LIVING IN TERROR
BY DONNA LADD
Targets of Racist Web Sites Find Nowhere to Hide
Sometimes words aren’t enough.
[Image of Roy Frankhouser]
[Image caption: White supremacist Roy Frankhouser lingers outside the office
of a Pennsylvania fair-housing advocate in August 1998. Frankhouser sparked
an Internet campaign of terror that drove the woman from the state.]
Former Reading, Pennsylvania, housing advocate Bonnie Jouhari got a rare
apology last week from a Ku Klux Klansman who sparked an internet campaign
of terror against her. But what Jouhari and her pregnant teenage daughter
really need is a safe place to live. Now in hiding, the navy veteran says
she doesn’t believe federal, state, and local law enforcement care enough
about online threats to try to stop them.
“They think this is a joke,” she says, in a phone interview from an
White supremacists have been using the Internet to threaten Jouhari, now
44, for nearly two years, as well as to trace her actions and whereabouts.
Her nightmare started in late 1997 when, as a fair-housing specialist and
the chairwoman of the Berks County Hate Crimes Task Force, she started
investigating extreme racial imbalances between the city of Reading and the
surrounding county of Berks. She noticed that the better-quality and more-
affordable housing was outside city limits, where few black people lived. A
closer look revealed that the Klan had a heavy presence there, and that
minorities met stiff resistance if they attempted to move outside the urban
core. Jouhari formed a task force to promote cultural sensitivity, as well
as to encourage the police department to take action on hate crimes. “It
didn’t do much good, but I did it anyway,” Jouhari says.
Her efforts quickly attracted the attention of Roy Frankhouser, a onetime
grand dragon of the Pennsylvania Ku Klux Klan who now runs the Mountain
Church of Jesus Christ in Reading. In early 1998, Frankhouser started
shadowing Jouhari. “He lived two blocks from my office,” she says. “He’d
sit right outside my office. He’d take my picture. Every place I went, he
Jouhari, who lived alone with her daughter, Danielle Horton, began to get
threatening phone calls at home, including one from a man who advised her
to draw up a will. Then the harassment spread to the Internet. In March
1998, Ryan Wilson, a neo-Nazi from nearby Fishtown, displayed images of
Jouhari on his Web site, Alpha.org. He showed her office exploding into
flames and displayed a picture of Jouhari, who is white, with text in which
he labeled her a “race traitor” who ought to be “hung from the neck from
the nearest tree or lamppost.” Then the torch passed back to Frankhouser,
who showed Wilson’s images on his White Forum cable television show.
Seeking protection, Jouhari called the state FBI office in Pennsylvania,
and the Reading police department, where she filed a report against
Frankhouser. Although she had videotapes of him hovering outside her
office, the police refused to charge him with stalking, and even threatened
to charge her with filing a false complaint.
“It was twisted,” says David Goldman, executive director of Hatewatch.org,
who has tried to help Jouhari. “Local law enforcement was trying to charge
Bonnie. They were making the victim guilty.” With the aid of a New Jersey
civil rights attorney, Brian Levin, Jouhari convinced the state attorney
general to file a restraining order requiring Wilson to take the
threatening Web images down. Yet Wilson was not charged with a crime,
though he openly admitted in a TV interview to threatening Jouhari.
The frightening phone calls continued. By November 1998, Jouhari was so
terrified that she packed her daughter and whatever belongings fit in her
car and left for Seattle the day after Thanksgiving. They were on the run.
“I trashed my life to try to get away from them,” Jouhari says. “Why did we
have to pick up and move? It made no sense. We left all our furniture. It
was not a joke to us.”
In Seattle, the pair tried to start over. With the help of a friend there,
they set up a new home, while trying to keep their identities secret. But
on New Year’s Eve, the phone rang. Anonymous obscenities and threats were
back. Jouhari blames the Internet for giving her attackers the ability to
discover her whereabouts. “These people are everywhere. They’re like
roaches,” she says. “They sit around all day on the Web and find stuff.
They can find anything about you that’s out there. Utility records. Check-
cashing card. You name it; it’s out there.”
Terrified, Jouhari and Horton moved to another apartment in Seattle, then
moved again. She called the FBI, who told her to alert the Seattle police.
The police said that because the threats had been instigated on the Net,
the matter was up to the Justice Department, which did not respond. And the
phone kept ringing. Then in November 1999 Jouhari came home to find a
bullet in the kitchen cabinet. The police turned the bullet over to the
FBI. A few weeks later, Horton returned from school and discovered the
balcony door open, lights on, and their clothes pulled from the closet.
Jouhari is caught in an all-too-common web of confusion, Hatewatch’s
Goldman says. Goldman argues law enforcement hasn’t yet figured out how to
handle crimes that happen over the Internet. Should local authorities
prosecute a stalker who lives in their district? Or, since Web threats
cross state lines, should responsibility rest with the feds? What if the
threat originates in one say, and is picked up by a racist sympathizer in,
say, Seattle? Who then is charged with protecting the victim? “If you are
Bill Gates, eBay, or Yahoo, and something occurs, you’ll get quick action,”
Goldman says. “If you are Joe Smith, not well known and simply online, the
likelihood that you won’t get a sufficient investigation is really great.
Ordinary people through no fault of their own are being targeted.”
Bonnie Jouhari believes she is caught in a First Amendment quandary.
Because the Supreme Court has ruled that Internet speech is protected,
government agencies don’t want to be seen as trying to limit expression on
the Web. Jouhari agrees that hate mongers shouldn’t be censored, but says
direct threats against individuals are another story. “No one wants to get
into a First Amendment battle,” she says. “I said to an FBI agent,
‘Somebody blows up where we live, and you’ll think this is serious.’ On the
Web, [law enforcement] perceives it as less threatening.”
But the FBI has been teaching officers to recognize and respond to online
threats. Special Agent J. Andre LaMonde of San Antonio, for one, focuses
on civil rights, hate crimes, and police brutality. He says harassing e-
mail sent to individuals should be treated the same as harassment in any
other form. The generalized racist invective found on hate sites, however,
may fall short of breaking the law. LaMonde says that even when sites rail
against particular enemies, prosecutors don’t have a case until a person
posting says he or she will personally cause and that may still not be
enough to prompt charges. “If the threat is posted on, say, a Web site,
that isn’t usually directed toward a specific individual,” he says. “It’s
usually against a group of individuals, and that’s much more difficult to
prosecute, if you can prosecute at all. . . . If it says they want to kill
a specific person, sometimes you still have to have a subject [who is
planning to commit the crime].”
Despite additional training for federal officers, Goldman worries that the
FBI won’t pay attention to Jouhari’s case, and others like it, until it’s
too late. He points to the infamous Nuremberg Files Web site, which
provided names and addresses of abortion doctors and pro-choice activists,
along with the names of their children. After Dr. Barnett Slepian was
killed by a sniper in his Buffalo home in 1998, his name was crossed off
the Nuremberg list. A federal court later ruled that the site was a direct
threat and that its content could be regulated.
A similar threat may be brewing online for critics of Holocaust
revisionism. In recent weeks, at least three Web sites have turned up
targeting supporters of the Nizkor Project (nizkor.org), a site devoted to
debunking the arguments of Holocaust deniers. Sara Salzman, a Denver woman
singled out by the sites, says her feud with white supremacists started in
Usenet’s alt.revisionism, where she has written against Holocaust deniers
for five years. Until January, she says, the
discussion group hosted spirited, if sometimes heated, debate. Then it got
ugly, with anti-Semites posting veiled threats. One Usenet member
“threatened to skin me alive and use my skin to make a new holster for his
gun,” she says. Another asked, “How are your kids . . . doing today, Sara?”
By April, anti-Nizkor Web sites started to surface. Thundernet.org,
registered to right-wing extremist Don Ellis and since taken down, said
Salzman sells her children for sex. Another site listed her home address
and the names of her children and neighbors, and used an Internet mapmaker
to give directions to her home. Yet another parodied the Nizkor Project,
saying, “Given the evidence, why do people believe the Jews?” It promises a
Nizkor phone book, and “photos, street maps, perversions, lies exposed,
etc.” of several Nizkor regulars, including Salzman and project founder Ken
Like Jouhari, Salzman is frustrated with law enforcement’s lack of
response. She contacted the Denver office of the FBI’s domestic-terrorism
unit, which did not know what Usenet is, Salzman says, let alone know about
Don Ellis or Thundernet. Absent an “overt threat,” she says, the FBI told
her it could do nothing. Finally, she went to Arkansas, where Ellis lives,
and got the local prosecutor to write him a cease-and-desist letter.
Salzman, who says she is opposed to Internet censorship, worries that
online bigots are growing more aggressive because law enforcement and
Internet service providers do so little to curtail the threats. “They’ve
gone so long without repercussions that they think they’re Teflon,” she
says. Salzman does credit one British Internet company, Tripod (owned by
Lycos), which removed a Web site offering a photo purported to be of her
house. “It’s the only ISP that’s ever been that responsive,” she says.
Indeed, Internet providers are often caught in the middle in such cases,
Goldman says. On the one hand, courts have limited the companies’
responsibility for content distributed through their servers. On May 1,
2000, the Supreme Court reaffirmed this principle, ruling that providers
are not legally or financially liable when someone is defamed in e-mail or
bulletin-board messages. Goldman doesn’t support government censorship, but
his group is drawing up a code of conduct that he wants service providers
to follow. Under the code, providers would agree to investigate allegations
of harassment by subscribers and terminate accounts used for intimidation
or threats. He hopes that courts will start holding service providers
liable if they have been informed and done nothing.
In February, Goldman found another death threat against Jouhari on the
Internet, this time in Usenet and disguised as a letter from Jouhari
herself. The posting was sent to at least 60 groups, using a spoof address.
Goldman asked the FBI’s computer unit to help trace the message. “I had to
bring them up to speed on what Usenet is,” he says. “How are they supposed
to investigate?” Apparently not at all. No investigator has yet contacted
The Usenet posting was too much for Jouhari. The day Goldman called her
about it, she moved into a hotel and soon left Seattle for the East Coast.
As a former housing agent, she contacted U.S. Housing and Urban Development
Secretary Andrew Cuomo. Finally, she found a friendly federal ear. Cuomo,
she says, personally called her and promised that his agency would do what
it can. It could not bring criminal charges against her harassers, but it
could investigate a civil charge that she was denied fair housing by the
Jouhari found slight relief through HUD, which pressured Frankhouser to
issue a rare statement at a press conference May 11, also attended by the
Reverend Jesse Jackson and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. “As a result of my
activities, Ms. Jouhari and her daughter finally felt they had no choice
but to leave Pennsylvania,” Frankhouser said in the apology, which he must
also read on his cable show by May 19. “They left behind friends,
belongings, and the only hometown they had ever known.” He agreed to stay
at least 100 feet from Jouhari and Horton for the rest of his life, and
never refer to them on his cable show. He must display an
antidiscrimination poster from HUD outside his home, perform 1000 hours of
community service, and pay 10 percent of his salary to the two women for
the next 10 years for any year in which he makes more than $25,000.
HUD also charged that neo-Nazi Ryan Wilson violated the Fair Housing Act.
He recently failed to appear at a civil hearing where he was found liable.
A judge is considering damages: HUD has asked for $22,000 in federal fines
and $1 million paid to the two money Jouhari does not expect to see. “Ryan
Wilson doesn’t have any money anyway,” she says, but the penalties might
deter other cyberstalkers.
As for Frankhouser’s apology, Jouhari doubts it will have much effect on
him. “If anything,” she says, “this is going to make these people even
madder at me.” Jouhari wants the federal government to give her and Horton
new identities so they can stop looking over their shoulders and get on
with life. She has no idea whether the Justice Department is pursuing the
criminal leads in her case, or even whether the case is still open. She
can’t get a definitive answer. “Maybe I should change my name to Elian
Gonzalez,” she says.
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