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The always-on stalker 

Two women are being relentlessly harassed and the justice system won’t help, even after Rehtaeh Parsons.

click to enlarge stalker_feature1.jpg

In the middle of the night on a quiet, residential street in Halifax, a 28-year-old man climbed the steps of a white house with a red door. In the apartment upstairs lived a 30-something woman he found on Craigslist a couple hours earlier. The ad said, "I need it."

He replied by email. He was "polite" with "little to no boundaries when it comes to sex." What was her kink?

"I dunno if you can handle my kink," read the email back. "It's a rape fantasy. I really want to leave my door unlocked and have a boy come upstairs, come quietly in my room. Grab my hands, tie me up.

"I will fight, I will squirm, I will try and cry out, but I must be dominated. In fact, take pics of me. Send them to me. My most vulnerable moments."

He emailed her to put a sock on the doorknob so he would know he had found the right woman. At 3am on July 23, 2010, an email arrived with her address and a description of where her second-floor bedroom was located.

An hour later, he stood in front of the red door. He tried the knob. Sure enough it was unlocked. But there was no sock, so something didn't feel right.

"I see no sock," he emailed from the stoop.

"I thought my roomies were still up," was the reply a few minutes later.

"No, no one is up. Put a sock on the front door knob if you are serious."

"If you're there, why didn't you just go in?"

"Because this could be fake and I think it is."

He was right. The woman upstairs, Nicole, didn't know a stranger stood outside her house contemplating whether to act on a rape fantasy she didn't have. The email address belonged to her ex-boyfriend. He had likely posted the ad, Nicole believes, and replied to the man. Nicole's ex knew her lock had been broken for a while.

Though she didn't know it back in 2010, the emails were the beginning of years of harassment and stalking directed at Nicole that began online and spilled over into her offline life. When she and her friend asked for help from police, the justice department and Capital Health's mental health services, they found wall after wall.

Many aspects of Nicole's situation bear a striking resemblance to the Rehtaeh Parsons case, which brought global attention to Nova Scotia more than a year ago, spurring social, political and legal change. In Nicole's case, however, those changes didn't help. Police shrugged off her concerns, treated the harassment as unsolvable in part because it involved the internet, and told her again and again there was nothing in the criminal code that applied to her case. Today, Nicole's ex-boyfriend, the cause of her anxiety, remains free online and off.

• • •

"I knew it was him"

Nicole makes herself comfortable on a small couch next to her best friend, Kim. A clock ticks loudly on the deep blue wall of Kim's living room and a cat wanders from lap to lap, demanding attention. Root beer floats and a small plate of brownies sit on the coffee table in front of the couch. The names of both women have been changed to protect their identities.

Nicole is tall with a quiet voice. Kim is petite with strong vocal cords. During our interview, Kim gives the floor to Nicole and makes supportive comments. Though both women are in their 30s, there are no touch screens at their fingertips. Neither of them uses social media. Now they avoid it.

Nicole tells her story in a matter-of-fact tone. She has repeated it many times before.

Her relationship with Adam, whose name has also been changed, began in 2002. They dated on and off for eight years. They were together long-distance, they travelled together and lived together. Eventually Adam, who is American, moved back to the US. Throughout their time together, they took nude photos and at least one video in the context of their private relationship. He wanted to post them online but she said no.

When she tried to leave him in 2006, the relationship became abusive. As is common in domestic abuse cases, at the time she didn't recognize the behaviour for what it was. She says Adam kicked her, pushed her and choked her, and once he threatened her with a knife.

After she broke it off in 2009, he came up from Florida and lived in his car outside her house. Police told him to leave. According to her case file, obtained by Nicole through freedom of information legislation, he assured them "all arguments were verbal and no contact was ever made during an argument." He said he wouldn't bother her anymore.

Nicole wanted to get a restraining order, but as she recalls her interaction with the police, they said it would have to go to his permanent residence in Florida, which discouraged her from going that route. Police declined to comment on this, since the matter is now under review.

They got back together but it didn't last. Nicole says the relationship officially ended in 2010. He returned to Florida. Online, however, Adam hadn't left her behind.

• • •

The first hint Nicole got that her privacy had been breached online was the phone ringing in the middle of the night. When they lived together in 2011, Nicole and Kim woke up several nights in a row to strangers calling their landline.

Nicole answered. The male callers sounded young. One guy made a sexual comment and asked if her name was Nicole. He said her number was posted on 4chan, the source of hundreds of recently hacked celebrity photos. The two women changed their number and the calls stopped.

Kim and Nicole returned to living in relative peace. Online, however, nude photos of Nicole she had only shared with one person, Adam, were posted on a revenge porn site. They would eventually spread to 4chan and 7chan, as well as to other revenge porn sites and even Facebook, Twitter and OkCupid.

In July 2011 an anonymous user posted photo after photo and links to explicit video of Nicole with her name attached. Beneath the images, the user claimed to have dated her and warned there were only a few photos of her left. The person asked forum users in Halifax to get more videos and nude photos of Nicole, promising to reciprocate somehow.

On the same thread a user shared semi-nude photos of Kim with her name, saying she was Nicole's roommate. Kim had modeled for a photographer who had uploaded the photos to a professional website with her consent. However her identity hadn't previously been attached to these photos.

It's not possible to tell from Adam's public internet presence whether he posted the photos. On Instagram, he shares photos of cats, dogs, live music and beer. He takes selfies. According to Facebook, when the "doge" meme went viral, he shared it along with the rest of us. He has a profile on Collarspace, which bills itself as the largest BDSM community on the planet. On his alt-country.org profile, he lists Pavement, Phish, Beck and Bob Dylan as music he likes.

But Nicole and Kim believe it was Adam, and that he is hiding behind anonymity. If the police were more proactive in investigating him, they might know for sure.

• • •

Unaware of the online activity, Nicole and Kim moved on with their lives. In late 2012, Nicole signed up for a dating site. A man messaged her about a rape fantasy. She wasn't into that, she told him. He wrote back that he thought he knew her already. He asked if she lived at a certain address on that quiet residential street in central Halifax.

It turned out this was the man who, two years earlier, had visited her home intending to attack her. Immediately she suspected her ex-boyfriend was involved. "Because of the way he acted out against me, physically and with other stuff, I knew it was him," she says.

The man from the dating site sent her the email correspondence he had with a person pretending to be Nicole and requesting a rape fantasy. She recognized Adam's email address. Reading the correspondence, she believes he tried to trick a stranger into raping her.

"Thankfully this guy didn't go through with that," she says. In January 2013, Nicole brought the emails to police.

According to two lawyers The Coast consulted, several laws in the Canadian Criminal Code pertain to Adam's alleged behaviour. Assault applies to domestic abuse, criminal harassment applies to stalking behaviour, identity fraud applies to anyone who impersonates someone else and it is also a crime to incite a person to commit sexual assault.

Nicole went to the Halifax police station on Gottingen Street and told her story to a young male officer. He didn't know whether coercing a person to commit rape was a crime. "He didn't really have any idea how to deal with that. He took my statement. It was one of those things he really didn't know what to say," Nicole recalls. Attempting to make conversation, he mentioned that his sister met his brother-in-law on a dating site.

After reviewing her case a few hours later, another officer made a note on her file: "It appears this file is a conspiracy to commit sexual assault." He changed the file type from "assist citizen" to "sexual assault," which sent it to the major crimes unit.

The young officer took two or three weeks to reply to Nicole because he went on vacation. In the meantime she contacted Avalon Sexual Assault Centre for advice. They suggested she contact Halifax police victim services.

On February 7, Nicole called victim services. According to her file, someone from the unit told her "the incident in question and stalking were both part of domestic violence" and advised her to collect as much evidence as possible for the investigating officer.

On March 1, the young male officer wrote in her file that he spoke with a crown attorney and "there is no criminal offense and no charges could be laid." March 2, police closed the file "as per the findings of the Crown." A final note on Nicole's file states: "Complainant was informed to change her email to stop contact with the accused."

"They were not going to get a charge, they were not going to pursue it," Nicole remembers. "So that was that."

• • •

"The age we live in"

The Rehtaeh Parsons case was the Nova Scotia justice system's painful awakening to internet-enabled harassment. In 2011, when she was 15, Parsons went to police to report that four boys had raped her at a party. One of the boys took a photo of the assault happening. When the image was shared, it quickly went viral and Parsons' peers tormented her. In April 2013, the 17-year-old attempted suicide. Her parents took her off life support three days later.

After her death, her parents shared the story of how they sought help from the RCMP, who had closed Parsons' case due to "insufficient evidence." Following global public outcry over the mishandling of her file, the RCMP reviewed the case, and in August 2013, Nova Scotia enacted so-called "cyberbullying" legislation—a civil law similar to defamation that allows victims to sue alleged bullies.

The CyberSCAN unit was also created in the wake of the case. The unit, overseen by the NS justice department, was designed to take internet-related complaints from the public. One of the unit's five investigators would look into each allegation and resolve the problem either informally or through the courts.

The justice department moved quickly to make CyberSCAN a reality. By the fall of 2013, it was up and running. The unit had been operating for six months when the harassment targeting Nicole and Kim escalated again.

• • •

In March 2014, an OkCupid admin emailed Nicole. "I think someone has a revenge porn profile of you," he told her.

As the admin explained it to Nicole, within a 12-hour period her ex-boyfriend Adam—or someone using Adam's name, location and credit card—had created a fake dating profile using Nicole's nude photos, and had corresponded with Halifax men while pretending to be her. He had also created profiles for Kim and another woman they didn't know.

OkCupid took down the profiles and banned him. Nicole and Kim took the new information to Avalon first this time since they believed police wouldn't be helpful, but Avalon said they would still need to file a complaint.

Nicole went to the police station. The receptionist asked her to sit in a quiet room with comfortable seating and a coffee table. An officer came in, sat down and mumbled his name. He said he normally wouldn't be interviewing her but they were between shifts. He leaned back in his seat, crossed his arms and rested his foot on the table.

"His body language said he was not interviewing me but interrogating me," Nicole says. "He was being a tough guy, basically, is what his body language told me."

She told him her story. His response was, "This is the age we live in with the internet, and police get threatened all the time via emails."

She reiterated that a man had almost raped her as a result of her ex-boyfriend's actions and the officer seemed to take her a little more seriously, however he made it clear she didn't have a case because there were no laws that could protect her.

"He's not going to stop," Nicole recalls telling him. "This is a domestic situation as well. I need help with this."

• • •

On advice from Avalon, Nicole asked for her file to be assigned to the Sexual Assault Investigation Team. The officer told her this was not SAIT's mandate and she had to call the CyberSCAN unit.

He wasn't the last officer to send her in CyberSCAN's direction. In April, Nicole spoke to another officer over the phone. He asked her questions but seemed to be in a rush. "He didn't seem to give a shit," she remembers.

She wanted Halifax police to contact law enforcement in Florida. The officer "told me there was nothing the police could do. I had to contact CyberSCAN. So that's exactly what I did."

As she tried to push her case forward, Nicole's photos spread online. One forum dedicated to nude photos of Halifax women, and Nicole in particular, was still active.

In May, one unidentified user said they hoped she consented to the nude photos. Another user replied she must have, because the photos exist. That doesn't mean she consented to having them published, someone else countered.

Later that month users complained there were no new photos of Nicole. One user said he knew her and she had a new hair colour. A flurry of activity followed the comment. Users wanted to know what her hair looked like.

The user who claimed to know Nicole said he respected her private life, and it wouldn't be appropriate to give out personal information. "I don't want her private information," someone replied, "I just want to know what her hair looks like now—a recent, non-nude photo would suffice."

• • •

"It's no longer a cyber issue"

In June 2014, an employee at a Halifax cafe cheerfully answered the phone. "Is Nicole there?" a male voice asked. No one by that name works here, she told him truthfully.

Two more phone calls followed, from two more men. They asked for Nicole.

Around 1pm a thin man with brown hair covered by a baseball cap sat at a table outside the cafe. Through the window he made eye contact with the employee. About 45 minutes later she went outside for her break. "Are you Nicole?" the man asked. No, she replied.

He came into the cafe shortly after and asked, "Can I have a tea?" He didn't seem to care what he had, and he didn't have money for the tea. The person behind him in line paid for it. After ordering the tea, he sat outside for another 45 minutes.

The same morning, the cafe owner logged onto her Twitter account and was shocked to see her business tagged in tweets that contained photos of naked women. She quickly blocked the offending accounts.

In the afternoon, she visited the cafe's Facebook page. Again she was horrified to find a collage of nude photos of a woman she didn't recognize posted there. Her cafe's logo was part of the collage.

This time one of her employees was able to shed some light on the situation. Kim—not Nicole—used to work at the cafe, and had mentioned the revenge porn situation to her coworker. The nude photos were Nicole's. The Facebook poster, using an apparently fake profile, commended Nicole on her "amazing customer service," though Nicole had never worked at the cafe.

Over the following week, the strange phone calls and visits to the cafe continued. The owner wrote a concerned email to her employees, telling them not to walk home alone after their shifts and to call 911 if they felt at all unsafe. She decided to reach out to Nicole and Kim to help them if she could.

• • •

Kim and Nicole told the owner police didn't take them seriously in the past. The owner thought there was a chance police would treat her more professionally.

"I mean it's sad, but I thought that because I'm an older woman and a business owner, that they would maybe listen to me in a way they hadn't listened to Nicole and Kim."

The owner called Nicole and said she was going to the police station to file a report. "I'll come with you," Nicole said. The two women walked through the heavy wooden doors of the Gottingen Street police station and entered the reception area. They took a number and sat down on a pew-like bench to wait.

click to enlarge Nova Scotia’s department of justice created CyberSCAN to handle public complaints related to the internet, but Nicole and Kim say the unit hasn’t been much help to their case. “I don’t really have any faith in the CyberSCAN unit at this point,” says Nicole.
  • Nova Scotia’s department of justice created CyberSCAN to handle public complaints related to the internet, but Nicole and Kim say the unit hasn’t been much help to their case. “I don’t really have any faith in the CyberSCAN unit at this point,” says Nicole.

When their turn came, they described the situation. The person at reception gave them the number for the CyberSCAN unit and said, "You need to contact these people."

"They didn't offer any alternatives," the owner says. So she called CyberSCAN.

On a previous occasion, she called police fearing for the safety of her workers, and they said, "If your employees are not right now being threatened, there's nothing we can do."

The police response didn't impress the cafe owner. "When someone's coming to my shop, when those guys have people coming to their door, it's no longer a cyber issue—this is a direct, in-Halifax, on-the-street threat" she says. "And that's the piece that has not been picked up by the police department."

Kim says she too tried to make a statement to police but was rebuffed and directed to CyberSCAN.

For women, this situation is especially terrifying and needs to be handled sensitively, the cafe owner continues. "Maybe the police can do nothing," she says, "but the fact that they didn't give them the time of day—when you feel heard, you feel listened to, you feel supported. I think that that's really important."

Despite the years of online harassment they have endured, Nicole and Kim say the most defeating part of their experience has been the unsympathetic way police and other government agencies responded to their repeated calls for help.

It has been 21 months—nearly two years—since Nicole first alerted police about the rape emails. It has been five years since Nicole filed a complaint about domestic abuse. Her former partner has yet to face legal consequences.

• • •

The police department deals with criminal cases, where people can be sent to prison for committing crimes. The CyberSCAN unit, on the other hand, exists to enforce the cyber safety act, which is civil in nature—meaning it deals with conflict between people, and jail is not an option.

Other than its five investigators, the unit employs an administrative worker and a case manager who enters complaints into the system. In its first year, the unit has been "very busy, probably busier than expected," a justice department representative told CTV in August 2014. To date, CyberSCAN has received 332 complaints, about one every day.

According to the NS justice department's director of public safety Roger Merrick, who oversees CyberSCAN, Nicole's case is typical of the complaints the unit receives: 163 cases—or half—its cases involve adults harassing adults, and 48 of the total cases received were domestic in nature.

When a complaint comes to CyberSCAN, it's assigned to an investigator who first tries to solve the case by talking informally with the complainant and the accused. About 116 cases have been solved this way since CyberSCAN started up. If talking doesn't work, CyberSCAN sends a warning letter, and has done so 11 times so far.

If the bullying continues, CyberSCAN can apply for a Supreme Court order that tells the person to stop. If they don't know the identity of the offender, it's possible to obtain their IP address and other personal information by court order. In its first year, the CyberSCAN unit has obtained one court order for a person's private information, and one court order telling a bully to stop their behaviour.

However, there is another course of action CyberSCAN can take. The investigator can tell the person experiencing the harassment to either stop using the website, or change their privacy settings. Of the unit's 332 cases, Merrick says around 100 cases have been "resolved" this way.

People experiencing the harassment must be "satisfied" or "happy" with this advice because the unit has had no re-calls from these people, he reasons. "The litmus test for that would be if we received a complaint about that," he says.

Merrick has only heard of one person complaining about CyberSCAN, and says it was unrelated to this advice. However he says the justice department does not track complaints about CyberSCAN itself.

The police department and CyberSCAN may receive complaints from the same people regarding the same instance of harassment. CyberSCAN can also direct cases back to the police if they are considered to be criminal in nature. That has only happened in 19 cases.

Merrick speaks highly of the unit's "intimate" working relationship with police: "We have become a great resource for the police."

It's possible the police department, relieved to have a unit that deals with the complex world of the internet, is directing criminal matters with an online flavour—as in Nicole's case—to CyberSCAN. And a third of the cases CyberSCAN receives are considered "resolved" if the complainant is told to stop using social media or to change their privacy settings.

When Nicole and Kim met CyberSCAN investigator Dana Bowden, it was the first time they thought someone in the justice system cared about their case. "She didn't really have a lot of solutions for us at the time, but she was at least sensitive to our situation," Nicole says.

The cafe owner echoes this sentiment, saying Bowden seemed dedicated to her job. One morning she apologized for calling at 7am. "She was starting her day," the owner says.

The Coast requested an interview with Bowden, but the justice department declined to make her available. Merrick also declined to talk about Nicole's case.

According to Nicole, Bowden attempted to communicate with Halifax police sergeant Mark Hobeck about her case, but he was out of touch for months. Her boss had to call Hobeck to ask him to call her back, Nicole says. When Hobeck finally responded in late June, he said police had dropped the case.

• • •

"Someone fucked up"

Police had closed Nicole's case two months earlier, on April 24, 2014. As a result, CyberSCAN was about to close her case as well.

When Bowden told her, Nicole was shocked. The reason for closing the case sounded bizarre. When she called Hobeck looking for answers, "he said an officer had called me in April and I had wanted to retract my statement and that I didn't want to pursue the case," Nicole says, "which is completely untrue."

Notes in Nicole's police file state an officer called Nicole on behalf of her case investigator: "I asked her some simple questions she would have known as per her complaint but she denied everything. Nicole stated that she did not make a complaint and did not have the specified email accounts on the mentioned web sites."

The officer was confused, so she called the investigator in charge of the file. "As he spoke with her before, he stated that she must be in contact with the suspect and was not willing to cooperate anymore with the investigation," the officer typed.

Another officer then confirmed Nicole was the complainant. He wrote, "it appears that she advises now that she did not file a complaint." The reason for closing her file was: "complainant is not cooperating with police at this time."

In response to police closing Nicole's case, Kim sent an email enumerating the problems they had experienced and mentioning she was considering going to media. Police subsequently decided to keep the case open. "I really think the only reason they did it," Nicole says, "was because they would get bad press."

Hobeck told her one of the officers contacted the wrong Nicole. Her file states the work number of a woman with the same first and last name was listed on her file. Nicole believes either "someone fucked up" or someone lied, or both.

"I already knew they didn't want to investigate it," she says. "They made it really obvious. But then a blatant lie? I guess it's really obvious you don't want to take my case."

• • •

When police re-opened the case in July, two new detectives had taken over. Detective Justin Sheppard began by apologizing to Nicole for the mistake in her case. He then said, "I'm going to be honest with you, I've never handled anything like this before—I deal with homicide."

Nicole and Kim had no idea why homicide detectives had taken their case. But they seemed to want to help.

"They were shocked that this was happening," Nicole recalls. "This was the first time I felt that they were going to try to do something to protect us."

Determined to move her case forward, Nicole continued to reach out to anyone who could help her. In late July 2014, a female police officer—a friend of her family who wasn't involved with her case—advised Nicole to call Florida police. Adam's parents' house is located in Pasco County, so she called their local sheriff's office.

She spoke with an officer over the phone. He seemed nice enough as he listened to her story. Then he said, "I'm going to give you the same advice that I give to everyone else with this problem: Stop using social media and get rid of your computer."

Nicole replied that she wasn't the one who had a problem with the computer—it was Adam who had that problem.

"That is absolutely not proper advice that should be given to someone who files a report," Pasco County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Eddie Daniels says by email when asked about Nicole's call. Ideally a complaint of that nature should be investigated and a resolution found, he says.

"If the crime is committed in Florida, specifically Pasco County, and we can establish jurisdiction, then it is absolutely possible to pursue charges from Canada." He says the sheriff's office plans to investigate the incident.

• • •

When he took over the case in July, Sheppard phoned Adam in Florida after getting his number from his father. Adam didn't admit fault, Sheppard told Nicole, but said no one needed to worry it would happen again.

While Nicole is glad the detective called, she doesn't believe Adam will stop unless he faces legal consequences. "My feeling is police hope this will be enough. It's not enough."

She wants police to bring charges against her ex. She wants them to work with police in Florida. She wants them to get a warrant for data, such as the OkCupid credit card information, that could lead to charges. She says she's had to push the detective to continue investigating.

Sheppard wasn't sure what harassment charges they could get. "Let me play devil's advocate for a moment," he said to Nicole. "If you were a celebrity and had consented to having photos taken of you and then those went online, would it be a harassment charge?"

"I didn't know how to respond to that because I think that was another one of those unprofessional, insensitive things to say," Nicole remembers. "And also I didn't know how to relate to it, or know the legal ramifications."

A few weeks ago, CyberSCAN told Nicole they were closing her case. Bowden explained that since it was an international case she didn't think they had the power to do much.

Yet earlier this year, CyberSCAN went beyond Canada's borders to remedy online harassment in another case involving an anonymous perpetrator. In June 2014, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge used the cyber-safety act to order Google, Facebook, Instagram and other sites to hand over an alleged harasser's name, address, email and IP address. The order was the first of its kind in Canada.

It's not clear why they haven't obtained a similar order in Nicole's case. The justice she wants is within the unit's reach.

"I felt let down but also stuck in the cycle of thinking something's going to happen and then have it not happen," Nicole says. "I don't really have any faith in the CyberSCAN unit at this point anyway."

Nicole mentioned she was speaking to The Coast for this story. CyberSCAN subsequently decided to keep her case open.

• • •

Last week, when The Coast asked Halifax Police to comment on Nicole's case, they said they could not confirm details of her case due to privacy concerns, and because the investigation was ongoing. However they confirmed they had files that involved similar circumstances to her case.

After looking over these files, spokesperson Pierre Bourdages says deputy chief Bill Moore requested "a thorough review" of the files to find out whether they could have been better handled.

"We take cybercrimes and sexualized violence seriously," Bourdages says in an email, adding that police have changed their messaging to address predators' actions rather than the actions of victims. "They must stop victimizing women, creating fake profiles, posing as particular women and posting explicit content. It's crude, offensive and potentially dangerous, and we'll look at every possible angle to charge these people and hold them responsible," says Bourdages. "That said, this isn't easy to do."

Online crime is evolving, and investigations can be difficult and time-consuming. Now that internet-facilitated crime is becoming more common, police recognize the need for all officers to be educated in this area.

Online and international crime can certainly be difficult to tackle, says Dalhousie law professor and cyber law expert Wayne MacKay. In the online world, people can torment each other no matter where they are, making it challenging to locate and charge them across borders. "Not an impossible challenge, I don't think, but that's one problem."

A second issue comes when creeps hide behind anonymity. There has been progress on this lately in the case of Amanda Todd, whose tormenter was found in the Netherlands, suggesting to MacKay anonymity isn't as big a shield as it used to be. "So that's a little encouraging."

A third hurdle is that laws haven't kept pace with technology. "You have to be somewhat creative to use existing criminal code provisions, for example, to apply in the cyber context," says MacKay, "although I think you can." In Nicole's case, MacKay says, criminal harassment and intimidation laws can apply whether crimes happen online or off.

If proposed federal bill C-13 passes, the sharing of intimate images without consent would become criminal in Canada. It would be "a perfect fit" for a case like this, MacKay says, and would make it easy for police to obtain Adam's credit card information from the dating website.

Although MacKay agrees with criminalizing the non-consensual sharing of such images, he worries the federal government has tacked on surveillance provisions that pose constitutional issues for Canadians.

But laws alone won't solve this problem, MacKay says—the way laws are applied also needs to change. There's a tendency for police and the justice system to not treat online crime with the same degree of urgency as if it were a face-to-face threat, he says.

And there's the added lack of understanding that women are especially vulnerable to these threats.

"Very often there's a sexual component to it. So it's both a sexual crime and a cyber bullying crime, so that adds another layer of difficulty in a way," MacKay says.

Some of the officers Nicole dealt with might benefit from training on how to receive complaints about sex crimes, MacKay says, as well as more education about the internet. He thinks the officers who told her to get rid of social media and turn off her computer don't understand the modern world.

"That's not realistic," he says. "If you ask a young person which they'd rather do, stop breathing or disconnect the internet, they'd say stop breathing. Being connected is part of being alive as a young person.

MacKay hopes the public conversation on cyber crime will broaden to include social change. "A lot of times it's not the law you need," he says, "you need prevention, you need education, you need understanding."

• • •

"You tend to give up"

Throughout Nicole's struggle, Kim did what she could to support her friend. But as her own semi-nude photos spread across the internet and strangers visited her former workplace, the stress caught up to her.

More than stress, actually. Kim has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by sexual and physical abuse earlier in life. The online attacks triggered her PTSD symptoms. She felt paranoid in public. She cried frequently. Suicidal thoughts she'd struggled with for 15 years returned. She began drinking heavily.

Kim feared she would act on her darkest thoughts. She asked Nicole to come with her to the QEII hospital's emergency mental health unit. Kim thought she would be admitted, so she packed a bag and gave Nicole a list of important phone numbers just in case.

When they arrived, Kim was placed in a freezing—"like two-sweaters-and-a-jacket-cold"— room. The furniture inside was chained to the floor, she recalls. "There were scratches and scuffs on the wall and door." Nicole was allowed to wait in a room with a comfortable temperature and poetry on the walls.

A nurse entered the cold room and asked about Kim's PTSD symptoms and what caused them. "She was very nice and understanding but everything I had to tell her was re-triggering," Kim remembers. Nicole asked if Kim could come out of the room because she was freezing and alone. Staff obliged. Knowing it would be difficult for Kim to talk to a man about her PTSD, Nicole asked if her friend could see a female doctor. They said yes.

But it was two male psychiatry students who met with Kim instead. One of them asked her the same triggering questions as before. The other sat yawning and rolling his eyes. She felt the trauma bubbling up again.

The student doctor said she wasn't suicidal enough to be admitted: "You've lasted 15 years with this, I'm sure you can last another 15."

The doctor gave Kim a prescription for 20 sleeping pills to be filled all at once. It did not escape her that she could use the pills to hurt herself. On the way out, a nurse asked Kim if she was feeling better. She told the nurse she was feeling much worse than when she entered the hospital.

"Well if you're feeling bad at any time, come back," the nurse said.

"So should I go sit in the waiting room and take another number?" Kim asked.

She regretted giving the nurse attitude. But Kim had tried to access a system that should have helped her. Instead it failed. It was like approaching an open door with help on the other side, and then realizing it was a wall painted to look like a door, she explains. "When you are suicidal and things are made more difficult for you, you tend to give up."

Capital Health, while refusing to comment on this case in particular, says rooms are not intentionally kept freezing cold. Dr. Scott Theriault, Capital Health's clinical director for the department of psychiatry, says they try to keep the temperature comfortable. He also explains the mental health unit is a teaching facility, which means students perform assessments. They are taught to interact respectfully with patients. Theriault says they can't control the gender of the available students.

• • •

Earlier this year, Kim reached out to Glen Canning, Rehtaeh Parsons' father. She had contacted everyone she could think of, and someone said to email him.

Canning can relate to her frustration. He faced similar challenges when he brought his daughter, then 16, to the IWK hospital. She was suffering from suicidal thoughts after the rape and subsequent harassment.

Parsons spent four or five weeks at the IWK. While there she became upset and male staff tore her clothes off and locked her in a room overnight, naked. She left the hospital feeling worse, her suicidal thoughts intensified.

"The system was a miserable, stinking failure," Canning says. "Worse than a failure. The system was harmful."

He sees similarities between his daughter's story and Nicole and Kim's. Pornographic images shared without consent. Relentless harassment online and off. Untreated suicidal thoughts. Hearing from public officials that there is nothing they can do—that it's not against the law.

"In Rehtaeh's case, it was against the law. And what they're experiencing, Nicole and Kim, is against the law. There are laws against doing stuff like this. Just because it happens on the internet, and just because it may be difficult to solve, doesn't mean it can't be and doesn't mean it shouldn't be."

Canning isn't anti-police in general, but says too often when a victim files a complaint, it comes down to whether they get a "good cop" who knows what they're doing and will take the complaint seriously. Kim and Nicole had no such luck.

"There's no excuse for that," Canning says. "Victims should always feel that law enforcement cares. No one should ever feel worse after talking to police than before, worse when you leave a mental health ward than when you went in.

"Even though they're asking for help, it feels like they're sinking. You can hear it in their words and you can see it in their eyes. They're drowning. And that's unfortunate, man. It's sadly familiar."

• • •

When Kim and Nicole tell their story, a common response they hear is: "What about Rehtaeh Parsons? I thought everything had changed."

"That's not accurate," Nicole says.

"It's an easy way to think about it," Kim echoes. "It's what people want to think."

Nicole interacted with police before and after Nova Scotia's cyberbullying legislation was enacted and the CyberSCAN unit was created. She and Kim say people experiencing online harassment and suicidal thoughts are still left to fend for themselves well over a year after Parsons' death.

Kim and Nicole changed their phone number, switched email addresses, deleted their social media accounts and moved several times. The photos are still out there. Adam and the other creeps who frequent the revenge porn forums are still active.

"If I didn't have Nicole and a support system to watch over me, I wouldn't be here," Kim says. "I would have gone back home and I wouldn't be here. I would have committed suicide. I would be dead.

"Really it's just the fact Nicole watched me, and people were here. But not everyone has that, so it concerns me. How many women are going to get turned away and told: 'You can deal with this, it's no big deal. Yeah you've had severe abuse, whatever. Deal with it.'"

"This case would be totally closed if not for Kim," Nicole says. "I've been feeling defeated pretty consistently."

"I still have no idea..." Nicole says, and Kim finishes her sentence: "...Whether they're going to do anything."


Hilary Beaumont is a freelance journalist from Halifax.
Follow her @hilarybeaumont on Twitter.

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