Ryan Seay's life was turned upside down by a phone call. It was late October of last year, and the sound engineer was celebrating his 28th birthday in Sarasota. Exhausted after a day at the Ringling Museum of Art, Seay and his girlfriend fell asleep on their lumpy hotel room mattress. Then the plastic phone started shrieking.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir, but there is something wrong with the heat in your shower," the woman from the front desk chirped. Still groggy from his nap, Seay said not to worry about it. "It could be affecting the other rooms," the woman insisted. "We're sending someone up."

But when Seay opened the door moments later, it wasn't maintenance entering his room. It was the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Holly Jacobs and Ryan Seay during happier times.
Courtesy of Ryan Seay
Holly Jacobs and Ryan Seay during happier times.

"They were clever about it," Seay says. "I'll give them that."

Sheriff's deputies served Seay with a notice to appear in court, and soon he was facing criminal charges. Four years after they had broken up, Seay's ex-girlfriend, Holly Jacobs, claimed a disgruntled Seay had spread hundreds of explicit pictures and videos of her on the internet.

Jacobs founded a nonprofit and quickly became the international face of what she called "cyber rape" or "revenge porn." The pretty, brunet 30-year-old appeared on CNN, NBC, and Fox News and penned op-ed pieces in newspapers as far-flung as England and Australia about her ordeal. At her urging, Cali­fornia recently passed a law against revenge porn. Nearly a dozen other states including New York have moved to follow its lead.

But the straightforward story of sex and revenge got much more complicated October 3. That's when Hillsborough County prosecutors dropped all the charges against Seay because of a lack of evidence. Seay is now speaking publicly for the first time. He says Jacobs has launched a World Wide Web witch-hunt that could ensnare other innocent men like him.

"She has been bullying me for the past year," he says. "Holly is guilty of the exact same thing that she is accusing me of: taking these pics, splashing them internationally, and attaching my name to them. She has ruined my life."

But Jacobs says Seay is no victim, and the failed criminal case against him only proves her point that the nation needs to crack down on revenge porn. "Honestly, he's guilty," she says. "I just need stronger laws on the books to prove it."

There is little the two agree on. Seay and Jacobs — then named Holli Thometz — met at Hillsborough High School in Tampa. They began dating in 2005 after Jacobs returned from college. When Jacobs moved to Florida International University in Miami for graduate school, they dated long-distance, often swapping sexual photos and videos on the internet.

But the relationship was on-and-off. "We would date for three or four weeks exclusively; then we'd see someone else," Seay says. "But we always stupidly came back to what was comfortable to us."

They finally broke up for good in late 2008 when Jacobs began dating a German guy, Seay says, adding the split was amicable. "There was no problem at all," he says. "We talked on the phone once a week. I gave her relationship advice."

Everything changed New Year's Day 2009, however. That's when a friend called to say Jacobs' Facebook account had been hacked. "You need to get on Facebook right away," the friend told her. "Somebody has changed your profile pic to a nude photo of you."

But when Jacobs called Seay, he claimed that he too had been victimized. "He was the only one with those photos," Jacobs says. "I think he was pretending to go through the same thing so we would reconnect again on some level."

Seay tells another story. His email account had also been hacked, he says, and he wondered if it wasn't one of Jacobs' other flings. "At no point during that conversation did she accuse me of being the one to release these pictures," he says. "In fact, she even apologized to me that I was wrapped up in it." He says they remained in touch for several months until Jacobs suddenly stopped answering his emails. Then, in August, Seay received a letter from Jacobs' attorney saying that more nude pictures of her had appeared on several websites and demanding that Seay take them down.

Seay insists he never posted the pics on the internet but agreed to try to get them removed anyway. Each success, however, just made it appear as if he were the one behind the revenge porn.

("If that's what he truly did, then it was a stupid move," Jacobs says. "His defense... is about as convincing as somebody in grade school saying that their dog ate their homework.")

When more material popped up months later — including a video titled "Masturbation 201 by Professor Holli Thometz" that was sent to her fellow students at FIU — Jacobs decided to file an injunction against her ex, which was soon dismissed, and the revenge porn continued appearing online. Jacobs then approached Miami-Dade detectives. But they declined to investigate her complaint because she had originally agreed to take the photos.

Finally, she persuaded Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputies to investigate, and in March 2012, Tampa prosecutors filed criminal cyber-stalking charges against Seay. A month later, Jacobs sued her ex in Miami-Dade court. "She really did a number on me," Seay says. "All of a sudden, I'm accused of being a cyber rapist. I definitely got depressed."

The accusations rocked his family, particularly his pastor grandfather. They also nearly cost him his job as a sound engineer who was ironically entrusted with preventing exactly the type of leaks of sensitive information he was now accused of masterminding. "I would bring in new clients, and it would go really well until suddenly they'd call and say, 'Have you Googled your name recently?' " he says. "Then I'd lose $3,000 and two weeks of my time."

Seay hired a criminal attorney, who advised him to keep quiet. As a result, his side of the story was drowned out by Jacobs, who eloquently made her case around the globe.

"Because of the criminal charges, I couldn't talk to the media," Seay says. "I just had to sit here for six months not talking to anyone. I locked myself away and every day had see Google updates about what a terrible person I was. It was horrible."

But his legal strategy paid off October 3 when Hillsborough County prosecutors dropped all charges against him. The only evidence that investigators had unearthed was a tenuous link between his computer network and a fake email account created in his ex's name. But detectives couldn't prove Seay had created the email account or used it to disseminate any photos. "We had some proof issues that we couldn't overcome," says Mark Cox, a spokesman for the State Attorney's Office.

The decision was a victory for Seay but not an outright vindication. "I will always be known as 'the horrible ex-boyfriend who did these horrible crimes,' " he says. "The person that Holly thinks that I am and that she has created in her head couldn't be farther from the truth. I find what she's done inexcusable, but half of me feels really bad for her... this whole situation has done some damage to her."

But the personal battle between Seay and Jacobs has also ballooned into a much bigger debate over the need for laws against revenge porn. Seay sees Jacobs' crusade as dangerous, not only for him but also for others who could get unjustly imprisoned by overly aggressive legislation.

"If I could figure out who did this, I would be right there with her at the podium championing holding that person accountable," he says. "But what I can't support is a witch-hunt that is completely baseless... People will use these laws for things they were never intended for."

Seay claims that the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office did a sloppy job investigating his case and that prosecutors never should have filed charges in the first place. Had stronger laws been on the books in Florida, he could be wrongly rotting behind bars, he says. (Seay has been arrested several other times, including once in 2012 for indecent exposure, but he was never charged with a crime.)

"The state doesn't have the resources to investigate these cases," he says. "I had detectives making leaps of judgment against me over technical internet issues that they didn't even understand... Not one person even asked for my laptop!"

Jacobs counters that lack of resources is an argument for — not against — revenge porn laws in Florida. This May, she pushed state legislators to pass such a bill, but it was watered down and ultimately shelved.

Her nonprofit, End Revenge Porn, has had some success. Earlier this month, California became the first state to pass revenge porn legislation. But even that law has huge loopholes, Jacobs says. It equates the offense to "disorderly conduct" — a misdemeanor — and doesn't protect victims like her who knowingly took the pictures but were betrayed later by former lovers.

The legislation has alarmed free speech advocates such as Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It is imperative the state draw the legislation as narrowly as possible," he says, commending California for softening its law. "If it doesn't, there are going to be costly legal challenges" and questionable convictions. Roughly a dozen other states, including Florida, are considering bills to ban revenge porn.

Despite prosecutors' dropping charges against her ex, Jacobs remains more committed than ever to the cause. Not even Seay's suggestion that she posted some of the photos herself — a claim she furiously denies — can shake her dedication to fighting revenge porn. "It's become about helping others and changing lives and preventing this type of thing from happening again in the future," she says.

But she does have some barbed words for the man she still believes ruined her life with revenge porn: "If he just said, 'I didn't do it,' people would still blame him. But if he says, 'I'm a victim too,' then people start to wonder."

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4 comments
eeoop
eeoop

Unfortunately with digital images there's always a chance someone will send it around. It's one thing if it was on a Polaroid (but nowadays that can be scanned and posted too!)

JustSayin
JustSayin

So how about just not putting nude video of yourself out there in the first place......

Anonymous
Anonymous

@JustSayin How about not being a total creep and placing responsibility with the person who distributed the content without her consent?

 
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