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.
WARNING: “Joker” spoilers ahead
“Joker” is about a deranged man named Arthur Fleck, a clown performer and aspiring stand-up comedian who slowly descends into pure madness. The descent is accelerated by the grimness of early 1980s Gotham City society. Fleck’s growing psychosis externally manifests itself into his violent, psychopathic alter-ego: The Joker. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliantly haunting in his performance as he portrays a man who’s constantly at the end of his rope, laughing uncontrollably at inappropriate times as he surrenders himself to a world of negative thoughts and stillborn ambition.
“Joker” wasn’t exactly the movie I thought it would be. The hype and anticipation wasn’t up to par with the script, which forced “Joker” star Joaquin Phoenix through an escalating series of bad situations with no pause for reflection or humanity. Nonetheless, Phoenix’s performance was riveting.
It made me think of someone I know.
Fleck had a mental tic of laughing during inappropriate times. When he was placed in an awkward or fight-or-flight situation, he would laugh. The idea behind this story-telling device was to heighten the contrast between tragedy and comedy. Until the movie’s climax, “Joker” throttles between the two. Once Fleck muses about how he thought his life was a tragedy but realized it’s a comedy, the transformation into Joker truly begins.
I will never forget the day I heard Karen Velie laugh, then cry and scream over the phone to my former boss in 2014 — all in a matter of seconds. This is something I recalled in my book in detail. What struck me as bizarre — and quite frankly, disturbing — was how she communicated a possible threat to my boss in this sing-song, seemingly cheerful tone. I could hear her laughing after she said, “Are you going to take care of my problem or should I?” I was her problem.
Velie communicated this shortly after she screamed, “Oh God! Make it stop! Aaron Ochs is hurting me!” as if I was actively harming her. Yet there I was, standing quietly in the hallway, petrified.
There was a particular scene in “Joker” that brought me back to that moment. Days after talk show host Murray Franklin mocks Fleck by showing clips from his routine, Franklin invites Fleck onto the show. Now assuming the identity of Joker, Fleck appeared on the show. Instead of killing himself as he originally planned, Fleck changed his mind and killed Murray while on-air. Leading up to Murry’s violent end, Fleck cracked some morbid jokes and admitted to killing three men on a train.
Velie’s sudden mood swings and wild allegations felt like a crescendo leading to a similarly violent ending. My boss and I were understandably concerned for our personal safety. It was then I realized that we weren’t dealing with a self-described “investigative reporter.” We were dealing with a psychopath. This was the first time in my adult life that I felt actual fear.
One year later, Morro Bay was rocked by a robocall of mysterious origin, falsely accusing me of musing about getting a gun. The robocall implied I’d use it on unnamed individuals who provide public comment at government meetings. A Facebook user named “Robert Mason” wrote on my Facebook page, referring to the robocall allegations. After I urged readers to contact law enforcement if they feel they were harassed by the robocall (which some residents reported receiving up to twice a day without any way to opt out), “Mason” threatened to report me to the police for unlawfully infringing on the robocall source’s First Amendment rights. Then “Mason” added, “Don’t worry, Aaron Ochs. Your death will have more meaning than your life as a troll.”
In “Joker,” Fleck wrote in his notebook, “I hope my death makes more cents [sic] than my life.”
This wouldn’t be the first time Velie used a fake account to libel, harass and threaten me. Velie would assume and even roleplay as actual people, cultivate Facebook friends and then use those accounts to harass her perceived enemies. This disturbing activity is ongoing. This year, I reported Velie to law enforcement. I’m also pursuing a criminal investigation into her cyberstalking.
In 2017, Velie wrote in documents and testified in court that she has considered purchasing a firearm to protect herself from me. She justified this desire with false claims that I stalked her and her grandchildren. In support of these claims, Velie testified under oath that she filed “multiple” police reports. According to the judge, there were none. And every time she brazenly lied about me on the witness stand, she laughed. Then she cried.
When I watched “Joker,” I thought about all the mentally ill people who slip through the cracks of our system. But what I find extremely problematic is how comfortable people are having a mentally unstable person reporting what those cracks in the system are. In doing so, Velie incites a mob of followers that truly believe she is a harbinger of justice — followers like San Luis Obispo resident Dane Senser.
Then there was this.
Senser’s demonstrably unhinged comments also appeared on CalCoastNews. Like Senser, Velie has alleged for years that I’m part of an elaborate left-wing conspiracy to “cripple” and shut down her website and that I’m paid by District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill to do that. To Velie, I’m part of the “system” that “orchestrated” her DUI arrest and “kidnapped” her grandchildren. These constant allegations have resulted in harassment and threats against me.
At the end of “Joker,” Fleck is cheered on by his masked followers amidst riots and fiery chaos in Gotham City. One of those followers decides to take it upon themselves to kill future Batman’s parents. The killer recites the same line Joker told Murray before he killed him, “You get what you fuckin’ deserve.”
Recently, “Defamers” sold its 500th copy in San Luis Obispo County. Residents are intrigued by CalCoastNews and their operation. But what many didn’t know were the lengths Velie went to suppress criticism of her “reporting.” Since I published my book in February, nearly a dozen residents have come forward to share stories about their own harrowing encounters with Velie.
It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to notice that Karen Velie is mentally compromised, but it does take one to get her diagnosed and treated. The problem is the people enabling her, knowing full well what she did and continues to do, but do nothing to connect her with mental health professionals. I hold people like CalCoastNews co-founder Daniel Blackburn and Dave Congalton responsible for giving Velie a platform, massaging her delusions of grandeur, and doing absolutely nothing to provide a checks and balances for her Joker-like tendencies.
If there’s anything we can glean from “Joker,” it’s that we cannot afford to leave people like Karen Velie unchecked by society.