San Luis Obispo County, California — It really is a tight-knit community, so when anonymous users with fake names spend months — and even years — going after someone in the community, it can be daunting. Several names have appeared online that have made disparaging comments about me, my work, my alleged associations and allegiances.
As a writer who has written extensively about a controversial online tabloid doing nefarious things, I should have seen it coming. I would later discover that a major source of the anonymous acrimony was coming from the daughter of the tabloid’s co-founder.
Summer Awbrey is the daughter of Karen Velie, CalCoastNews.com’s co-founder. Awbrey goes by the name “Summer Antoinette” on Facebook. I don’t know her personally. Never met her. From what I gathered, Summer, 37, is a ghost writer for CalCoastNews, having penned articles featuring businesses and events that advertise on their website. At one time, Awbrey was a masseuse who operated a business in Poway, California called “A Touch of Summer.”
Until the middle of last year, I knew her as “Robert Mason.”
Mason has routinely commented on columns penned by Tribune columnist Tom Fulks, and rarely opines elsewhere. Mason has repeatedly claimed that Fulks is a paid consultant for San Luis Obispo County Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill; that Fulks is working with bloggers, other consultants and Pacific Gas & Electric’s Tom Jones to “trash those he does not agree with through claims they are felons or deviates.”
According to Mason, he is a Democrat — and sometimes identified as a “progressive” — who was ashamed of those who represented the party. But he never indicated how he knew of these allegations or where he got the allegations from. However, most of his comments show he declared the allegations as a statement of fact.
In February 2015, Mason mentioned me as being part of a conspiracy. He alleged that Fulks “hired” me to trash anyone who disagreed with his clients. On February 12, Mason wrote, “Ochs has gone as far as criminal impersonation. Ochs has photo shopped a reporters [sic] name on a Reddit post then posted it around the web claiming it was the reporter. A simple contact with Redditt [sic] unmasks Ochs for the real person he is.”
In 2014, a user on the social bookmarking site reddit named “lightsofslo” accused me of showing sexism toward Karen Velie. This claim included an accusation that I stated Velie “murdered her daughter and worse”; that Velie was “diagnosed with many mental conditions”; that I’m using “common internet misogynist troll techniques” as a way to shut down CalCoastNews. And for good measure, lightsofslo accused me of “sucking dick for coke.” At one point I received a screenshot from someone claiming to be an “administrator” of the subreddit for /r/SLO. The screenshot featured Velie’s personal email address as a title placed after the “lightsofslo” username. Without verifying its authenticity, I shared the screenshot on my personal Facebook and on Cal Coast Fraud, my Facebook page dedicated to fact-checking and analyzing CalCoastNews-related content.
In May 2014, Velie contacted my employer and made similar allegations to ones that “lightsofslo” made. Then she threatened retaliation against my employer, my employer’s family and my family if disciplinary action wasn’t taken against me. As a result of Velie’s threats and harassment, I left my job at Information Press. At the time, I suspected Velie was behind the anonymous trolling. A year later, I surmised that Velie had some sort of relationship with Mason, given the reference to a reddit post mentioning Velie’s email.
Over a week after Mason made these allegations about me, Velie published an article called, “Is Morro Bay parks official a government troll?”
Several parts of their mostly unsubstantiated article intrigued me.
“Ochs, through Facebook and several websites, has made numerous false claims alleging specific people are felons, or diagnosed mentally ill,” wrote Velie. “He has impersonated reporters.”
Velie went on to echo what Mason alleged about me “photoshopping” the screenshot featuring Velie’s email address on it. Then it dawned on me: I was duped. Whoever sent me the screenshot was perhaps involved with CalCoastNews. When I logged onto reddit to track the comments made by “lightsofslo,” I could not find Velie’s email address anywhere.
Both Velie and Mason made the same unique, unsubstantiated allegations about me. There was a connection. I was sure of it.
The article garnered many comments from a myriad of pseudonyms that repeated Velie and Mason’s trademark accusations.
“Adam Hill, Tom Fulks and Tom Jones of PG&E have worke[d] hard to promote Aaron Ochs knowing what a deranged individual he is,” wrote user MarkJames. “They are using him to harm reputations.”
MarkJames revealed that “he” contacted my former employers, claiming I had quit Information Press because I was “fired” and my “claims of extortion are untrue.” The user also mentioned calling my other employer. Shortly after “James” revealed contacting my employers, I spoke to an employee at one of them. He recalled someone by the name of “Karen” kept calling my employer, asking about me.
“Looks like Ochs and his handler Tom Fulks were in line for some if not all of the $62,000 in advertising expenditures that Adam Hill ‘forgot’ to report to the FPPC,” wrote user IronHub.
The article followed an anonymous, automated call that went to thousands of Morro Bay residents. Referring to me to as a “vindictive liar,” the caller portrayed me as a misogynist who used language to demean local women. The robocall appeared after a Facebook group appeared called “Block Aaron Ochs.” The group was led by Kevin P. Rice, a CalCoastNews contributor and prolific troll that was responsible for defamatory automated calls about local political candidates. Velie was a member of “Block Aaron Ochs.”
The robocall lasted for weeks. I received a flurry of messages from friends and strangers asking how they can get the calls to stop. Some residents told me they received the call at least three times. After speaking with the Morro Bay Police Department, they advised me to inform people to report the call. I suggested readers report the calls for criminal harassment. Mason appeared on the page shortly after I made that post, claiming he reported me to the police for attempting to hinder the robocaller’s free speech. Later I received a call from the police department suggesting I should remove my post because the repeated calls did not fall within the penal code definition of criminal harassment. According to them, one caller had complained that I was trying to suppress the free speech of the robocaller.
To stop the robocalls, I decided to resign from my volunteer position as a Morro Bay Recreation & Parks commissioner. But I wasn’t going to stop finding out who was behind the cyber-harassment that triggered an unprecedented avalanche of defamation.
Common Internet users like me don’t have the tools to unmask anonymous users unless they provide clues in their publicly accessible posts. Not everyone can hire a lawyer, spend thousands of dollars on a retainer with hourly costs, and subpoena Internet Service Providers for information that unveils the anonymous’s true identity. And if people have the money, they often don’t have the time to commit to a potentially lengthy, contentious legal endeavor. It’s completely free to defame, but costly to defend yourself in more ways than one.
Since CalCoastNews published their articles about me, Mason continued to circulate the allegations on Facebook and The Tribune. I began saving his comments in hopes it would lead me to a provable connection between Mason and Velie.
“ The manipulation of Tom Fulks, PG&E’s Tom Jones, Aaron Ochs and Adam Hill to trash anyone who questions them by speaking out in public comment is despicable,” wrote Mason on March 29, 2015.
“[Fulks has] been seen at a SLO bar with Adam Hill and PG&E spokesman Tom Jones talking strategy for Hill’s campaign. Then people post lies on the internet meant to destroy reputations by claiming people are drug addicts or criminals using people like Aaron Ochs to do the dirty work.” wrote Mason on April 13, 2015.
Mason reappeared nearly a year later to make the same claims. “The entire Adam Hill team, Tom Fulks, Jay Salter, Russ Hodin and PG&E’s Tom Jone [sic], attempt to manipulate the public with their repeated claims, much of which is manufactured,” wrote Mason on April 24.
Though the language and comments were the same, I didn’t have anything linking Mason to Velie.
In October last year, I decided to look into Robert Mason himself. Who is he?
Mason’s Facebook profile consisted of posts that shared CalCoastNews articles, specifically articles that featured the website’s advertisers. On his friends list, Mason was connected to people all over the world except for a handful of anonymous users. Like Mason, each of these users had several similarities: (1) the profiles listed Karen Velie’s relatives as friends, (2) they all played the popular Facebook game Farmville through 2011, and (3) their Farmville characters were all named “Summer.”
Facebook games often reward users who recruit friends to play. Facebook game developers see more players as more opportunities to earn a profit from microtransactions: a system of paying for virtual items using real-world currency. This “Summer” person created a series of anonymous accounts that play Farmville to gain leverage. Mason’s non-anonymous friends also played Farmville and were likely connected with “Summer” in-game.
I heard the name “Summer” before. On the anonymous, localized message board site Topix, I saw a local post that mentioned Karen Velie’s daughter, Summer Awbrey. Don’t remember the exact context, but it was negative. I didn’t find the post credible at the time. Later, an acquaintance from Los Osos called my mother and informed her that someone named Summer Awbrey had contacted her about me. In the same conversation with my mother, the acquaintance revealed that she also spoke to Velie, who revealed places I’ve recently walked to in Morro Bay.
In November 2015, Velie claimed she spoke to my neighbors, who reportedly expressed “worry” about my family. According to CalCoastNews contributor Peggy Pavek, someone had informed her that my neighbors reported me to County Social Services. The “report” to Social Services was referenced in an April 8, 2015 editorial by the same acquaintance who informed me that Velie and Awbrey spoke with her just days before.
It was clear to me I was also being stalked by Velie and Awbrey.
Awbrey was connected to all the anonymous accounts that had “Summer” as a character, including “Robert Mason”: a fake. Some of the accounts linked to Awbrey were connected to several local officials. CalCoastNews often mines data from people’s Facebook profiles — connections, photos and posts — to use on their website without permission or attribution.
Late last year, I began to reveal my findings about Awbrey on Cal Coast Fraud. Shortly after revealing Awbrey as a person involved in extensive cyber-harassment of Velie’s targets, a friend reached out to me. She informed me that Velie called her.
“[Velie] started the conversation with, ‘That’s not my daughter’s name,’” my friend told me late last year.
“ [There was] manic screeching,” she said. “I told her I didn’t know what the hell she is talking about. Then she went on to blame you for everything that has happened [to] you.”
At one point, Velie bragged to her about digging through my trash.
Velie knew that I had outed her daughter. Yet “Robert Mason,” using photos of a man I couldn’t find anywhere online (possibly deceased), continued to post.
In January this year I was attacked by a person named Gary Russell. Similar to “Mason,” Russell was created to appear like an actual person, a local who said it was a shame to “condemn this guy [me], because he supposedly speaks for the political party I support.” On his Facebook profile, Russell claimed to be an Internal Auditor for the County of San Luis Obispo. County Human Resources disagreed. Russell claimed to be a Morro Bay homeowner who was from Los Angeles. No property records existed for Russell. For some reason, Russell repeatedly insisted he was gay.
But a Gary Russell — with the exact same photo as this “Gary Russell” — did exist. The real Gary Russell is a freelance writer in New South Wales, Australia. Russell is widely known for his work in connection with the BBC television series Doctor Who. I reached out to Planet 55 Studios, an Australian animation company where he works as Executive Producer, and asked if he was the “Gary Russell” who also lives in Morro Bay. To the surprise of no one, Planet 55 Studios confirmed that the real Gary Russell never set foot in Morro Bay, and had no connection to local politics whatsoever.
It was more likely than not that the same person who accused me of “criminal impersonation” was criminally impersonating a public figure from another continent.
This is not CalCoastNews’ first foray into online trolling. In January 2014, I traced an anonymously produced propaganda video — which accused a county supervisor of kidnapping Velie’s grandchildren — back to the son of CalCoastNews co-founder Dan Blackburn. The account behind the video was named “Robert Bacon,” which sounds awfully similar to “Robert Mason.”
In May 2015, CalCoastNews accused the same county supervisor’s reelection campaign of using an anonymous Facebook person named “Jenny Herzog” to threaten a local radio station’s advertising and broadcasting license. Though they promised to find the perpetrator behind “Herzog,” CalCoastNews never did, and they never showed evidence that the supervisor was involved, nor did they retract the story. Yet I was falsely accused by CalCoastNews commenters of being “Herzog.”
“This has Aaron Ochs written all over it,” wrote a user named “diamond.”
“It became a crime in 2010 to impersonate someone on the web,” reminded user pismo20. “This should be an easy suit and the public would like to know who this is, Adam Hill, his assistant Hannah Miller, PG&E’s Tom Jones, the unemployable Aaron Ochs or [Hill’s wife] Dee Torres.” Sounds too familiar. It appeared to be an incomplete frame job, given the story was never followed up on.
This year, a pair of anonymous Facebook pages appeared on the scene to call for SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill to be “fired” and arrested. In addition to sharing and advertising Velie’s articles about me and Hill on Facebook, the anonymous organizers of “Fire Adam Hill” and “No Adam Hill for SLO” produced a series of flyers calling me a paid troll for Hill, accusing me of being a criminal and urging anyone to report me to law enforcement if I’m engaged in suspicious activity. They eventually broadened their targets by producing more incendiary flyers, featuring a handful of readers who occasionally comment and “like” my posts. Anyone who attempted to correct Velie’s “reporting” was immediately blocked from posting and their comments were removed. Though she denies being involved with these pages, Velie is clearly evading full knowledge. I believe Awbrey is deeply involved.
In addition to the trolling I endured from other CalCoastNews contributors, I was being stalked and harassed by two sociopaths who should not be involved in any news site. The rotten apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
When I read CalCoastNews’ Dan Blackburn complain on their site about one of Velie’s now-deceased daughters being labeled the “spawn of Satan” on an anonymous, satiric Facebook page, I had to laugh. I have no sympathy. Does that make me a terrible person for laughing? I don’t think so. Losing a child is never funny, but the irony is uniquely amusing to me. And dammit, I’ve earned the right to laugh.
It’s a Herculean task to explain my situation to my friends and loved ones. Every time I do, a wave of bitter emotions come rushing back to me, and I can’t process everything that’s happened to me over the past two years in a couple of sentences. Total sensory overload. Sometimes the path to least resistance is silence, but the thought of remaining silent is downright terrifying.
Cyber-harassment is indeed a problem. It can take over your life in every way. Anyone who’s hatefully obsessed enough can go after your family, friends, employers and anything that’s meaningful to you. I’ve endured it for the past two years. I’ve talked about my personal struggles before, but not as comprehensively as this.
Staying afraid and silent is a miserable choice to make, but it’s not the only choice. It’s important to air these grievances and share similar experiences so people know life exists beyond the cyber-harassment — with the potential to thrive. If we don’t, the notion that hatred quells freedom will remain interconnected in our daily lives until we decide to something about it, which isn’t easy. But necessary.