by Rebecca Watson
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October 10, 2013
As a woman who has opinions online, I get rape and death threats on a fairly regular basis, mixed in amongst the barrage of gendered slurs and comments about how fat I am. For the most part, the “threats” are obviously empty attempts to scare me into being silent – just another aspect of the usual bullying. Every now and again, though, there’s a threat that sounds just a bit more legitimate.
The first one came back in 2005 when I lived in Boston and had just launched Skepchick. I was able to write up a short article about the project for an issue of eSkeptic, Michael Shermer’s free email newsletter. Within a day of that eSkeptic hitting in-boxes, I received a brief email from a man calling me a cunt. I responded with a chipper “Thanks for taking the time to write!” He responded with, “If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain.”
That escalated quickly.
I checked his IP address and found he was most likely writing from North Carolina. I called the Boston police and described the exchange. They told me there wasn’t much they could do because he apparently lived in another state. They offered to take down a report, but admitted that nothing would come of it unless someone one day put a bullet in my brain, at which point they’d have a pretty good lead.
At the time, I assumed my local police department was the exception, but as the years passed I learned that they’re actually the rule. I’ve lived in several different cities since then and received several frightening threats, and never have I met a single helpful cop who even made an attempt to help me feel safe.
The last one I reported was last year. A Skepchick reader happened across the website of a man who had written disturbing things about murdering women in general and me in particular, including photos of me with targets on them. The reader alerted the other Skepchicks, who compiled as much information as they could on the person, including his real name, age, and location (about a 3-hour drive from me). Let’s call him “Rick.”
Because I knew what town “Rick” lived in, I called his local police department. They told me there was nothing they could do and that I’d have to make a report with my local police department. So I called my local police department and the operator transferred me to a detective, but I got a busy signal. I called back and the operator sent me to another line, which rang and rang for ten minutes before I hung up. I called back and finally got through to someone who told me that there was nothing they could do but take a report in case one day “Rick” followed through on his threats, at which point they’d have a pretty good lead.
My fellow Skepchick contributors and other friends suggested that because he lived in a different state, the FBI might be able to help. So, I called my local FBI office.
My first experience dealing with the FBI was wonderful. The first person I spoke to was horrified by what I described to her, and she immediately forwarded my call to an agent. I gave the agent all the information I had, and he was also very understanding and professional. He told me he’d assign two agents to the case who specialize in this sort of thing, and they’d be in touch with me soon.
Within the day, an agent called me and got all the details. After I described everything on “Rick’s” website, the agent agreed that the threat was credible and told me that it sounded as though his threats would definitely fall under the category of a hate crime (since he was targeting me for my gender), which would make it rather easy to prosecute. She asked that I send along all the screenshots and information I had gathered.
I emailed her the information as soon as I got off the phone with her, and felt much better having spoken to her. The other Skepchick contributors and I celebrated that our own Scully was on the case.
Days went by with no word from her. I emailed her again to be sure she received everything. She said she was traveling and that she’d get back to me asap.
Weeks went by and I emailed her again, apologizing for bothering her but wondering if anything was happening. She replied to say that I definitely was not bothering her, and that she’d be getting to this soon.
A few more weeks later, I emailed her to tell her that in a month I would be giving a public talk just an hour from where “Rick” lived and that I wasn’t sure what to do. She told me, “You take whatever precautions you need to take.” She also asked me to resend the screenshots, which I did. She replied saying her computer wouldn’t open the .zip file I sent but asked if the screenshots were the same as the links I had sent her. I replied to say that yes, the screenshots were all the same as what the links showed, since “Rick” hadn’t edited or taken down anything he had posted.
That was September of last year. I never heard from her again.
A good friend of mine heard this story at the time it was happening and wanted to help me, so he hired an armed guard to attend my talk and a private detective to look into “Rick’s” background.
Around this time, I started receiving hundreds of harassing Tweets and Facebook messages from a pseudonym using an IP address that came from “Rick’s” home town.
The detective worked quickly and efficiently. He almost immediately found that “Rick” had previously been arrested for domestic violence. He also found that “Rick” was responsible for vandalizing my Wikipedia page, and had a long history of making enemies online in forums and elsewhere.
The private detective called me to talk over my options. He pointed out that there’s a chance that “Rick” is just a pathetic troll who lives with his parents and will never actually do anything besides rage on the Internet. There’s also a chance he would follow through on his threats, and there’s absolutely no way to know for sure one way or another until it happens. He told me that if I wanted, I could get a restraining order, but this would have consequences. The restraining order would be delivered to “Rick” along with the information that I’m the one who ordered it. He told me that sometimes, this is enough to encourage people like “Rick” to escalate to violence. He pointed out that a restraining order is not a magical spell that would stop him from getting near me – its only purpose is to make it easier for the police to prosecute him if he does get near me, at which point he’ll have already done what he’s going to do.
The detective also told me that I should reconsider publicizing anything about “Rick” because that, too, could “escalate” the situation to one that would be very dangerous to me. That’s why “Rick” is not the man’s real name and I haven’t linked to his threats. I don’t know if “Rick” is still obsessed with me, but if he is, then he probably has read this and recognized himself, anyway, so I’m actually very hesitant to even publish this.
I am going to publish it, though, because I’m tired of people asking me why I don’t go to the cops when I get a threat like this one that came in the other day via Twitter: