On December 22, 2018, someone sent an unsolicited Instagram DM to Jesse Guttenberg, the brother of Parkland shooting victim Jaime Guttenberg. She had been gunned down at school only ten months earlier.
"I killed your sister. It was fun," the message from @nikolas.killed.your.sister read. "She had her whole life ahead of her and I fucking stole it from her. Hahaha."
The harassing comments didn't stop there. On Christmas Eve, Guttenberg was tagged in another post, this time by @nik.taunts_: "I stole your sister's future, buddy, With the power of my AR-15." The next day, Guttenberg was targeted by an account heaping praise on serial killer Ted Bundy.
"I’m your abductor, I'm kidnapping you fool," @teddykillspeople wrote in a post mentioning Guttenberg and his late sister's best friend.
An FBI investigation led to Santa Ana, California, where agents arrested 21-year-old Brandon Michael Fleury. According to court documents, Fleury admitted to creating some of the Instagram profiles to "troll" the survivors of the horrific school shooting.
Yesterday, following a jury trial, a federal judge in the Southern District of Florida sentenced Fleury, now age 22, to more than five years in prison for cyberstalking the victims and making a kidnapping threat over Instagram. After his release, Fleury will serve three years of probation.
FBI agents say they were able to trace five of the harassing Instagram accounts to an IP address linked to a house in Santa Ana. After executing a search warrant at the home in January 2019, they discovered Fleury lived there with his father and brother. Fleury told the agents he made the accounts to "troll" the victims' families and gun-reform advocates in Parkland.
"Fleury stated he was motivated by gaining popularity and notoriety after posting the messages," FBI documents say. "He claimed his messages were not threats but were 'more like taunts.'"
Federal agents seized a tablet Fleury said he had used to access Instagram and found more than 2,000 images of Ted Bundy and dozens of images of other infamous murderers, including the Columbine shooters and Jeffrey Dahmer.
Before his trial, Fleury's federal public defenders attempted to classify his comments as free speech in a motion to dismiss the case. The lawyers cited case law that found picketing by the Westboro Baptist Church outside the funeral of a U.S. Marine was protected speech.
"Mr. Fleury's speech is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment," his attorneys wrote, in part. "Simply put, Mr. Fleury had a right to be inside his home posting on Instagram."
Prosecutors countered that the comments constituted "true threats," making them an exception to the First Amendment. U.S. District Judge Rodolfo Ruiz agreed in an order denying the public defenders' motion and allowed the case to move forward as planned.
"[Fleury's] speech fails to express any ideas related to a legitimate public interest and has no tangential connection to any form of public debate," Ruiz wrote in his decision.
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Fleury's attorneys had also argued the 22-year-old has autism spectrum disorder. But federal prosecutors pointed out that two doctors who evaluated Fleury agreed he knew right from wrong. Although the defense presented a third medical witness at trial, jurors convicted Fleury on charges of interstate transmission of a threat to kidnap and interstate cyberstalking.
In a tweet yesterday, Fred Guttenberg — the father of Jaime and Jesse Guttenberg — noted that the case could help other targets of online harassment in the future.
"This is a precedent setting case that will give the FBI and DOJ additional tools to prosecute harassment going forward," he wrote.