Sharon and Richard Moreno were awakened by a phone call from a police negotiator around 2:30 a.m. one night in May 2014. He told them to get out of their home immediately and leave their adult son behind.
Officers with rifles greeted the couple on their front lawn in Sterling, Va., and tackled their son William on the porch. They had been drawn by a chilling post attributed to William on a popular local Web forum: “I JUST SHOT MY PARENTS NOW I WILL KILL MY SISTER.”
The Morenos say in a lawsuit that the post was a hoax, part of an unrelenting campaign of harassment by “trolls” on the forum, Fairfax Underground, that turned their lives upside down and drove William to attempt suicide.
Trolls are the bane of online forums, games and comment sections, sowing discord with inflammatory remarks and needling other users for laughs. Most are content to cause trouble on the Web, but in the Morenos’ case, the lawsuit says, the attacks made the unusual leap from cyberspace to the real world.
Malevolent trolling has caused increasing concern in recent years. “RIP Trolls” deface Facebook memorial pages to dead children. The white supremacist site Daily Stormer has deployed a “troll army” to target a Jewish British politician and a Muslim activist in Australia. And angry trolls viciously attacked a video-game designer and other women at the center of the much-publicized “Gamergate” saga, sending them dozens of death and rape threats and promising a mass shooting at a speaking event.
Many sites are trying to tame the problem. Twitter has rolled out lists of troll accounts users can share, and YouTube revamped its comment moderation to play down trolling. Some sites, like Popular Science, have done away with comments altogether.
Fairfax Underground was founded on the idea of creating a zone of unfettered free speech on local issues, but that idealism has sometimes given way to a darker reality. Trolling on the forum has resulted in a criminal conviction, a bomb scare, reports of stalking and more.
The Morenos’ lawsuit claims that William was accused of rape on the forum and mass-bombing threats were posted under his name, his parents’ house was vandalized, he received death threats, his car was broken into, and his mother’s job was put in jeopardy. A Fairfax Underground user swore out a charge against William that he called false. (He was acquitted in court.)
“It was a reign of terror,” said William, 32.
It’s often difficult to know who is carrying out the harassment because most Fairfax Underground users are anonymous, but the Moreno family filed suit in Fairfax County against a Richmond-area user named Michael Josef Basl, known on the forum as “eesh,” and a second user whose identity is unknown. In a separate case this month, Basl was convicted of posting explicit photos of a woman to the site. He is appealing the conviction.
In an interview, Basl denied posting the threats that led police to the Morenos’ home, and he called the lawsuit “frivolous.” He said William Moreno and other users have a grudge against him.
“I’m not responsible for the vast majority of the stuff in the lawsuit,” Basl said. “They make me out like I’m a sinister person. I’m not.”
However, a fellow Fairfax Underground user, Monique Wells, testified in court this year that Basl told her he was behind some of the attacks on the Morenos, including the “swatting” incident — or falsely summoning a police tactical team. Basl testified that her account was untrue.
“He said, ‘I did it so that Moreno could make a wrong move and get shot and killed by the police,’ ” Wells told a judge.
William Moreno logged on to his e-mail in March 2012 to find a strange message. At the time, he was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Hello Mr. Misery, this is eesh,” it read, according to the lawsuit. “You do understand your drama on Fairfax Underground will get you expelled from VCU, right? Talk to you later William Moreno.”
The salvo was the opening of a two-year campaign against Moreno and his family. William said the message struck him like a bolt because he had never revealed his e-mail address, that he was “Mr. Misery” on Fairfax Underground or that he attended VCU. Someone was tracking him.
William Moreno said he discovered Fairfax Underground three years earlier. He has a mild form of autism and suffers from major depression. His parents said a Web forum was a natural fit for someone who finds it painful to socialize in the real world.
Mr. Misery displayed quirky humor but also contributed offensive comments about child molestation and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Moreno said those posts were not serious, but he earned the ire of some users.
Fairfax Underground is a freewheeling digital watercooler, where more than 1.5 million users with screen names like “friskydingo” discuss everything from teacher salaries to pornography. The site is a deep well of information about Northern Virginia, and its users have broken news, but conversation is often raw and laced with racism, sexism, personal attacks and bogus claims.
“When you run an online forum, you are no longer totally in control,” said Cary Wiedemann, who founded the site in 2004. “Fairfax Underground has taken on a life of its own.”
Michelle Drouin, an Indiana University psychology professor who studies technology, said the anonymity and connectivity of the Internet have created a “sadist’s playground.”
“People that want to distress other people can now do it in the comfort of their own home,” Drouin said. “It has less repercussions than harassment offline, and the Internet allows for this emotional distance between the harasser and the victim.”
Mr. Misery was banned from the forum in January 2012 for flooding it with messages, but William Moreno continued to post under other usernames. A couple of months after the ban, the lawsuit says, Moreno received the e-mail that referenced VCU. Eesh threatened to take Moreno’s posts to school officials.
Basl has testified in court that his username is “eesh” and admitted in response to the Morenos’ lawsuit that he sent the e-mail. Basl also admitted that he placed a note on William’s windshield to deter him from using Fairfax Underground.
Eesh is one of the most prolific posters on the forum, and other users described him as flamboyant and a self-appointed sheriff of the site. Basl, 34, said he is a military veteran and a community college student, but he declined to offer other personal details.
The harassment began to escalate in December 2013, according to the lawsuit. Someone broke into the Morenos’ home while they were away and flooded the basement. The lawsuit says eesh posted a message the same day, saying he was coming to Sterling to see William Moreno. Basl denies any role in the vandalism.
Despite the break-in, the online harassment remained unknown to William’s parents — until, Sharon Moreno said, she was going through a security-clearance review for her job as an intelligence contractor.
Sharon Moreno recalled becoming increasingly puzzled as an investigator asked her about a party she could not remember. Finally, the woman told her to look at Fairfax Underground.
Sharon Moreno said her jaw dropped. She said someone purporting to be a 13-year-old girl wrote in a message that William had raped her during a party at the family’s home. The Morenos say the post was another hoax.
Sharon Moreno was required to undergo a polygraph test, but she said she was so anxious about the post that she could not complete it. She eventually got her security clearance renewed.
By mid-2014, William Moreno said, he was growing increasingly despondent about the online attacks. While the family was preparing dinner one night, he took a kitchen knife and attempted to slit his wrists. He was rushed to the hospital.
The harassment only increased. In October 2014, the lawsuit says, a picture of Basl pointing a revolver at the viewer was posted along with a message: “You can run but you can’t hide, Miz.” Basl denies making the post.
Messages appeared on the forum saying that William wanted to carry out attacks with pipe bombs and that he had raped a VCU student, according to the lawsuit. A post showed up under his father’s name, saying he had witnessed William molesting his sister. Then, an anonymous poster threatened to ruin William’s reputation in Google search results.
“I will show you NO quarter. . . . Your parents are old and defenseless,” the message read, according to the lawsuit. Moreno said Google searches for his name began to turn up references to pedophilia.
The Morenos filed their lawsuit in January. Less than a week after he was served, Basl went to a magistrate and swore out a charge against William Moreno. At trial in April, Basl testified that Moreno had made death threats against him in phone calls and in forum messages.
But Wells, their fellow Fairfax Underground user, testified that Basl admitted to her that he had sent the death threats to himself. “He was proud of it,” Wells said.
A judge acquitted Moreno.
Both Moreno and his mother have sought counseling.
“He keeps saying over and over again, ‘Our lives are ruined,’ ” Sharon Moreno said of her son.