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She won the vote, a council seat, and then came the stalkers. Inside a growing national problem

Study found 1 in 5 Americans have been subjected to online or sexual harassment or stalking

SHARE She won the vote, a council seat, and then came the stalkers. Inside a growing national problem
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South Salt Lake Councilwoman Corey Thomas has dealt with online harassment and stalkers since she won her election nearly two years ago.

Courtesy Corey Thomas

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Corey Thomas expected to be criticized when she decided to run for public office.

But what the 33-year-old South Salt Lake councilwoman didn’t expect was feeling so vulnerable and afraid that she would have to seek legal help in dealing with inappropriate, crude, angry, threatening harassment from two different men during her first 18 months in office.

“All I want to do is be able to serve my city and serve my council term and feel safe doing it,” said Thomas, describing what she told a judge when the first stalker was sentenced. 

When that case ended in a plea agreement and jail sentence, she felt relieved and bolstered by the support she received from police, prosecutors and her constituents.

“Is it social media that’s made it easier (to harass someone)? I would suspect there is some truth to that.” — Holly Richardson, the chairwoman of Real Women Run

Then, just a few months later, she found herself dealing with a second man whose online harassment hasn’t been as easy to deal with, in part because laws governing protective or restraining orders assume or require there be some romantic or familial relationship — past or present — between the stalker and the victim. 

“It was very stressful,” she said of seeking legal help to deal with the second person.

“The officer (investigating her complaint) told me to go get a protective order that next morning. But I don’t qualify for that. ... Women like me, who are single, who don’t have any sort of romantic relationship or anything, there’s no protection for us. We’re just out of luck.”

In the public spotlight

Like a lot of women who want to serve their communities through elected office, Thomas has found some unique challenges. Like most local officials, she wants to be open and available to the residents she serves, but like many women in elected positions, she’s dealt with online harassment, threats and stalking that make it difficult to feel safe — personally or professionally.

Holly Richardson, who is the chairwoman of Real Women Run — a nonpartisan initiative to empower women to seek political office at all levels — said Thomas’ experiences are not the exception for too many women.

“When I was in the (Utah) Legislature, it was a really hot year for immigration policy,” said Richardson, who served in 2011 and remains in the public spotlight because she’s a columnist. “I got people sending me death threats all the time. I never took them seriously enough to even report them. ... Social media has provided a kind of anonymity and people do things online that they wouldn’t do face to face. They also create these echo chambers where you think everyone thinks the way you do.”

Richardson said she believes women experience more online harassment than men, and that can lead to stalking, which is something that needs to be better acknowledged and addressed by both lawmakers and public officials.

“I think it’s more common with women,” she said. “I think just generically speaking, it’s more common for women to be the victims of stalking behavior. Is it social media that’s made it easier (to harass someone)? I would suspect there is some truth to that.”

In 2017, the Pew Research Center’s American Trends panel conducted a survey of internet users and found that 1 in 5 Americans have been subjected to particularly severe forms of online harassment, such as physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment or stalking. Another study found 1 in 6 women reported at least one incident of stalking — a number nearly three times what men reported.

Richardson said the effort to encourage women to run for public office needs to include conversations about these kinds of issues.

“There are a lot of aspects that aren't very fun,” she said. “You have to think about your safety, about what you share online, your home address, your home phone. I had a guy who started calling me every half hour, I swear. I blocked his number. There is some sense that you can’t do that as a public official.”

The courts have rules that limiting someone’s access to a public official’s social media accounts can infringe on First Amendment rights.

“There are situations that are way past free speech and your ability to weigh in on the public process,” Richardson said. “Now it’s harassment and stalking.”

Concerns about safety

Thomas had never considered running for office until she volunteered for a local legislative campaign in the fall of 2016.

“I spent all of that time knocking on doors in (Utah’s) West Valley City, and I just thought, ‘I should do something in my own city,’” she said. “It dawned on me that it was probably time that I started getting to know my neighbors and getting to know my city.”

Thomas grew up in the rural community of Erda in Tooele County, but moved to South Salt Lake about eight years ago. She loved the city’s small-town feel coupled with its proximity to the state’s capital city.  When South Salt Lake Councilwoman Debbie Snow moved and had to resign her at-large seat, Thomas was encouraged to interview with city officials for the opportunity to fill the vacancy.

“I decided I had nothing to lose,” she said. “It’s the scariest interview I’ve ever had. You’re sitting in front of six council members, you have the mayor behind you, the police chief, the fire chief, and the place is packed full of residents.”

She didn’t get the job. But she did get a lot of encouragement to run for office the following year when another incumbent opted not to run for reelection. She earned the endorsement of the other council members and she won the 2017 election by just 25 votes. She was sworn in a few months later, in January of 2018.

The first incident of harassment began during her campaign. Like most local public officials, she makes herself available to constituents on a cellphone number. At first the man’s calls were all business. But very quickly the calls became problematic. First they started coming at odd hours — late at night and early in the morning. When she ignored them, they were accompanied by what sounded like drunken or incoherent messages, Thomas said.

As they grew increasingly inappropriate, she stopped responding and his calls did stop for several months. About six months after she was sworn into office, Thomas said the phone calls began again, along with text messages, and they were inappropriate and threatening. 

“I never replied to anything,” she said. “I would just say, ‘Stop. Stop messaging me. Please stop.’ And he would just continue on,” she said. “And it just got scarier.”

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South Salt Lake Council woman Corey Thomas had dealt with online harassment and stalkers since she won her election nearly two years ago.

Courtesy Corey Thomas

Despite being afraid, she didn’t call police for help dealing with the man until she realized how easily he could find her. She hadn’t expected privacy when she decided to run for office, but somehow seeing that information was also readily available for those who’d threatened her changed her mind about ignoring the harassment.

“That really scared me,” she said. “So I decided to contact our officers here at South Salt Lake. They were amazing.”

They were defensive of her, supported her effort to seek help and made her feel immediately safer. But they couldn’t investigate the case.

“The detective said, ‘We have to outsource this to Unified (police) because it can be considered a conflict of interest,’” she said she was told. “I was sad because I really wanted help from my police officers that I know. But I completely understand.”

She praised Unified police detectives for their handling of the case, but said the timespan between when she first reported it to when he was arrested was unsettling.

“It was getting close to the Fourth of July, and I was going to be in the parade, and I was really nervous,” she said. “I worried he’d show up or show up to a council meeting.”

About a week after the holiday festivities, officials issued a warrant for his arrest. 

“I wasn’t sure how long it would take to arrest him because it was not South Salt Lake’s jurisdiction and it’s not some big case,” she said. “I sent a text to our detectives, and they immediately went to his house. He wasn’t home, but they went back later and they arrested him.”

Francis Carney, 67, pleaded guilty to electronic communication harassment, a class C misdemeanor, and he spent several months in jail before he was sentenced. Thomas said the sentencing was unnerving.

“The judge asked if I wanted to get up and speak,” she said. “And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ But it was scary because he was standing just a few feet away from me. Yeah, I’m in a safe environment, but it’s still terrifying seeing him there.”

Thomas said the second situation was more complicated. The man, whom she once considered a friend, worked for South Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and become a source of fear, just like Carney.

“I blocked him because he was harassing me online,” she said. “So when he started posting threats on Facebook, I couldn’t see the messages. ... It was actually residents that brought it to my attention. He’d sent me a text message, and I told him, ‘Please do not text me or I’ll report you.’ ... Then he went online, like that really made him mad. ... That’s when the residents started seeing stuff and started calling me because they were really concerned for my safety.”

The decision of whether or not to block a constituent on social media is more complicated than it first appears.

“There’s a hard balance because I’m a public figure and I need to be able to have people talk to me,” Thomas said. “But at the same time, I deserve to have a private life and I deserve to be respected and not feel threatened. There needs to be a balance there.”

What can lawmakers do?

Utah Rep. Angela Romero, who co-sponsored legislation that strengthened and expanded stalking laws last year, says there are still issues that need to be addressed by lawmakers.

“We have to take concerns seriously,” Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said. “(Stalking and harassment) are scary. So I hope that there is something we as a body can do, as we move forward, so we can protect people, so people don’t have to live in fear.”

Romero said she and most of the other female public officials she knows have struggled with harassment in varying degrees, and sometimes an innate or socialized desire to be nice and accommodating works against women who should seek help.

“How do you define harassment?” Romero said. “I’ve had a situation where when I was working on domestic violence legislation, a particular individual who didn’t like the legislation would always show up and talk about his situation, and he made me uncomfortable. He made my interns uncomfortable, and he had a long history of domestic violence.”

Jen Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, said these kinds of crimes are difficult to track, and she acknowledged that seeking a protective order or stalking injunction can be a complicated maze of paperwork. Part of the reason the laws require or assume a relationship is because that’s the most common scenario.

“That’s much more common than being attacked by a stranger,” she said. “However if you are a public person, like Corey, that can be different. ... It’s happened to me. Some people will latch onto that public persona, and sometimes it can be an attention-seeking measure to tweet at someone, harass someone.”

She notes that a new law that took effect in May of 2018 could help in some situations. 

“It acknowledges that technology has changed,” Oxborrow said. “If someone is harassing you and they send two or more texts, emails or messages through an app, then police have a legal mechanism to respond to that person. It’s a class B misdemeanor if they continue to harass or stalk you electronically.”

If you’re scared, seek help

One thing Oxborrow knows for sure is that people who seek help have better outcomes.

“The risk of reassault goes down by 65% when people engage with a qualified, trained professional victim advocate,” she said, suggesting a national hotline, 1-800-879-LINK. “They start to actively safety plan. I think it’s also validating for people to engage with someone who says, ‘You’re not crazy.’ People start to be more aware of their rights and their safety gets better.”

“We have to take concerns seriously. (Stalking and harassment) are scary. So I hope that there is something we as a body can do, as we move forward, so we can protect people, so people don’t have to live in fear.” — Utah Rep. Angela Romero

Thomas said her second harasser was angry about the city’s discussion on whether or not to raise taxes. While there were multiple council members who, like Thomas, opposed a tax increase, he targeted her.

“He just went way over the top and started threatening me,” she said. But this time getting help would be more complicated. Because he wasn’t sending her messages directly, and because they had no previous relationship of any kind, getting a protective order was impossible, police and prosecutors told her.

Instead, the Chamber fired him, and then she took personal precautions to make herself more safe. She chose to share her story to raise awareness about the issue, some of the problems in dealing with it and to encourage men and women in this situation to seek help.

Thomas acknowledges that she has advantages that most people in her situation do not have because of her position. She contrasted the help she got from both city and county officials in her first case with the difference in trying to navigate the legal system herself in the second case.

“It’s very difficult and confusing,” Thomas said of trying to file legal paperwork in her latest case. “I was fortunate last year not having to do all of it, ... the D.A. helping because they had the case. ... It’s just a few pages, but it can be complicated. I feel guilty sometimes. The media is taking an interest in my story, but there are hundreds of women going through this every day who don’t have, or don’t feel like they have a voice.”

Thomas, Romero and Richardson all believe there is more legislatively that can be done to protect victims of stalking and harassment. 

“I’d like to work with our legislators in trying to figure out how to change these laws,” Thomas said. 

Richardson adds, “I think (the legislative efforts led by) Angela Romero really helped people see we’ve had this narrow definition (of protective orders), and they don’t all fit. Legislation isn’t always a solution, but it could be in this case.”

Romero believes it’s the Legislature’s job to address this issue more specifically.

“It’s intimidating and it’s scary,” Romero said. “So I hope that there is something we as a body can do, moving forward, so we can protect people, so people don’t have to live in fear.”

Both Thomas and Romero worry that these problems will deter young people, especially women from seeking public office or serving in high profile positions.

“We want young people involved in politics,” Thomas said. “Things like this, that are reported in the news, could scare some of those young women (away) from running for office. ... I want there to be more women, and young women, running.”

Her advice is simple — if you’re scared, seek help.

“I want to encourage women who are going through situations like this, who are feeling lost and like they don’t know what to do, and they’re scared, and they don’t know who to turn to, go talk to the police department,” she said. “They are there to listen, and they will give you advice.”

Despite the issues she’s had, Thomas said running for office has enhanced and enriched her life in a myriad of ways.

“It’s changed my life, amazingly,” she said of serving as a councilwoman, “in more ways that I ever expected. I never, ever thought I would get involved in politics, ever. Like this was the last thing I thought I’d be doing in my 20s.”

Romero echoes that sentiment.

“People have to follow their intuition,” she said. “If they feel like something is not right, they have to listen to this. And we need to listen to friends, family, people who are experience this and not take it lightly. ... Why should someone live in fear because they were in the public eye?”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the second man who harassed Thomas worked for South Salt Lake City. He never worked for the city. He worked for the South Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, and that is a separate entity, although the Chamber’s offices are located at South Salt Lake City Hall.