Intent to irritate: But blogger not guilty of stalking
The woman whose website about a local drug task force landed her in jail for a month won a victory in court Wednesday on charges of stalking an ATF agent. Even as her own attorney calls her blogging and photography habits bizarre, Elisha Strom has been found not guilty for her behavior.
The brash 35-year-old maintains she was merely needling Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Special Agent John Stoltz when she posted photos of him, his car, license plate, and house on her blog, I HeArTE JADE.
"Ridiculing the ridiculous," is how Strom characterized her activities in a eve-of-trial posting on her blog, which originally tracked the activities of the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force until she was ordered to cease contact with its members. She turned her attention to the other law enforcement officers including the ATF's Stoltz.
"I was very concerned for my safety and the safety of my family," Stoltz testified during the December 1 trial in Greene County General District Court. Aware of her history with JADE, Stoltz said he'd discussed her state of mind with those officers, and he noted that Strom, who lives in Bedford, had driven more than 70 miles to follow and photograph him.
Stoltz said he was troubled by an incident he heard about in which Strom admittedly fired a gun and by her previous connection to white supremacists. (Strom's estranged husband is Kevin Strom, who led a local white separatist group until he was convicted of one count of child porn possession in 2008.)
Greene Commonwealth's Attorney Ron Morris presented more than 20 entries from iHeArTE JADE, including pictures taken in January 2009 of Stoltz driving a blue Dodge Charger.
Stoltz said he grew concerned when Strom, in April of that year, told the world the distance from JADE headquarters to his house in Greene County and a provided a photo of a Sheetz convenience store about a quarter of a mile from his house.
"Any individual who wanted to cause me harm, it would lead them right to my door," testified Stoltz, though he acknowledged on cross-examination that many of the subsequent posts used the original photos of him and his car.
Stoltz cited a letter Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo had written Strom in February of that year ordering her to back off from following JADE and possibly interfering with its activities, as well as his own ATF supervisor's visit to Strom July 28 asking her to knock it off. (Naturally, Strom wrote and illustrated a blog post about the visit from the ATF brass.)
On August 24, Stoltz, who Strom nicknamed "SeeSee" on her blog, filed a complaint for stalking, a class 1 misdemeanor. She was arrested August 30 after he spotted her outside his home taking fresh photos.
Last year, Strom was jailed for posting the address of a JADE officer, which can be a class 6 felony under Virginia law. The ACLU contended that law was unconstitutional and offered to defend Strom, who ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge. Earlier this year, Delegate Rob Bell amended the law to allow law enforcement officers to petition the court to remove their addresses from online public records.
In court, defense attorney Adam Rhea conceded that Strom's blog embarrasses police and that while her behavior has bordered on harassment, her efforts are constitutionally protected speech–- not conduct, as defined in the stalking statute, aimed at putting a person in fear. Rhea pointed out that Strom issued no threats against Stoltz and that she neither threatened nor followed his family members.
Strom, who did not testify, sported auburn tresses (though without the pink strands evident in earlier hearings) and chewed gum steadily throughout the three-hour trial.
Near the end, Judge William Barkley took a break to read the blog posts entered into evidence. In a maddening bit of timing, the courtroom's ventilation system cranked on just as the soft-spoken jurist offered the reasoning behind his not-guilty verdict, making most of his remarks inaudible–- even to reporters sitting in the front row.
Among the snatches of Barkley's decision the Hook did hear: "The court finds from the evidence that it is clearly Ms. Strom's position to irritate police officers, including Stoltz, and to ridicule police," and "Ms. Strom has the right to do these."
Prosecutor Morris immediately asked for a protective order, and declined comment after the hearing.
"Yay, I'm not a stalker," Strom said afterward. "I can't wait to see what they throw at me next."
Strom has claimed that some of the charges against her were intended to get her to take down her website, and she vows that's not going to happen. "It's not yet a crime to blog," she tells a reporter.
Updated 2:55pm with the correct spelling of ridiculous.