This is the column I was going to write last week but didn’t.
Someone I personally knew attempted suicide last month. Luckily, they survived.
The circumstances surrounding SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill’s attempted suicide are murky. The Tribune did confirm Hill’s office at the County Government Center was searched by the FBI merely hours before he attempted to take his own life. We don’t know much else. It’s not my place to speculate like others have on certain websites.
Some have said, “Of course he tried to kill himself. He’s guilty.” They’re not sure what he’s guilty of, but they believe he’s guilty because he attempted suicide — as if to say that suicidal people are inherently guilty by default. Some have even made light of it because they believe he’s so guilty of whatever they think he did, there’s no reason to show empathy. Others have pointed to his admitted mental health struggles as a reason he should immediately resign — as if to say people with mental health struggles should not serve in public positions.
If Hill did something that’s criminal in nature, he should face justice. If he’s guilty of even half the accusations they’ve levied against him for nearly a decade, then Hill should do the honorable thing and resign. But that opinion should remain independent from the notion that depression exhibited by people you don’t like is worth mockery and exploitation.
The way this story developed and the conversation surrounding it personally moved me. When I first read about Hill’s attempted suicide, the first thought that came to mind was: This is what happens when the same people attack someone on a weekly basis for years. I’m talking about people who not only wrote hundreds of articles about him, they stalked him. They attacked his family, his wife and step-children. They repeatedly sued him and lost. They believe he is responsible for the damages they suffered to their reputation. Without evidence, they claimed he orchestrated co-founder Karen Velie’s DUI arrest in 2013. Without evidence, they indicated he was also responsible for the “kidnapping” of Velie’s grandchildren later that year. They’ve harassed, stalked and even threatened people they believe — without evidence — are involved with Hill in a conspiracy to destroy them. These are people the New Times’ Shredder once wrote about making abuse of Hill “a kind of cottage industry.” In all my years of covering news and politics, I’ve never seen anything like it.
CalCoastNews turned their cross-hairs on me because they believe I’ve conspired with or is/was in a business relationship with Hill. This conspiracy theory stemmed from the fact that — for a while — I was the only writer on the Central Coast who fact-checked their “reporting” on Hill and held them to account. In order to discredit me, they dismissed me as a “government troll,” a label that implied I scrutinized their work at the behest of government officials. Velie first mentioned the conspiracy theory on the radio in 2013. She would go on to reiterate the claim in various legal documents, but never provided evidence. And Velie uses anonymous pseudonyms on her own website to peddle that conspiracy theory.
The harassment my family and I endured on that flawed basis was extensive. It lasted for years until I published a book about it. By publishing Defamers, I was able to effectively let go of the depression I felt, and categorically reject the falsehoods and negativity they attributed to me. Were my experiences a strain on my mental health? Absolutely. It was perfectly natural to feel low about the circumstances, given the ongoing and menacing nature. But was my depression an indicator of guilt? Not at all.
This is where my depression story runs parallel to Hill’s.
Back in 2015, CalCoastNews and their contributor Kevin P. Rice hit me with a large wave of defamatory allegations, some of which appeared in robocalls and postcards. As someone who wasn’t an elected official, I was blindsided by the onslaught. I couldn’t think of any private citizen I knew or heard about being the recipient of some obscene robocalls, postcards, articles and defamatory op-eds about family members. It was surreal.
In my heart and soul, I knew the allegations were false, but the attacks were relentless and extensive. You could type in my name on Google or any potential employer doing their due diligence on a background check could look and see these allegations appearing prominently in the search results. I wasn’t sure if I was going to ever find work in this county again. I wasn’t sure if people were going to look at me the same again. Down was up.
This was certainly a low point for me, yet I always had people who had my back. I reached out to my family and friends for support and guidance. Luckily, I was able to pull through, but not without their harassment.
CalCoastNews’ aim wasn’t to not only tarnish my reputation, but also engineer my depression, which they could exploit. They surmised the severity and frequency of their false allegations would leave me in a depressed, vulnerable state. Based on the evidence, I reasonably believe CalCoastNews co-founder Karen Velie anonymously submitted a tip about my late aunt, who had special needs, to County Social Services because I was “depressed.” The implication was that my “depression” from being reported on by CalCoastNews posted a health and safety risk to my aunt, who my family cared for. Velie’s tip resulted in a case worker visiting the home. The case was promptly closed, but the experience traumatized my aunt. At that point, I was no longer depressed. I was angry. My family was attacked.
Her retaliation partly stems from reporting I did about a local suicide she covered in 2014. Velie claimed that 13-year-old Los Osos resident Nailani Buchholtz committed suicide because of “years of torment” and bullying. The Buchholtz family disputed her article, demanded she publish a correction but she refused. In fact, in a series of comments left on CalCoastNews’ Facebook page, Velie attacked the family, stating Nailani’s father threatened to change his story about his daughter’s suicide to make her look bad. Velie stood by the story, citing unnamed sources and family members, despite the fact that wording in her article was literally ripped from another tabloid covering the suicide of another young person. Even after The Tribune reported that the local school district and the sheriff’s department backed the family’s claim that Nailani was not bullied into suicide, Velie refused to make a correction. And when the New Times revisited the Buchholtz controversy years later, Velie refused to comment or apologize to the family for the suffering they endured.
CalCoastNews has a long, perverse history of exploiting their victims’ depression to garner attention. You may not like someone, but taking delight in the suffering of others at their lowest point is disgusting and unnecessary. CalCoastNews could simply report the facts and set the vindictiveness aside, but they can’t and they won’t.
Instead of wallowing in resentment over what we can’t change, we can evolve by rising above them. Here’s some advice on how that can be achieved:
Harmful words about you may sting, but they don’t define you. Don’t let them define who you are and what you hope to accomplish. Instead of focusing on what they say you are, focus on what you know to be true. Know the goodness that you are. They won’t change, but you can. They won’t better themselves, but you can and will. And if you’re feeling down, that’s okay. Reach out to someone. Talk to someone you trust. They’re out there. Feeling alone is a natural emotional reflex to bullying and harassment, but you’re not. Stick around. You got this. And I got you.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1–800–273–8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741–741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews. Click here to subscribe to his Patreon, check out exclusive news features and more.