When imposters first took hold of Greenport resident Michael Edelson’s name, he and his wife, Ingrid, were completely unaware of the drama that began playing out in comments sections on the internet.
They didn’t know about the fake Facebook account or the nasty comments that were posted online using Mr. Edelson’s identity calling the town government “full of crony pernicious simple ineptitude.”
They couldn’t have guessed that the name of the street they live on would be shared, that the posers would call their neighbors “crude, ill-tempered and tasteless” or that the death of their beloved dog would soon become a pawn in the deception.
That all changed in early 2013 over something seemingly innocent: hot chocolate.
That winter, a friend called the Edelsons to ask for a “snow check,” Ms. Edelson said in an interview. The couple had no idea what she was talking about. The friend explained that someone using Mr. Edelson’s name had posted on North Fork Patch that he would pay for hot chocolate for locals at Aldo’s coffee shop in Greenport Village that day. The Edelsons were confused. They hadn’t written the post.
After searching Patch, Mr. Edelson — a retired Stony Brook film studies and photography professor and former daily newspaper editor — quickly discovered comments by a variety of “Edelsons” dating back nearly four months, all using some variation of his name. In post after post, these commenters made outrageous comments or controversial remarks.
Then, just before Mr. Edelson was hospitalized for hip surgery, his wife said, one of them posted where the couple lived. That’s when it hit home that this wasn’t a simple prank, she said.
The couple began to fear the mundane. A letter was left opened in their mailbox. A used dog toy was thrown into their yard. Normally, these things would be overlooked, she said. But as fake after fake flooded the online comments, innocent moments took on a sinister edge.
The couple then discovered the deception spread beyond Patch. A Facebook account had also been set up in Mr. Edelson’s name without his knowledge, they said.
“The continued harassment and stalking doesn’t make for a good life,” Mr. Edelson said. “You begin to walk down the street looking over your shoulder.”
Ms. Edelson said some comments appeared to track her movements, with fake Michael Edelsons remarking about her trips to the local coffee shop.
“I don’t even know how this happened,” she said, breaking into tears. “I would do things and they would be posted. They were invading my life and nobody cared.”
Mr. Edelson sent a plea to then-North Fork Patch editor Erin Schultz to take down the comments.
Ms. Schultz, who had been a Suffolk Times reporter before moving to Patch, said in an interview that she knew some users on her site were using fake names. But the situation with Mr. Edelson, she said, was unique.
“People were posting really obnoxious comments under the name of Michael Edelson, which didn’t reflect him at all,” she said. “I don’t know why he would be a target for that. He’s a very nice, reasonable older gentleman.”
Ms. Schultz said she banned some of the bogus accounts in February 2013. But according to an exhibit in a civil complaint Mr. Edelson filed against Patch, AOL and Facebook later that year, one of the phony users protested, asking Ms. Schultz via email to reactivate the account.
“I have not insulted anyone nor used any inappropriate language,” the imposter wrote. “I am perplexed. Thanks for your help. Sincerely, Mike.”
Ms. Schultz said monitoring online comment sections can take up much of a news editor’s time. Some news outlets, like National Public Radio, recently removed comments entirely, while others require users to sign in using Facebook accounts to better link them to their true identities.
“It is a fine line between getting a community conversation going and getting a good one going or having this guy come in and hijacking the whole thing,” Ms. Schultz said.
The Edelsons had their suspicions about who was behind the harassment. Mr. Edelson suspected his involvement on the board of a North Fork nonprofit might have been the cause, since his tenure ended with bruised egos and hurt feelings.
Still, the Edelsons had no proof and no leads. And despite some of the Patch accounts being banned, the Edelson impersonators returned, the couple said.
One online Edelson targeted Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, according to a screen shot provided by the Edelsons.
Meanwhile, the real Mr. Edelson said he felt obligated to personally explain the situation to the supervisor. In an interview last week, Mr. Russell said he knew Mr. Edelson to speak his mind but was “surprised at the tone and tenor” of the online comments.
When Mr. Edelson met with him to explain, Mr. Russell said he “absolutely” believed him. “He’s always been outspoken, but he’s always been a gentleman,” the supervisor said.
Ms. Edelson said she was also forced to explain the online remarks to friends and acquaintances. In one instance, a member of a volunteer committee privately confessed to her that she wasn’t looking forward to working with Mr. Edelson after reading the online remarks.
“Our reputation was shot and we couldn’t really do anything,” Ms. Edelson said.
Then, in September 2013, the couple felt a line was crossed. Their dog, Lordy, died of cancer. A towering Irish wolfhound, Lordy was well known around Greenport Village and notes of sympathy poured in to the couple.
Online, one Edelson made a post thanking the community for its support, Mr. Edelson said. It was a fake, using the tragedy to cement his claim as the true Michael Edelson and deepen the deception, the couple claims.
Years later, Ms. Edelson still shakes at the memory. As she broke down, she said the impersonator had used the couple’s grief as a tool.
“This was more than just a pet,” she said, sobbing. “For him to use the death of my dog to further harass us was just the last straw for me. I hated this.”
While online impersonation can be annoying, frustrating or even embarrassing, it’s usually not grounds for criminal prosecution, said Hermann Walz, a former Queens and Brooklyn prosecutor and current New York City defense attorney.
Mr. Walz, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said identity theft charges cover incidents in which a thief uses someone else’s identity for monetary gain.
“[If] I assume your identity to gain something, to make money, to defraud someone — that’s a crime,” he said. “But posting slander or outright lies is not a crime.”
Mr. Walz said the legal remedy for such cases takes place in civil courts, where the victim can sue for defamation or libel. While online impersonation can be costly to litigate, Mr. Walz said making the admittedly rare incidents a criminal offense would open up the “floodgates” for laws to criminalize other forms of protected speech.
Mr. Walz cited comedians who imitate others as part of their acts. If they posted online and someone was offended, he suggested, should they be criminally liable? “You’d be going down a slippery slope,” he said.
The Edelsons went to Southold Town police to report the incidents soon after they noticed the comments, Chief Martin Flatley said. A lieutenant handling the case forwarded the complaint to the local district attorney’s office, he said.
“To make it fit into a crime, and the amount of work that was necessary … the DA’s office did not come up with any criminal charges,” Chief Flatley added.
After “stalking” messages and comments that followed Lordy’s death, Mr. Edelson hired an attorney. In 2013, he filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court against Patch.com, its parent company, AOL, and Facebook to reveal the identities of those responsible.
The companies refused to divulge who had written the comments, Mr. Edelson said.
After months of dead ends, he switched tactics and instead sought a subpoena against two internet providers, AT&T and Cablevision, that were linked to several of the comments, according to a response to the court’s subpoena. Mr. Edelson’s attorney figured one of the companies might provide an IP address — a sort of digital fingerprint — that could lead back to an account and, thus, a suspect.
But the companies said they would alert those to whom the IP addresses belonged that their identities would be revealed. The order could have been disputed, but went undisturbed.
Finally, in 2014, according to the response to the subpoena, the internet providers came back with names linked to two IP addresses from which three of the messages had been posted. One of those accounts was registered to the Jordan family of Cutchogue.
Mr. Edelson was shocked that the postings were linked to Richard Jordan, whom he said he barely knew. Mr. Jordan wasn’t even on the couple’s radar as a possibility. But Mr. Edelson said he immediately realized a potential motive.
In 2012, just before the impersonations started, Mr. Edelson was president of the North Fork Animal Welfare League’s board of directors. Mr. Jordan was among a group of new members who wanted control of the board, Mr. Edelson claimed.
According to allegations made in legal filings made by Mr. Edelson, Mr. Jordan was barred from entering a meeting and sent a “threatening” email to Mr. Edelson. Soon after, the Edelson comments began to appear online, Mr. Edelson said.
In an interview with the Suffolk Times last week, Mr. Jordan denied involvement with most of the postings and also rejected the allegations about friction on the North Fork Animal Welfare League board.
But he admitted to writing one comment on a Feb. 2013 North Fork Patch article about a cell tower, in which he joked about town employees “phon[ing] it in.”
“I did make one comment, to be honest with you,” he told a Suffolk Times reporter.
Mr. Jordan said the comment was a “prank,” but declined to comment why he targeted Mr. Edelson.
According to a response to a court subpoena, that comment wasn’t sent from Cutchogue. Instead, the IP address was linked to an account owned by an Andrew Jordan in California.
One day before that was posted, another comment from the same California address was made by someone claiming to be “Prof. Mike Edelson,” according to a response to a court subpoena. Richard Jordan denied any knowledge of that comment in an interview.
What can be linked to Mr. Jordan is one other comment posted from the Cablevision account listed in Mr. Jordan’s wife’s name, in which a “Mike Edelson” claims that drug abuse laws were illegal. “As a retired Professor from Stony Brook, I decry this abuse of government power,” said the comment, which a response to the court’s subpoena states was sent from Mr. Jordan’s Cutchogue house.
Mr. Jordan repeatedly denied any knowledge of the comments beyond the “Michaelangelo Edelson” post.
“I have lots of people using my house,” he said.
In 2014, Mr. Edelson amended his lawsuit to only list Mr. Jordan and his wife, who was registered as the owner of the IP address, as defendants in the case.
In legal filings after the new complaint was made, Mr. Jordan denied the allegations in full. Meanwhile, Mr. Edelson said, the online comments stopped. But the Edelsons said they’re unsure if Mr. Jordan was responsible for all the postings.
Some of the posts had different styles or used punctuation differently, the couple said.
“We kind of figured he’s not the only one,” Ms. Edelson said.
Mr. Edelson said he had racked up thousands in legal fees and his attorney advised him to take over filling out the necessary court documents without his help to save money. It was therapeutic, in a way, to close out the incidents personally, he said.
Mr. Edelson never met Mr. Jordan in court; the case was heard entirely through paperwork, he said. After months of court filings, the Jordans and Edelsons agreed early this year to work through a mediator to settle the lawsuit.
On the afternoon of July 21, 2016, lawyers for Mr. Jordan and Mr. Edelson met at an office in Garden City to hash out a deal.
After two hours, a compromise was reached: Mr. Jordan agreed to cover the Edelsons’ legal fees, according to documents provided to The Suffolk Times by Mr. Edelson. In exchange, the lawsuit would be dropped.
According to the settlement documents, Mr. Jordan signed a note, in which he agreed to “refrain from acts of defamation or publishing false statements or false information” using Mr. Edelson’s name or “any variation of same in any capacity whatsoever.”
In an interview, Mr. Jordan claimed he settled the lawsuit despite what he called “spurious” claims against him because his insurance carrier was uninterested in paying for a protracted legal battle.
For Mr. Edelson, the settlement was vindication for years of unease. He claimed he was only interested in getting a confession and making the comments stop. After the mediation, Mr. Edelson said, he spotted Mr. Jordan leaving the legal office. The two didn’t speak, he said.
The Edelsons said they’ve tried to minimize the damage. For now, they’re just happy the incidents have stopped; they no longer have to fear their neighbors are plotting against them.
Mr. Edelson claims to have lost $2,000 locating the culprit — the settlement payment didn’t cover the cost of the mediation that ended the suit. But the Edelsons said they’re happy to stay offline, now wary of the internet’s dangers.
“This is a misbegotten child of the digital age,” Mr. Edelson said.
However, tucked away on Facebook, an account for a retired Stony Brook professor named Michael Edelson remains. The account has been dormant for years. There are no pictures, friends or any new postings since 2013. But on the profile’s “about” page, one quotation is listed as the user’s favorite.
“Sticks and stones can break paper or scissors,” it says. “But names can mark you forever.”
Photo caption: Michael and Ingrid Edelson inside their Greenport home. (Credit: Paul Squire)