Melissa Anelli created her dream job: running a web site and podcast dedicated to J.K. Rowling's beloved Harry Potter series. But in this week's Criminal Podcast, Phoebe Judge tells the story of Anelli's online following and how it has brought with it a nightmarish eight years of being harassed by a stalker.
Since 2001, Anelli has run a Harry Potter fan site called the Leaky Cauldron, which provides news on the books and Harry Potter movies. The site is wildly popular among J.K. Rowling fans.
Anelli also has a podcast, one of the earliest out there, called Pottercast.
Because there were so many fans, Anelli felt the platforms offered good conversations and information and community.
"It was glorious," she said. "There was nothing better than watching the fans just enjoying a book and creating fan art and valuable discussions and friendships and creating communities and fan conventions."
"Now it’s a common thing but back then we were the first people to do it," she said.
One day, Anelli's colleagues told her they were having a problem with one of the Leaky Cauldron commenters. This person wanted her to read a piece of fiction they’d written and was growing increasingly angry when nobody was paying attention.
Finally, Anelli intervened with a polite email saying: "Please cooperate with the rules and respect the moderators."
That seemed to work out. She received an apology letter right away.
But the next day, she got an email saying: "I’m going to hunt you down wherever you live and slit your ear to ear like the stupid fat sow that you are."
"It was so alarming," Anelli recalled.
Anelli sent the email to her colleagues at the Leaky Cauldron and they banned the user from the site. They hoped that would be the end of it.
Yes, it was a horribly graphic threat. But the truth is, a lot of women who’ve made their careers online are constantly bombarded by cruel and often sexual messages.
Anelli and her colleagues started getting more information on the user and found out her name was Jessica Parker. She lived in New Zealand.
And then they realized that the piece of fiction Parker wanted read so badly was an odd, violent, sexual story -- about Anelli.
A 2014 Pew Research study found that 40 percent of Americans have been harassed online. And that harassment is disproportionately aimed and women. But it's less common for a woman to stalk another woman. The CDC reports that 88 percent of female stalking victims are stalked by men, while only 7 percent are stalked by another woman.
"She would send vicious, very, very graphic death threats, and also rape threats... She seemed to have a plan. Those were the most difficult ones because they were so, so graphic. And it just became commonplace," Anelli said.
The threats came coming.
Parker also got the addresses of Anelli’s family members and started sending them postcards multiple times a week.
After a year of this with no help from the police, the family went to the FBI, which launched a stalking investigation with the assistance of the New Zealand police. But they warned Anelli that cases like this can take years -- if a resolution was even possible.
The day before Christmas Eve 2011, Anelli got some good news from the FBI: a note from saying Parker has been arrested and charged with criminal harassment. Anelli and her family celebrated.
The harassment slowed down but eventually, started again.
"It’s horrifying how normal this is now," she said.
The experience has changed the way Anelli operates online now. She's much more cautious and never posts location information.
As for why her?
"There’s no logic. I drew the bad apple," she said.
Anelli thinks it's because she's come to represent the Harry Potter universe.
"I think it was because I was somebody doing things she wanted to do, or liked," she said. "Whatever admiration or like or whatever it was that she had for me sublimated into a desire to contact me, because she COULD contact me, 'cause I was available. You know? And when I refused that contact, the fixation, I guess, held."
You can hear more about Melissa Anelli's case on this week's Criminal podcast. Criminal is recorded at WUNC.