. Judge Craig Key had proceeded over Kelsey Smith-Briggs' custody case and had decided to place the toddler back in her mother's home. Four months later, Kelsey was dead and the intense media and public scrutiny of Key's ruling ultimately ended his judicial career.
Key wanted to write the book to respond to critics by including facts never revealed at trial. At first glance, the case seemed clear-cut. "I had judged [Smith and] I thought she was a terrible mom," says Jody. But as she began reading the documents, Jody's opinion about Raye Dawn Smith began to change. She visited Raye Dawn in prison, where the mom showed Jody the baby book she had made documenting every milestone of Kelsey's short life. "I could tell she really loved her daughter," says Jody. "I realized she was innocent."
Two days before the jury returned with a verdict, Jody went online and started a blog called "Seeking the Truth about Kelsey," aimed at "clearing up inaccuracies in the media reports," says Jody. Within hours, the site was flooded with traffic, forcing Jody to open a forum that could accommodate the thousands of posted comments. She had no idea that she had opened Pandora's box. "I was overwhelmed," says Jody. "I did the blog to correct things, but I didn't want to get involved."
The jury came back with a guilty verdict and handed Raye Dawn a 27-year prison sentence. Feeling outraged by what she viewed as an unfair trial and excessive punishment, Jody continued posting her thoughts anonymously online under the name "Truth Seeker." She also posted explosive evidence that had been suppressed at trial, which included e-mail correspondence between the stepfather and Kelsey's paternal grandmother.
Once members of Kelsey's paternal family got wind of Jody's website, their supporters began a relentless attack against Jody. At first, the cyberstalkers began with personal insults, like "Rot in hell, bitch"; "You're a piece of crap" and "You don't deserve to live." Within months, the trolls began spying on Jody's e-mail account and uncovered her personal information. They posted lies about Jody's work history in an effort to tarnish her credibility. They listed her home address, exposing that she worked from home. One person wrote, "Someone should pay her a visit."
The online call to action led to a burglary at Jody's home and bullet holes in her truck. "I was afraid to leave my daughter alone," says Jody. "I was just terrified." She called police and explained the situation. Instead of investigating the crimes, the police officer assigned to the case told Jody that he believed Raye Dawn Smith "knew what was going on," then basically told Jody she was on her own.
While the trolls demonized Jody for supporting Raye Dawn, she also became a symbolic leader for others who sympathized with the cause. "Trying to raise awareness has put her in a horrible place," says Emily from Pittsburgh, one of the many Raye Dawn supporters who heard about the controversial conviction on Facebook. Emily is a mother of three and a licensed professional counselor for children and families. After scouring the Internet for more information, she found Jody's postings and felt compelled to speak out on the issue. "I can't explain why; it just felt so wrong," says Emily, who has also suffered the consequences of voicing her opinion.
Immediately after becoming a "friend' of Raye Dawn's Facebook page, Emily began getting random friend requests. "Trolls were stalking me, trying to trap me into giving them information," she says. The cyberstalkers lashed out at Emily's postings with constant name-calling and threats such as, "You better watch out, little girl" ... I hope you don't have children." The taunts took their toll on Emily. "It wears you down," she says. "It makes you feel defeated and belittled."
There are some ways to fight back and minimize your risk of attracting cyberstalkers. "Less is best," says Alexis A. Moore, of the nonprofit group Survivors in Action. She warns that you should never provide your home address or private numbers when filling out online contact-information forms. If you're running a blog or an online business, install a free Web counter application that allows you to track information about the people who leave comments. An IP address is like a fingerprint that cyberstalkers leave behind; it identifies a person's location. "If someone is a threat, you can provide the IP address to law enforcement or an attorney to corroborate the stalking," says Moore.
Another line of defense is enrolling in a monitoring program like ReputationDefender.com, which can help with damage control. There are also victims' support groups (such as HaltAbuse.org) that offer additional tips, resources and information about cyberstalking.
The only real way to stop trolls from attacking is by disengaging. "You can't stop it from happening, but you can change how you feel about it," says momlogic cyber-expert Lori Getz. She offers this advice: "Don't put yourself out there if you don't want that attention." Getz, who runs her own cyber-education consulting business, frequently receives mean-spirited e-mails. The insults are aimed at trying to silence her from speaking out on cyberbullying and online predators. "I refuse to take it," she says. "I won't allow myself to be the victim."
The anonymity of the Internet can make people feel much bolder and act more brazen than they would face-to-face. "It's a mob mentality," says Getz, who believes that's why Jody's cyberstalkers went to the extreme. "They get other people riled up. They think everyone agrees with them, and that they're doing what's right for the community."
Unfortunately, there's little legal recourse for bad blogging behavior, unless someone crosses the line. If they threaten physical harm against you or your child, that's a crime. "You can't threaten people; it's illegal," says Getz, who advises that you reach out to police if it reaches that point. But cyber-crime is still considered new territory for police, judges and prosecutors. "Law enforcement is behind the eight ball, because cyberstalking evolved so quickly," says Moore.
With nowhere to turn, Jody Ortiz had no choice but to go underground. "I lost all my business, because I was so devastated by hate," she says. She was forced to move to another town and invest hundreds of dollars in spyware. The relentless stalking continues to this day. "I'm trying to get back to work, but they keep attacking me on the Internet," says Jody, who sought counseling to deal with the emotional turmoil. A therapist urged her to express her feelings through writing, which has helped. Jody has just finished writing a book she has self-published about her ordeal, entitled "The Naked Truth Bound in Scorn."
Jody is still struggling to get her life back and to rebuild her reputation. While she continues to publicly support Raye Dawn Smith and her appeal efforts, "I'm more cautious about what I say online," says Jody. Although standing up for her beliefs has caused significant hardships, Jody believes she's doing the right thing. "I'm just a country girl with a big heart," she says.