Outdoor sculpture in Lakeland. Photo: Josh Hallett/Flickr

No Legitimate Purpose

A young girl killed herself after being cyberbullied at school. Now, her mother is being cyberbullied by a stranger.

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Sep 11 2015, 1:00pm

Outdoor sculpture in Lakeland. Photo: Josh Hallett/Flickr

A young girl killed herself after being cyberbullied at school. Now, her mother is being cyberbullied by a stranger.


On August 9, Rebecca Ann Talley, a 35-year-old mother of three, posted a rant and link to a CNN story about a seventh grader in Florida whose death was ruled a suicide.

"IT IS NOT LIKELY A 12 YEAR OLD GIRL WOULD MAUL HERSELF BY JUMPING FROM AN ABANDONED CEMENT SILO WHERE SHE COULD HAVE POSSIBLY NOT BEEN FOUND FOR DAYS," Talley wrote in the repost from January. "GOOD THING HER MOM CALLED [police] THAT NIGHT AT 10PM ISH AND TOLD THEM EXACTLY WHERE HER BODY WAS. COINCIDENCE? ?? I THINK NOT!!!

The 12-year-old Talley is shouting about was Rebecca Sedwick. Instead of going to school on September 9, 2013, Rebecca squeezed through a hole in the fence at an abandoned Cemex plant near her home, climbed to the top of a 60-foot tower, and jumped off. Police found her body early the next morning.

Very quickly, it was assumed that the bullying Rebecca suffered at school and later online contributed to her suicide. After seeing some Facebook and Kik messages telling Rebecca that she was worthless and should "go die," as well as a Facebook post by her alleged chief bully saying "Yes IK I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF," the sheriff heading the investigation, Grady Judd, charged two former classmates of Rebecca's—then 12 and 14 years old—with felony aggravated stalking. If it had gone to trial, it would've been a precedent-setting case, but charges against the girls were later dropped for lack of evidence.

The media eventually stopped rehashing the grisly details of Rebecca's death, but some have been unable to let it go. For the last two years, a stranger with a smattering of online supporters has been scrutinizing the case—and turning her suspicions on Rebecca's mother, stepfather, and stepsister.

The case was reported widely as a horrifying example of adolescent cyberbullying. But Rebecca's family is now being tormented by someone old enough to know better.

Gangs of Facebook

When she first heard about Rebecca's death, Talley was struck by the fact that she and the little girl who died had the same first and middle name, and also that they'd both lived for a time in Lakeland. Her suspicion that Rebecca didn't die by her own hand arose when Rebecca's mother, Tricia Norman, did not appear upset enough in TV interviews after her daughter's death. She found Rebecca's then 19-year-old stepsister Summer's behavior suspicious as well.

"They showed video of her sister, who had a disgusting smirk on her face even though she was trying to pretend she was crying, saying, 'She didn't deserve to die at such a young age.' I thought, God, that is a really bizarre way to put it," Talley told Motherboard. "This was within a couple hours of finding Rebecca's body. She was already posting an RIP poster board on someone's car saying something about anti-bullying, and no one even knew what the hell had happened to her yet."

A couple months later, Talley was surprised to see that the media was still reporting the bullying-suicide theory regarding the girl's death.

"I was like, I can't believe no one's figured this out yet," she said.

Talley established the (now private) Facebook group "Advocates for the Reopening of Rebecca Ann Sedwick's death investigation" to campaign for a new investigation into Rebecca's death.

Talley usually posts several times a day. Her posts vacillate from being about the case—"There was no evidence of any bullying. Please follow the links to the articles in this group and read up on the case"—to targeting Rebecca's mother, Tricia Norman, and her anti-bullying nonprofit—"Was it Becca's dream to be killed and have her mother take donations to pay herself to travel and lie about her death?"

"I want the whole matter put to rest so my baby can rest in peace and her name and our names aren't continuously drug through the mud"

The group, with 536 members at the time of writing, also provides a platform for others to post judgmental musings. "I also looked at mom's FB the day her body was discovered," one wrote. "She changed her profile picture to pictures of her and Becca Ann. I then looked at all of her prior profile pictures. They were all of herself. Now as a mother I would only post a picture of my child (meaning, it's not about me it about my child) as my profile picture."

These observers are egged on by Talley, who is convinced she's on a righteous crusade.

"I knew there was something more to it. I assumed someone else would eventually see it, too, and we'd all find out on the news what really happened to Rebecca," Talley said. "And I know it sounds crazy, but I started seeing what went on with Rebecca in my head."

Rebecca didn't commit suicide, Talley believes. Her stepsister Summer was jealous of Rebecca because, Talley imagines, she was prettier and thinner than Summer. Talley says that in her head, Summer beat Rebecca to death with a baseball bat or other blunt instrument. In Talley's version, Rebecca's mother helped Summer cover up the murder, probably by coercing Rebecca's stepfather John to help them place Rebecca's body at the tower to make it look like she had jumped to her death.

When Norman discovered Talley's Facebook group, she sent a message asking Talley to stop talking about her family. Talley wrote back saying no, and to not message her again. (Talley sees Norman's objection to the group as further evidence that she is hiding something about her daughter's death.) Her posts continued. The group's membership grew. The animosity between the two women intensified.

"It's not your daughter"

Norman and Talley met in person for the first time during an appearance on the Dr. Phil show in an episode titled, "My Cyberbullied Daughter Killed Herself, Now I'm Being Harassed Online by a Stranger."

On the show, the two women sat opposite each other on stage and watched a video interview in which Talley described her "visions" about Rebecca's death. "I think she came to me when she died," she says.

"You don't know us. We don't know you. We want you to leave us alone," Norman says.

"I want your daughter's case reopened," Talley says.

"Leave us alone!" Norman snaps back as the studio audience starts clapping for her. "It's not your daughter, it's my daughter!"

After the showaired in May, Talley suddenly found herself on the receiving end of a barrage of harassment.

People who had watched the show and sided with Norman sent Talley a barrage of death threats and hateful messages on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where a video of the episode is posted. Someone hacked into Talley's "Advocates for the reopening of the Rebecca Sedwick death investigation" group and changed its name to "Rebecca Ann Talley is a CUM bucket!!!"

Dueling Facebook groups pop up to spy on each other, firing shots at both women and trumpeting their arrest records and warrants (for minor offenses, such as passing bad checks and driving without liability insurance, some of them 15 years old).

Facebook deleted many of the troll groups, although it says that Talley's main "advocates for the reopening of Rebecca Ann Sedwick's death investigation" group does not violate its terms of use, because the many media interviews Norman has given makes her a public figure whom Talley has the right to publicly criticize.

After her page was hacked again last month, Talley started rebuilding it post by post.

"I'm going to be posting a lot here in the next few days," she wrote in an August 6 update accompanying 18 images from Sedwick's autopsy file. "I could give a damn if my group was hacked. I have everything, EVERYTHING .. in screenshots and files. Let the entire internet crash tomorrow, ... I could give a damn. I got it all backed up. Bet that. Here we go."

Cyberstalking

Although awareness of cyberbullying is growing, legislation regarding online harassment has struggled to keep pace with people's internet behavior. Florida is one of only 22 states with cyberstalking laws on the books. Florida's 2014 statute defines cyberstalking as engaging "in a course of conduct to communicate, or to cause to be communicated, words, images or language by or through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose."

But even if there's such a law in your state, there's little speech that isn't protected under the First Amendment, outside of a directly communicated, serious threat. Anything short of that is likely permissible under the law, no matter how upsetting it might be.

Even when legal action is taken, it's not always helpful. Norman was granted an injunction against Talley for cyberstalking on June 18, which was hailed as a triumph by #TeamTricia.

However, the injunction says Talley can't go to Norman's home or near her car, nor can she contact her directly or through a third party via electronic means or otherwise—none of which she did anyway.

Jonathan Peters, JD, Ph.D., an assistant media law professor at the University of Kansas, said that cyberstalking communication law doesn't generally cover posting information about another person.

"If I were to write something heinous about you on my blog, but I make no attempts to send it to you directly, it probably would not satisfy the 'directed at' portion of a harassment or stalking law," he said. "But if I took a screenshot of it and tweeted it to you, that would be 'directed at.' That could make a big difference in a cyberstalking case."

Regarding the "emotional distress" portion, Peters said, "Courts look for conduct or speech that's so extreme that it goes beyond all bounds of decency. That's usually where speech claims die."

Talley acknowledged that the injunction was granted but posted that she won't stop her campaign until Rebecca's case is reopened. A day after the hearing, Talley posted, "Rebecca sedwick had a 12 mm anal sphincter laceration that was conveniently left out of the ME report that was read by Dr Phil on his show. There is no explanation for that injury!! Wake up people! It was not a suicide!!"

The blood on the ladder

Like Talley, Rebecca's father and Norman's ex-husband, Ken Sedwick, doesn't believe his daughter committed suicide.

He was cautiously supportive of Talley at first, which she used to help legitimize her campaign, but ended up distancing himself once Talley and Norman started battling each other via social media.

Sedwick said he has never agreed with Talley's theory that Norman had something to do with his daughter's death, but he still shares some of her suspicions. "Even though I don't in any way support what she says [about Norman's involvement], in the end, she might not come out all that crazy," he told Motherboard.

There are at least three seeming inconsistencies that Sedwick and Talley find most suspicious about Rebecca's death. Her lack of skull fractures was strange from a supposed jump from such a height. The medical examiner also found that her sphincter was ruptured, which raises the question of sexual assault. And a substance suspected to be blood was found on the tower ladder, suggesting that maybe she was murdered or injured and carried up there.

Associate medical examiner Vera Volnikh concluded in her autopsy report that what caused Rebecca's death was blunt force trauma to her abdomen, not her head. Anita Zannin, M.S.F.S., a Syracuse, New York-based forensics expert specializing in bloodstain pattern analysis who independently reviewed the report, also said that Rebecca's injuries are consistent with a jump or fall.

"The dislocation of the sacroiliac joint takes a pretty good amount of force," she said, which makes sense in a fall but is not consistent with a beating.

"And she does have bruises and abrasions on her head," she added. "The fact that there's no skull fracture isn't hugely concerning, because given the other injuries, it seems pretty clear she landed feet first."

The anal tearing Sedwick and Talley are suspicious of was probably due to her pelvic injuries from the fall, she said.

"The coccyx was fractured multiply, which probably caused the anal tear. Those bones are sharp," she said.

Carrie Eleazer, public information officer for the Polk County Sheriff's Department, said that the bloodlike substance found on the ladder was tested and ruled to be either paint or rust, not blood.

It's guilt about his fractured relationship with his daughter, Norman said, that drives Sedwick's push to reopen the investigation. The last time Sedwick spoke to Rebecca was July 1, Norman said, which means they hadn't spoken for two months at the time of her death.

In Florida, cyberstalking is defined as electronic communication "causing substantial emotional distress" to the target and "serving no legitimate purpose"

"Talley is just in it for the attention, and Ken allows it because she is one of the very few who believe his 'poor me' alienated dad story," Norman said. "I want the whole matter put to rest so my baby can rest in peace and her name and our names aren't continuously drug through the mud because her father can't follow through or let it go."

After Dr. Phil aired, Norman wrote Talley on Facebook proposing a truce. She said that she would let Dr. Phil launch an independent investigation of the case, as he offered to do, under the condition that Talley would stop posting about her family until it was over.

Talley declined.

"The only way this will end is when Rebecca's death investigation is reopened and thoroughly investigated," Talley wrote back and later posted screenshots of the exchange for her group. "Do not message me again and i am not making any deals."

Talley's supporters expressed bafflement at her rejection of Norman's offer.

"Your response is disappointing," one wrote. "Are you interested in your FB notoriety more than peace for the families that are 'involved'? (do we need to remind you that you are not actually part of the investigation?)"

When another pointed out that there must be new evidence to actually reopen a case, which Dr. Phil's investigation might provide, Talley responded, "I think [Norman] covered up Rebecca's death and has lied about it since day one. Didn't you watch the show? She can take her deal and shove it up her lying ass. Screenshot that."

Will this ever end?

Last month, a judge dismissed the four charges Norman brought against Talley claiming she'd violated the injunction.

Talley's supporters say they wrote letters to the judge documenting the harassment of Talley by Norman's supporters, which they said falls under the "unclean hands" doctrine, meaning that Norman can't stop someone else from doing what she's doing herself.

At this point, many hands are clearly dirty. The tragic death of a 12-year-old that spawned this spate of hacking, vile accusations, death threats and lawsuits—in addition to Norman's pending suits, Talley has expressed interest in suing both Norman for harassment and Dr. Phil for fraud—isn't showing any signs of abating. The harder Norman's supporters work to shut Talley up, the harder she fights to vindicate herself, so much that she feels that she is now the victim.

Screenshots of the back and forth between Talley ("Rebecca Holley") and Norman's supporters. Image: Virginia Pelley

Facebook put a 30-day block on one of Talley's at least four Facebook profiles for posting private messages on a group page, but she was back with a posting frenzy August 8, which included a Gandhi quote meme reading, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

"The truth is your best defense" is often-repeated advice in regard to slander cases. But when it comes to defending yourself against wild criminal allegations on the internet, this case, if nothing else, shows how worthless the truth can be—not to mention the inadequacies of both legislation and education efforts to curb cyberbullying. Talley is a Wild West cyber sheriff who lords over the inhabitants of her Facebook group, slinging accusations and banishing anyone who disagrees with her assumptions. And legal efforts launched by the mother of a 12-year-old girl who very likely took her own life have proved as worthless as the facts about Sedwick's case.

Despite the fervor with which Talley wages her battle to reopen Sedwick's case, it's sad and ironic that according to a recent message to one of her supposed supporters, she doesn't sound so sure herself about what happened to Rebecca.

"I'm just amazed how it's playing out," she wrote to an unidentified recipient. "Wouldn't it be some shit if I really am right."