An obsessive Dublin youth has admitted that he was behind a disturbing harassment campaign using a web of social media identities to target and threaten a BBC journalist.
The 17-year-old boy, who had 30 to 40 online aliases, pleaded guilty at the Dublin Children’s Court to harassing Belfast-based broadcast journalist Aileen Moynagh between October 25th, 2020 and the end of February this year.
The boy, who has a range of complex disorders, had an “obsessive crush” on her, the court was told. He cannot be identified because he is a minor.
The boy had been previously cautioned about similar activities against two RTÉ journalists and had an “unhealthy interest” in women journalists. His family had been trying to get him assistance since he was aged eight, but services were not made available, the court also heard.
Victim impact statement
Judge Paul Kelly asked for a victim impact statement to be drafted and adjourned sentencing for probation and welfare reports on the boy to be furnished in November.
The teen, who was accompanied to the hearing by his father, remains on bail, but the court has ordered that his internet access must be for educational purposes only, and his movements have been restricted.
In evidence, Detective Garda Kenneth McGreevy told Judge Kelly that Ms Moynagh was an established and respected journalist with BBC Northern Ireland.
She came to Malahide Garda station in Dublin in December last year and dictated a comprehensive statement. She detailed how she had received unsolicited and unwanted communications from the boy, then aged 16, via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Ms Moynagh did not have to attend the hearing on Wednesday.
Despite attempts to block him, he succeeded in further attempts to communicate and at one point masqueraded as the mother of a child with autism looking for the journalist to make contact.
He also sent a message that he was “considering taking his own life”. Gardaí visited his home and carried out a search with the consent and co-operation of the boy’s parents who have spent years trying to get him assistance.
A computer and USB keys were seized.
Detective Garda McGreevy said he spoke to the boy who admitted that he was the person intimidating and harassing the journalist.
When questioned at a garda station, the teen provided additional information about his online activities and that he had an obsessive compulsive interest in some female journalists.
The court heard the boy was shocked when Ms Moynagh’s statement was read over to him. It outlined that at one stage she had thought it was an adult sending the messages. Out of fear she moved out of her house for five days, and she was concerned about her movements.
She had reported it to the PSNI, but the complaint was not passed on to the Republic and the journalist later contacted the gardaí.
Detective Garda McGreevy told the court some messages were threatening and very upsetting or contained pages of rants which eroded her quality of life.
At one stage the boy travelled to Belfast despite being warned by gardaí not to contact her, and he went to within a couple of hundred yards of her workplace.
It was established that he had been barred from Twitter 150 times while using various aliases.
The detective said the boy could not wish for better parents. The teen was “high functioning” and had talents that if put to good use could make him a contributing member of society, but “he has decided to use them for a negative purpose”.
The court heard that while using an alias the boy made representations to Sinn Féin politician Michelle Gildernew in which he was abusive to the journalist.
He had sent Ms Moyagh friend requests on Facebook and had obtained a photo of her partner.
Each time she tried to block him online, he set up another profile and email address to contact her or sent messages to her newsroom.
There were various “fishing type” emails where he tried to entice her to engage with him. The boy admitted to gardaí he had an “obsessive crush” on the BBC journalist.
On a family holiday he convinced his parents to take a route, via the North, because he believed he would be near her home.
He had no prior criminal convictions.
The detective agreed with defence solicitor Eoghan O’Sullivan that the victim had provided gardaí with a screenshot showing the identity of the boy. The teen’s parents were at their wits end and had been “through hell and high water” to get him away from this type of activity.
When he sent the message, pretending to be the mother of a child with autism, he was really describing himself, the court heard.
The detective agreed with Mr O'Sullivan that the boy also stated he did not know how to converse with a girl his own age. He was high functioning intellectually and academically and could not communicate with young people.
'Emotional punching bag'
The court heard the teen used the harassment as“an emotional punching bag”.
The detective described how the teenager’s communications would at first seem innocent, but it was a “spider’s web” and he would then become abusive and emotionally threatening. The detective said he sent her a picture of her partner with messages: “who the F is this”, “how is he back on the scene” and “I am going to kill myself”.
The court heard there had diagnoses of autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Tourette Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Trichotillomania, a hair pulling disorder.
It had impacted hugely on his own family who had tried to get him assistance since he was aged eight.
A residential therapeutic placement had been identified for him but the HSE would not provide funding, Mr O’Sullivan said.
The teen had a breakdown and was hospitalised for two months after he was involved in similar harassment of two RTÉ journalists. He also caused a person to lose their job after he made an unfounded, false allegation against them, the court was told.
The solicitor offered an apology on behalf of the boy, and he submitted that the guilty plea had spared Ms Moynagh having to give evidence in a trial.
Concerns were raised by the detective garda that the boy had also been sending unwanted messages to a female student in Galway.
The judge told the boy he cannot leave Dublin unless his parents and the detective approve and that he must stay out of the North. He cannot have or use any internet capable devices except for educational purposes.
The boy spoke briefly at the end of the hearing to say he understood the bail terms and that he risked being held in custody if he breaks them.