Sarah met the man she knew as James Bell in her Twitter DMs, where he showed up one day in 2018 asking if she had an Amazon wishlist. “All the Twitter honeys have one,” he wrote.
While the implied offer was abrupt, Sarah wasn’t entirely put off. She was, she says now, flattered by the flirty attention from someone she found, as she put it, “frankly, very hot.” She’d been using Twitter to make friends—people who became deeply important to her—for years, and the idea of meeting a boyfriend, or at least a crush, that way seemed reasonable too. She’d interacted with Bell on Twitter before the DM slide; so had plenty of people she knew. She looked at who their mutual followers were and thought, as she recalls, He has all these women followers who are notable, funny, respectable women. He’s probably OK. She created an Amazon wishlist and sent it to him.
There is a group of women who’ve met James Bell online over the years, and every story they have about him begins in a similar way: with an innocuous or vaguely flirty communication, always on social media. The women who have interacted with him over the past 19 years—yes, 19 years, and more on that in a moment—say he had a particular gift of online gab. He was funny but understated, flattering without laying it on too thick, and conveyed he was leading a bustling life in marketing or advertising or as a contractor for a cybersecurity company, traveling often. On Twitter, he interacted with a stable of smart, pretty, funny, left-leaning women, some with big public profiles. And he was handsome himself: The photos he sent to his online crushes show a guy with thick hair and movie-boyfriend stubble mugging in a shirt and tie in an artsy black-and-white shot, posing in sunglasses in a city somewhere, or shirtless on a beach, his arm extended and his impressive musculature on full display.
Over the course of what became a three-year online relationship, Sarah said, the man she knew as James sent her a few gifts, totaling a couple hundred dollars. The real investment, on her part anyway, was in time and emotion. They spent hours on the phone together every night, having phone sex and talking about deeply personal things. Bell always invented reasons not to video chat, but that was fine with Sarah; she had some insecurities about her looks and was more comfortable over text. (Sarah is her first name. We’re withholding her full name to protect her privacy and safety.)
Other oddities cropped up: James wouldn’t permit Sarah to follow him on his private Instagram, wouldn’t send photos of himself, and was oddly secretive about countless other aspects of his life.
He said he came to the Pacific Northwest, where Sarah lives, often. In 2019, he said he would be in town soon and that he’d visit her. But shortly before the visit, Sarah said, James purposely caused a fight, and they did not see each other. She later came to believe he had never come to town at all.
The dynamic quickly became strained.
“At no point was I under the delusion that I was his girlfriend and we were in an exclusive relationship,” Sarah said; James, she said, made it clear he didn’t want to be in a long-distance relationship. Over and over, she would “reach my breaking point,” as she puts it, and try to break it off, saying their interactions were keeping her from finding a partner closer to home.
“He would agree and we’d stop talking for a couple days or a week and then he’d pick it back up, try to call me, try to flirt with me, and I'd just let him,” Sarah said. The longest break was a full six months. The arguments and periods of silence, she said, “happened a couple dozen times. Over and over and over I tried to step away and he wouldn’t accept it.” If she got jealous or annoyed about him flirting with another woman on Twitter, he would tell her that they weren’t in a relationship and he could do what he wanted.
“So I'd find someone to go out with and he’d lose his mind,” Sarah said. “More than once he ruined first dates for me by blowing up my phone and being aggressive about what he was doing. He considered that disloyal.”
She finally decided to break off this strange non-relationship for good in April of 2021, after a serious violation of her stated sexual boundaries. She used to fall asleep on the phone with Bell, she said, and after doing so one night, she woke up early the next morning to him doing something she’d asked him not to do countless times: murmuring explicit incest fantasies about her and her siblings.
“I’d asked him over the course of years to not do that,” she said. “I made it very clear that I was uncomfortable and I didn’t consent to anything like that with him. He kept doing it. I realized there and then, that morning, that he’s not going to stop doing this.” She hung up the phone.
The two immediately got into a fight over text about the incident, and then, over the next few days, things got much, much worse. Sarah alleges that James deluged her with text abuse from a new phone number, and then, a few days later, posted an Instagram comment on her profile, with her full legal name—which was not associated with or mentioned on that profile—and the username she’d used on a video game forum for years.
“It told me he was looking for things about me, and that set me on edge,” Sarah said.
James soon texted her to claim that her address, phone number, and nude photos from an OnlyFans she’d created had leaked and were circulating on a forum. He refused to tell her which forum, a situation that made her “overwhelmed with fear,” she said.
When she calmed down enough to look at the situation critically, though, Sarah realized it was virtually impossible that her nudes were circulating or that she was being doxed, and that if anyone was doing it, it was probably James himself. She took a minute to collect herself and told him, as she recalls, “I’m sorry you feel like you have to act like a Gamergate mutant to women who spurn you.” She then blocked his Google number, deleted the doxing comment, and went back to work.
The situation escalated further. James began emailing her at work—though she’d never told him the name of her company—and implied he would tell her family, friends, and co-workers that she had an incest fetish, which she does not.
Things had begun to spin out of control on a Thursday, and by Saturday, Sarah knew she wasn’t alone. Terrified and stressed-out, she had locked her Twitter account and began tweeting about what was happening. That is how the other women found her.
Between 2003 and the present day, at least 10 women have had similar interactions with someone they knew as James Bell or James Richard or James Bee or Henry Pollard, or, in one case, James Santiago Richard. (No one else with these legal names is accused of participating in the harassment; these are, the women believe, all aliases used by the same person. For his part, the person they knew as James Bell claims that is his legal name, though there is some reason to doubt that.)
Not all of the women had online romantic relationships with Bell. Some women in sex work knew him only as a potential client, someone who’d offer to buy their content. But regardless of how they met him, in each case the women say the situation soured in frightening ways, with Bell sending a string of insults and harassment, threatening to post intimate photos of them, or saying he would contact their families and workplaces to share embarrassing details about their sex lives. In some cases, intimate photos of the women did end up on anonymous internet forums after the relationships went south.
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Bell would text the women to tell them their explicit photos had been leaked online, they say, often providing links or screenshots as proof. In each instance, he would say someone else had leaked the photos and that he’d simply stumbled upon them and wanted to warn them. It felt, they said, like a way to both witness their pain up-close and to offer himself up as a hero ready to step in and help. (The women were clear that they don’t have direct proof he posted their intimate photos, but in several cases he was the only person, or one of the only people, to have access to a specific photo before it ended up online—and he was virtually always the person to alert them that their photos had been leaked.)
The women say he also seemingly created dozens or hundreds of fake accounts on an absurd number of platforms to further his harassment or surveil his victims, including unusual places like Duolingo, Venmo, and even Animal Crossing.
Some, like Sarah, have had to take extreme measures for their safety: moving, changing their phone numbers, getting off social media. Others have had to have excruciating conversations with their families, co-workers, and bosses after, they say, Bell threatened to send explicit photos or explicit conversations to their employers or attempt to have them fired. (Nearly every state has a law against posting revenge porn, and these would seemingly cover at least some of Bell’s alleged behavior. Those laws virtually all make such behavior a misdemeanor, though, rather than anything more serious, and revenge porn experts say the laws are inconsistently applied.)
Bell’s identity isn’t exactly a mystery. Several of the women said that through intense online sleuthing, and before they ever learned of other victims, they had identified the same person as the man they allege is their tormentor, the man hiding behind the James Bell facade. Two women have even sued him in civil court, winning large default judgments when the man didn’t respond to the lawsuits. His birth name is Santiago Librado Belandres, a 39-year-old based in Southern California; court and public records show he’s lived in San Bernardino County virtually his entire life. (While Belandres says he legally changed his name to James Bell, public records and family members who refer to him as “Santiago” on social media suggest that may not be the case.) He’s consistently told his victims he has a background in cybersecurity, and while that may or may not be true, he doesn’t have much of an online presence, and there appear to be no current photos of him online. But, as his victims soon found, more than enough crumbs remained to lead them to his metaphorical door.
It was also more than enough for us to find him too; when reached for comment, Belandres adamantly denied engaging in harassment, posting retaliatory intimate photos online, or any other misconduct. The only thing he was guilty of, he told Motherboard, is sending a few too many emails after his online relationships ended.
An image Santiago Belandres used online. The image is redacted because the person whose image it is is not Belandres and is not accused of any improper behavior.
Finding him, the women say, helped bolster their relationships with one another. They have formed a network of emotional and financial support, raising nearly $43,000 to fund lawsuits, restraining-order applications, upgraded security systems, and other legal and safety expenses. (Sarah posted the GoFundMe under the name “Sarah Everett,” which is also a pseudonym.)
Now, the women are on the hunt for more potential victims, who might not know they’re part of a larger pattern of alleged harassment and online abuse.
“I know there are more girls,” Sarah said. “I know there are so many more people who have had run-ins with this person, and many of the victims I know, it’s caused them a tremendous amount of stress, anxiety, fear in their everyday lives.”
“I know there are other girls out there who have gone through that and are going through that now,” she said, finally. “I’d love to find them and let them know we’re all here for them. I want to be able to let them know they’re not alone.”
To report this story, Motherboard spoke with eight women who say they were victimized by Belandres and reviewed court records, emails, a stable of Twitter accounts the women say are linked to the same person, and digital scraps and footprints left across public records, social media sites, and online forums. We also spoke with a ninth woman, who sold Belandres nude photos and cut off communication with him after she found his requests too invasive, but didn’t have the same experiences of harassment the other women say they did.
We also spoke with Santiago Belandres, who confirmed he is James Bell and insisted, at some length, that he’s the real victim here. According to public records, he still lives in rural San Bernardino County, with his parents and other family members also tied to that address. We reached out by phone and email to several accounts from which women had received harassing messages, and received a response from an email account that his accusers say he previously used to harass them. (The name on the account is “James B.”)
Belandres claims he legally changed his name to “James Bell” in 2012 to make it easier to find employment, and wasn’t being misleading when he used that name with his online partners. He also claims to now live in San Diego. (Public records show no indication that he legally changed his name or lives in San Diego, and he declined to put us in touch with anyone who could support these and other claims, or provide documentation to support them; a close family member to whom Motherboard reached out did not respond.) He was willing to address virtually every aspect of this story and most of the questions we put to him, but he declined to say what he does for a living.
“I feel like it would be easy for them to contact my work,” he said of his accusers.
Belandres disputed many details of the interactions he’s had with the women now accusing him of harassment; for instance, he denied ever posting photos or other personal information online or contacting anyone’s family, friends or coworkers. (“I hope you at least make it clear I deny ever messaging anyone's family or friends and have yet to see anyone provide proof that I have,” he wrote to me in an email, shortly before publication.) But he acknowledged he’d had online relationships with many of the women, ones that ended badly. The situation, he said, is “a huge mess,” and one that he says has caused him to be harassed by the women themselves and by their anonymous defenders online.
“My family, friends, and co-workers continue to be harassed by these women and their online friends going on two years now,” he wrote in our first email exchange. “I’ve reported their harassment, threats to harm me and their blackmail/extortion attempts to the San Diego County police and have been told to let them handle it and not respond to them in any way, so I’m not sure I should be speaking to anyone trying to write a story to help them in publicly slandering me over false accusations like claiming I’ve posted ‘revenge porn’ with absolutely no proof because I never have.” (Sarah responds, “Accusing victims of the exact behavior perpetrated by the abuser is a textbook tactic used by stalkers, including cyberstalkers, to portray themselves as the victims of the circumstances. Two different courts have ruled in favor of two different victims. If he is concerned about false allegations, he should tell it to the judge.”)
Belandres did not provide documentation showing that he filed a police report in San Diego County, and the San Diego County sheriff’s office found no responsive records to a public information act request we filed. (Immediately before this story was published, he said he’d actually filed the report on Oceanside, a city in San Diego County. He also said that he was “going in today to file a report about Sarah [Redacted] and her twitter friends/coworkers.”)
Police record keeping is often not perfect, of course, and Belandres told me he’d opted to make a complaint but not file charges. “I told them I wasn’t sure about getting anyone in trouble and just wanted it documented I was being cyber stalked and harassed and threatened online in case anything happened,” he wrote in an email. (One of the women accusing him of harassment said that when his behavior first began escalating, “he left me a voicemail claiming he was outside the San Diego police station so he could report me.” She says she was not harassing him, then or ever.)
Googling the email address Belandres used to communicate with us brought up two results, one of which was an online data-scraping site identifying him as the “owner” of a website used to harass a previous victim. (The URL was her name followed by “.com.”) The site, now inactive but still viewable through the Internet Archive, posted private texts and other information about the woman.
Belandres said that he’s never doxed anyone or posted their nude photos; he also disputed using sites like Venmo or Animal Crossing to ever harass anyone. “I don’t even know how I could harass someone on Animal Crossing. You can’t message someone if you’re not friends with them.” (The woman who he played Animal Crossing with told us that he obsessively surveilled her in-game behavior after they broke up, emailing her repeatedly to accuse her of meeting men there for sex, and employed similar behavior on Duolingo; she said she blocked him on both apps and eventually had to delete her Duolingo entirely. She provided screenshots of his texts and emails talking about those apps and her perceived disloyalty with Animal Crossing and Duolingo friends.)
“I’ve never doxed anyone,” Belandres said in our phone call. “I’ve never posted anyone’s personal information. Never posted anyone’s phone number. No addresses, no phone numbers. That’s too much. Even just emailing them a dozen times, 20, 30, once a day—that’s not OK. I admit to doing that. But it’s hard when you’re getting harassed.”
Belandres alleged that his ex-partners have posted his information online, causing him and his family members to get a mountain of unwanted communications; he specifically accused Sarah of posting his email address to incite harassment against him. He also claimed that his mom has been harassed on Facebook, getting messages about him, which she finds confusing and frightening. “That’s too far,” he said. “That’s not right.”
“Not to sound self-pitying,” Belandres told Motherboard, “but I feel like a victim too.”
As proof, Belandres provided several email exchanges between himself and people using obvious burner email addresses. But they also show him making clear threats to contact her family and employer, something he told me he’d never done.
“Some of them claim I've contacted their employers and friends and family,” he had said in our phone conversation. “I’ve never done that. I keep seeing that online, in their tweets or messages. They say I've contacted their employers and friends. I swear I've never done that. As bad as the stuff I've done and ill-advised, for me that’s crazy to involve other people. I can agree it's a mess and it’s mostly my fault that I've messaged these women over and over, saying, ‘Tell your friends to leave me alone,’ [or] ‘You lied to me,’ but I've never contacted friends, family, employers.”
In one email, someone calling himself “Game 7” tells Belandres he’s a “piece of shit.” In response, Belandres writes, “Sarah posting my email now for her mutant friends to harass me? I’ll just email her bosses directly about this then, thanks for making things worse for her, you dumb sack of shit.” (It is, of course, perfectly posssible that Belandres made these threats to try to get the emailers to leave him alone, but never followed through on them.) In another message, someone calling himself “Dexterity Roll” tells him, “you were too late making your social media accounts private now I’m going to fire off a message to everyone who follows you.”
“These are some of the 20+ emails I received after she posted my info,” Belandres told me in an email. “A bunch of guys emailing me about Sarah, lasting into days and weeks. They think Protonmail is anonymous but it's only encrypted, they keep login records, so they can be found especially the ones who openly threatened me.” Belandres also provided screenshots of a phone number repeatedly texting him “Hey, how are you?” which he took to be another harassment attempt from someone connected to the women.
The women interviewed for this story dispute Belandres’ claims of harassment. “He has made those claims since he started harassing me, from the very start,” Sarah told me in an email. “I have never posted his info online—not his phone numbers, not the email address that I know he uses, nothing. I have never sent followers or friends or anyone ‘after him.’ I have had to refute people asking me to post his information and full name, because I absolutely did not want his claims of this to be held true.”
At one point, Sarah said, he forwarded her an email chain between himself and someone he said was harassing him on her behalf; it shows the anonymous emailer asking “What did she do?” referring to Sarah, and falsely claiming to be her boss. Belandres responds by threatening to email her family and coworkers.
“Lmao if you’re her boss then you’ll eventually get my emails about her abusive texts and illegally posting my info online to get people to harass me which I’m reporting to the police later today,” he wrote, in an email dated April 17, 2021. “I’m adding 3 more coworkers to these emails since you keep replying just to be safe because I think we both know you’re just another loser fuck boy from her twitter. Pass along to Sarah I’m also messaging her [siblings] about this + people recognizing her from her onlyfans + personal things explaining why she’s a sick piece of shit.”
“It’s not illegal to message someone’s coworkers or employer about their abusive and illegal behavior,” Belandres writes in another email. “let Sarah know you have more then doubled the people I was going to email, I’m sure she’ll be really happy with you.”
Sarah came to wonder, she said, whether Belandres had fabricated this exchange himself. She wondered this both because the timestamps show the emails are only about a minute or so apart, which is unlikely, and because some of the claims didn’t quite line up. For instance, the anonymous emailer claims he screenshotted every person that Belandres followed on Instagram. But his Instagram account has always been private since Sarah and Belandres knew each other, she said, meaning no one would have been able to see his follower list.
“Look at the stupid guys you sent to harass me lmao,” Belandres wrote, when he forwarded the email to Sarah. “WHAT A FUCKING IDIOT. And you being so stupid to send these pea brained morons to harass me, a real disappointment.”
Motherboard contacted a family member of Belandres’ for comment via Facebook to ask about his allegations of harassment against them, but we have not heard back. (Belandres later told me the family member was upset by my message, and had previously stopped using Facebook because of harassment from his ex-partners.) We also asked Belandres to put us in touch with someone who could verify that his family is being targeted, but he didn’t do so. Nonetheless, he said that his family has been impacted, and that he wants them left alone.
“This has been going on for two years,” Belandres told me, at one point. “Not to sound self-pitying, but I feel like a victim too.”
The earliest documented instance of a woman accusing Belandres of harassment after a breakup is around 2003. A Canadian woman we’ll call “Laurie” says she and someone calling himself Santiago Belandres began talking online that year, when she was about 15 and he would have been 21 or 22. They spoke, she said, on several sites, one called The Dilly (a sort of Facebook precursor) and then on MySpace. Belandres also had social presences on LiveJournal, a Hot or Not-esque site called VoteMeOff, and a site called RealPics, where users would upload photos of themselves along with their real names.
“He was using usernames, but in online chats he’d refer to himself as Santiago,” Laurie said; he eventually also shared his last name and birth date with her. He was, at the time, becoming a micro-celebrity in a certain kind of early online scene. “There were people on all these social platforms who knew him and liked him. He had an online presence people knew of. I had some trust built in already, since I knew he had these relationships and friendships with people online.”
At the time, Laurie says, she was dealing with what she calls “a rough home life.”
“I used these websites as a way to vent about it,” she said. “He started messaging me. I’d talk about how I was depressed or dealing with suicidal thoughts and things like that.”
Laurie says Belandres was “well aware” that she was under 18. “He knew I was living at home with my family and I was having a tough time.” He started messaging her on MSN Messenger, and about seven months in, the chats turned sexual, coupled with a shower of gifts from Belandres to Laurie. (Laurie provided screenshots to Motherboard, showing receipts and email notifications for packages he sent to her.)
Belandres disputes that Laurie was 15 at the time they started talking. “This girl was 17. She told me she was 18 when we started talking and then told me she was 17 months later,” he said. “I told her I was uncomfortable.” He said he still had MSN conversations with her saved on his computer, and sent Motherboard screenshots of multiple folders that he said were their archived conversations.
“He’s mistaken,” Laurie responded. The earliest email exchange she was able to find between them in her own records was from 2005, when she was 16, “but I do recall speaking to him for quite some time before that email.” She also clearly remembers him joking about her being “legal in Canada” when she turned 16. The age of consent in Canada is 16, but as it’s written today, takes into account several factors for whether a relationship can be considered exploitative of a young person, including “how the relationship developed (for example, quickly, secretly, or over the internet).” Sexual or suggestive photos of someone under 18 are never legal. Those laws may not have been on the books in their exact current form, however, when Belandres and Laurie were communicating.
“He would ask for sexual favors and things like that,” Laurie said. “He was very supportive of me in a financial way. He knew that I came from a very poor background and didn’t have a lot when I was a teenager. He’d send money or pay for gaming subscriptions, send food, flowers, all those things.”
Laurie didn’t particularly want to do the sexual things he asked for, she said—things like sending explicit photos or engaging in phone sex. “I definitely had a sense of obligation,” she said, because of the gifts he was sending, and because she was frankly too young to understand she could say no.
“There were many times where I didn't want to, and it would turn into an argument about how he’d been very supportive of me and done all these things and I didn't care about him or love him enough to give him what he wanted,” she said. “There was that guilt there, and being a teenager, I didn’t know any better.”
Laurie said she decided to break things off when she was 17 or 18, after an incident that is, in hindsight, remarkably similar to what Sarah says later happened to her. Laurie had been falling asleep on the phone with Belandres every night; she began to wake up to find him whispering “incestuous things,” she said, into the phone. Belandres would get defensive when she questioned him about it, or claim it wasn’t happening, so she started pretending to be asleep to make sure it was really happening. (Belandres disputes this, and said they never engaged in incest play: “There was no incest stuff with her. She’d call me daddy and stuff like that, which is pretty tame now.”)
When Laurie decided to cut off contact, “that’s when the stalking escalated,” she said. He’d call her parents' house incessantly, begging her to talk to him, and sometimes she would comply. When she moved out, she decided to cut contact entirely. “That’s when he started calling me upwards of 40 times a day, leaving 15 voicemails.” He threatened to kill himself, she said, and called police to her house in the middle of the night at one point, claiming she was suicidal, which she was not. When she told the responding officers on her doorstep that she was being harassed by the person who’d called them, they told her something she remembers as being, more or less, “He just seemed concerned about you, he’s just being a good friend.”
She thought for sure the police would take her complaints seriously. “That’s not how it played out,” she said. “The police said they couldn’t tell how old I was in the photos.”
Laurie says he started sending her messages from fake accounts; screenshots she shared with Motherboard show dozens of accounts she’s blocked on social media over the years, many with usernames that were variations on Santiago’s name, her name, or that of another woman who has said he was harassing her at the same time (the same woman whose archived doxing website we found online). At the same time, she said, “he ended up hacking into my email account, my Photobucket account, my LifeJournal, my World of Warcraft account, changing my passwords and deleting everything he could.” (Belandres denies he’s ever hacked into or improperly accessed anyone’s email or social accounts.)
The harassment went on for “four or five years,” Laurie said. At one point, she claims, he even sent nude photos of her from when she was underage to her friends and family. (She provided screenshots of a Facebook account she says was Belandres using a fake name messaging her cousin; the message contains a photo, which Laurie redacted, and a link to a doxxing website, the name of which Motherboard is withholding. The cousin responds by calling the sender “a prick.”)
The action was so extreme that she thought for sure the police would take her complaints seriously. “That’s not how it played out,” she said. “The police said they couldn’t tell how old I was in the photos and they didn’t know if I was underage, even though I knew that I was.” (Belandres denies doing this and says he never had explicit photos of the 17-year-old he was communicating with.)
Laurie eventually stopped calling the police, stopped documenting the harassment, and gave up on getting anyone to take it seriously. That didn’t mean it went away: Laurie says he threatened to come to the town where she lived, and called her mother and grandmother. “For a long time, I lived in fear,” she said, worried he would show up. An email she shared with Motherboard shows her tormenter emailing her in 2010 from a Gmail address with “Santiago” in the name. In the email, he complained that a family member had been rude when he called their house.
After she gave up on getting help, Laurie said, she handled the situation on her own, as best she could. “I changed my phone number, I moved, I switched jobs because he knew where I worked and would phone my work and slander me to anyone he could get on the phone.” He also created websites, she said, calling her “a whore and a slut,” which she surmised were to make it harder for her to get a job.
In the end, the harassment “tapered off,” she said. She would still get an occasional friend request from a suspiciously fake-seeming person. And three years ago, more than a decade after they first spoke, someone she strongly believed to be him commented on her Instagram page, saying her new partner looked like someone he’d once been convinced she had a crush on.
The intent of much of the harassment seemed to be to destroy her ability to have a life online, Laurie thinks. It worked.
“Anybody who’s gone through something like that, they’ll change how they are, their online presence,” Laurie said. She became a social worker focused on helping children and teens in crisis, which is not a coincidence and not unrelated to what she went through with him.
“It sucks to say that he’s affected me so much, but he has,” she said. “My life has been forever changed by my experience with him. Here we are 18 years later, still talking about him.”
The paper trail picks up in 2012, when a woman named Andrea filed for a restraining order against Belandres and then sued him in civil court, saying he’d taken a series of invasive and frightening actions following their brief online relationship. (Motherboard is withholding her last name and precise location to protect her privacy.)
In her civil complaint and in an affidavit supporting the need for a restraining order, Andrea alleged that Belandres had created fake social media profiles in her name and contacted her roommates, sibling, co-workers, and bosses. She alleged he posted private videos to YouTube that she’d previously sent to him, and sent at least one intimate photo of her to someone she worked with. He also, she alleged, began making offensive comments posing as her on a Facebook page belonging to her company.
“Santiago continues to say he will not stop until I respond or am fired from my job,” she wrote in a statement to her lawyer. “And that if neither happens, he'll go until he dies or ‘hell freezes over.’” (Andrea’s former lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.)
Court records show that Andrea won a default judgment against Belandres of over $200,000. It doesn’t appear Belandres has ever paid any portion of that judgment. Belandres claimed that he only learned about the default judgment when I asked him about it, years after it was granted.
“It’s never come up,” he said. He’s never been contacted by anyone, he said, and Andrea’s judgment has never showed up on his credit report or anywhere else. (It’s possible the judgment was not “domesticated” in the county where Belandres lives, meaning formally registered there in a way that would cause it to show up on things like credit reports.)
More women say they met James Bell online between 2013 and 2019. The women Motherboard spoke to all met him on Twitter between 2015 and 2018, where he used the handle “IsPizzaRatAlive” and then, after that one was suspended, “PizzaRatIsDead.”
Image via Internet Archive; Motherboard has redacted this image because the person whose photo is used on this account is not accused of any improper behavior.
“Alexandra” says she began casually interacting with the person she knew as James Bell on Twitter around 2015 or 2016. After a couple exchanges, he DM’d her and gave her his Instagram handle, which she found, she said, “weird.” But, she added, “The fact that I saw women who were verified journalists were interacting and following him gave him some credibility on my end.” Like Sarah, she’d also made a lot of friends on the platform.
“It wasn’t like I was meeting a stranger,” she said. “It was normal to meet people from Twitter.”
The two started talking on the phone, and Alexandra said those conversations often felt like therapy for her: She vented about her boyfriend, her family, and life problems; Bell gave advice, she said, especially about the boyfriend.
The conversations turned sexual in 2017, but the interactions were soon fraught in the same way that other women experienced. “He’d get angry when I would start talking to an ex-boyfriend,” Alexandra said. “He’d blow up on me and say, ‘You don’t even like me,’ and guilt me into talking again.” He’d offer to see her in various cities near her, but that, too, would never happen; more than once, he ghosted her the day of the meetup. “It got exhausting,” she said.
The situation escalated near the end of 2017, she said, when she finally ended things and blocked him. “He would find new numbers, new ways to text me. It turned into him saying he was going to send my mom and my work my pictures. I didn’t reply.”
“Lmao you’re on a website called [redacted], just saw you and thought you’d like a heads up, good luck with all that.”
Alexandra had sent him one intimate photo ever, which she made on Snapchat for him and put a special filter over. No one else had ever seen it, she said, which is how she knew right away what was going on when he texted her on Christmas of that year. His note, which she provided screenshots of, accused her of never really planning to meet him and just stringing him along. Then, in a separate text, he added: “Lmao you’re on a website called [redacted], just saw you and thought you’d like a heads up, good luck with all that.” He added a link to a post on an obscure doxing website, which featured that photo and one from her Twitter account.
She initially tried to stay calm, but eventually, as he kept calling and texting her, she started begging him to get the photo taken down, saying that knowing it was out there made her feel suicidal. Eventually, she told him she knew he’d posted the photo.
As she recalls, Bell denied that but responded that because she had accused him, he would now send the photo to “everyone you know,” and to her workplace.
Alexandra realized that she was dealing with someone she felt was truly a threat to her, and that she had to, as she put it, “sound as crazy as possible so he’d never want to talk to me again.” She made the decision to dramatically escalate her own behavior.
Alexandra told him she would kill herself, that she had a lawyer, that she would expose him, that she would “carve his username in my chest and shoot myself in the head.” She called him dozens of times. She told him that she was a witch, that she would curse his bloodline, and sent videos of herself performing a hex on him using Santa Muerte, a powerful and revered figure in Mexican Catholic folklore.
“I didn’t let him win,” she said. Apparently unsettled, Bell seems to have deleted the photo of her, because it soon disappeared.
“He’s never contacted me again,” she said. “He never messaged me or tried to DM me. I never had any emails from him… I think he realized he had other girls he could terrorize.”
Another woman with an unsettling experience with Bell hadn’t been in a romantic or sexual interaction with him at all. Grace Spelman is a writer and podcaster in LA who also has a popular Twitter presence. Her experience, she said, was that Bell was, as she puts it, “a little over familiar but not in a way that made me feel like my boundaries were being violated,” commenting whenever she’d posted photos of her family—“Mama Spels looks great,” that kind of thing—and DMing her occasionally when he saw something that made him think of her. Those interactions went on, Grace estimates, for roughly six years, beginning in 2014.
That all changed in 2020, when one of Grace’s friends — one of the women interviewed for this story— told her that Bell was messaging her upsetting, harassing things. After seeing some screenshots, Spelman, outraged, messaged him on Instagram.
“I felt a little stupid and a little angry that this guy had been so nice to me for so long,” she said. “I said, ‘Show me a picture of what your face looks like, who are you?” He immediately blocked her, she said, then went to the woman he’d allegedly been harassing and complained, “You’re turning Grace against me.”
“He was super triggered by us talking about it together,” Grace said.
Not long after, Spelman got a DM from someone saying they thought she was being impersonated on Twitter.
“I went to this Twitter account and it was the same avatar and everything,” she said. The first tweets were banal—something along the lines of, “Hey, it’s me, Grace, I have a new account.” Then it switched to tweeting photos of what Grace remembers as “these historic ledgers of something that supposedly shows that my family were slave owners.”
The account posted incredibly old videos of her and a sibling, which she still doesn’t know how the account-holder found.
That was not accurate. “Spelman College is literally named after my family,” Spelman said. “We are full of abolitionists.” Despite her not being “a lefty figure,” as Spelman puts it, the account kept tweeting sentiments like “Your lefty queen’s family owned slaves.” The account also posted incredibly old videos of her and a sibling, which she still doesn’t know how the account-holder found.
Spelman said the experience was frightening and has made her “far less trusting,” and more sensitive to men becoming overly familiar in her replies. “I’ve stopped engaging with reply guys now. Women I'm fine making friends with and great ones have come from that.” While she has no proof that the account was Belandres, the timing struck her as more than coincidental. (Belandres denies creating the Twitter account impersonating Spelman.)
The interactions continued, always with Belandres presenting himself at first as a feminist and a friend to women, they say.
“He was always very progressive and positive,” said another woman, “Patricia,” who began talking to him around 2017, when she was just 18 years old. “He positioned himself as an ally to women.”
Patricia had just gotten out of an abusive relationship, she said, and had begun experiencing hypersexuality, which can be a response to abuse. “I was looking for that kind of attention and approval from an older person, and I thought sex and sexuality was the way to get it,” she said.
Within a short amount of time—Patricia recalls it as being weeks, or possibly even days—the pair’s DMs quickly turned to sexting, which made Patricia feel in over her head. “It seemed like he was a little more experienced than I was in terms of sexting,” she said. “He was saying things I didn’t totally grasp or understand, but I tried to act like I understood.”
For her, the red flags appeared as soon as the pair talked on the phone. Because she was hyper-attuned to a certain type of danger, Belandres’ voice and way of talking were immediately unsettling to her.
“Over text it was fun and casual,” she said, “and over the phone it was demanding and scary.” His voice sounded angry, and she knew she needed to back away quickly. “I got off the phone, said whatever I needed to to get off the call, and then I didn't text him back as often. And when I did, it was being short and trying not to engage.”
After she stopped responding regularly, one day in March of 2017, Patricia got a DM request on Twitter from someone she didn’t know, an obvious burner account with no profile photo.
“Uhhh, there’s nudes of you out there,” it read, with a link to a “4chan-type forum website,” a well-known site for posting revenge porn the name of which Motherboard is withholding.
The post on the website was a nude photo of Patricia, along with her first and last name and her Twitter handle, and promising there were “lots more” nudes there. Underneath it were a string of comments, asking to trade for other photos of her.
Patricia narrowed the list of suspects down immediately. She’d sent the photo to two people total: Bell and an ex-boyfriend she trusted. “I didn’t think he’d ever do this. So I was like, between the ex who to my knowledge had deleted all photos of me and this guy who I had this weird sexting thing with, it was obviously going to be the guy from Twitter.”
Patricia confronted Bell, who denied having uploaded the photo. He acted concerned and sympathetic, and asked what he could do to help, she said.
“I stopped answering because I realized he wasn’t going to admit to it,” she said. Still, he kept reaching out to her “almost in like a caring-older-brother way,” telling her he wanted to check on her and saying things like, “I know that was violating. It wasn’t me, but I want to be here for you if you need it.” (She provided screenshots of their texts to Motherboard.) One text from him read, “I hope you’re doing well and also in the future if anything shitty happens you don’t assume it was me. I don’t know you or have anything against you, I wish you well.”
It all struck Patricia as bizarre. “He was very removed from his actions. The way he was behaving made me feel like he believed what he was saying.”
That the burner Twitter account that DM’d her had also been Bell didn’t occur to Patricia until nearly a year later—when another one of Bell’s victims sought her out, to warn her that a man she was following on Twitter was a serial harasser.
The woman who found Patricia is “Theia,” who met Bell only as a client, of sorts. When Theia first spoke to Bell, in the fall of 2017, she was just beginning her career as an online sex worker, and Bell had DM’d her on a Twitter account she used for work. Theia now suspects he targeted her because she was clearly not well established yet in her career. “If I was already a popular online sex worker, then he wouldn’t have much leverage. But because I was inexperienced, I was perfect prey.”
Theia, too, was familiar with Bell as the reply guy of liberal, feminist women; they had already shared some flirty banter on the site before he reached out privately to ask if she had an Amazon wishlist.
“He had such a curated personality that I didn’t realize was curated and performative,” Theia told Motherboard. “Witty, attractive, funny, progressive-minded, pro-women, pro-sex work.”
The two agreed to do a phone call, for a fee, but Bell said something along the lines of, “I’m having problems with my payment, but I’m good for it,” as Theia recalls. She was at that point too new to the industry to realize that was a common scam. “I was not aware that these games men pay to try to get free services.”
They got on the phone, and Theia says that Bell took things in a sexual direction fairly quickly. “He was a bit dominant in his speech to me, which I wasn’t comfortable with.” She tried to tell him she wasn’t comfortable with the way things are going, “but I didn't have super clear boundaries at the time.” The conversation, she says, ended with him saying “he would find out my real name and find out where I lived because I would want to tell him. I didn’t know he was threatening me.”
That said, she certainly felt threatened and uneasy, she said. “After that first call, he had my number. He would text me incessantly on my Google Voice.” He would cold-call her without asking if she wanted to chat first. “If I didn't respond, he’d get really upset and say, ‘I thought we had something and you’re ignoring me, I thought you were my e-wife.’ He loved that.”
Theia suspected two things: that Bell was not clear that he was a client, not a potential love interest, and that he was clearly using fake photos. “This was in 2017 and the pictures looked like they were taken from Instagram in 2013, “she said. The filters and photo quality all seemed obviously dated. “Cameras have changed so much.”
With the red flags sprouting, Theia decided to put distance between her and Bell. She unfollowed him, as she recalls, and stopped responding to his messages.
“And then on Christmas morning 2017, he sent me a link through Twitter to [a particular website]”—a place “where men leak nudes, revenge porn, and personal information,” Theia said. “He sent me a link to some of my nude photos and said, ‘It looks like you’ve been leaked.” He was short and curt in how he told me.” (The site is the same one that he told Patricia her photos were posted on.)
Theia immediately asked if he’d posted her photos himself. Bell said no. “I asked, “Well, how did you even find this?” Bell, she recalls, “said he happens to check those websites because a lot of women he knows end up on them. I said, ‘Yeah, I bet they do.’”
“That same evening he sent me another link,” Theia said, “and when I went to it, it had been taken down. He said, ‘It looks like your address and name were linked, but the admins take down too personal information, so you lucked out.’”
Theia knew, however, that Bell had never had her real name or address, and she came to believe it had never been posted on the site at all. “He was just using it as a fear tactic, to suggest he knew it or someone did.” She also believed that he was creating other usernames and commenting on his own posts, to make it look like a lot of people were talking about her or leaking her information. “No one knew who I was at the time and it was all the same things being said in the same tone. I have no proof, just intuition.”
She stopped engaging, even when Bell kept sending her links to the same site—mostly nudes taken from the Snapchat he’d bought access to. “At this point I was so new [in my career] it was so easy to figure out who it was. Once I removed him, no new things were leaking.” She stopped responding to him, reporting the posts, and then, when they were reposted, reporting them again. In response, she said, he screen-recorded something from her Snapchat and posted it on Pornhub.
For a while, Theia didn’t even block him on Twitter, not wanting to give him too much of an outward reaction. By January 2018, she was quietly but intently doing research she said, “trying to figure out who he was.” Without realizing it, he’d given her much more than he knew.
Theia had Bell’s real phone number, which he’d given her to do their first conversation. She paid for an online background report using it, and was able to learn his last name, Belandres, she said. Scouring social media, she found his family members, a hive of old social accounts, comments on a string of websites, and what she thought was his first name, Santiago. She also began trying to find other victims.
“I reached out to anyone who was a mutual, any Twitter personality that he was following and interacted with, DMed them hoping I didn't sound crazy, sharing my experience,” she said. Some didn’t respond, and one or two said he’d always been polite, but a handful had similar experiences to share. “They would say, ‘He bought a nude from me’ or 'We exchanged nudes’ or alluded they’d sexted. They said they’d seen similar red flags and were kind and polite out of fear he’d turn on them and leak their stuff.”
In 2018, a male journalist who’d seen Theia’s tweets realized that one of his friends had had a remarkably similar experience. He put the two women in touch. “We talked on the phone and she was like,’’I can't believe this happening.’” He’d been sending the woman a torrent of abusive texts; Theia advised her to address him as “Santiago” and, the women say, once she did, he backed off quickly.
When Theia finally talked “Patricia,” the woman who was 18 at the time she’d interacted with the man she knew as James Bell, it was a lightbulb moment for the younger woman.
“It was so much bigger than I realized. It’s not a weird off-chance thing that happened to me. It’s a pattern.”
“That’s when it all clicked,” Patricia told me. “It was so much bigger than I realized. It’s not a weird off-chance thing that happened to me. It’s a pattern.”
A woman outside the United States, Amy, experienced especially serious harassment, she told Motherboard. After a brief online relationship with James Bell in 2020—that began, again, on Twitter—Amy, who is based in the UK, came to California for vacation. While she was here, Bell promised, he’d come see her from San Diego. He kept texting her that he was on his way, but he never arrived.
Annoyed, she asked him to share his location. A name she’d never seen popped up on her phone: “Santiago Belandres is now sharing location with you,” the message said. (Amy provided a screenshot of the message to Motherboard.)
Belandres brushed off the fact that he had an entirely different name, telling her that he has his grandfather’s name—which does seem to be true—but that he never goes by it in real life. “I told you this,” he texted her, but she says he hadn’t.
Amy accepted the explanation, however, when he explained that he’d changed his name because it was difficult to find a job with a clearly Latino name. “I have friends who use Anglicized versions of their name,” she said. “Who am I to question it?” But back in the UK, she “realized I was wasting my time,” she said, in a bizarre pen-pal relationship with someone who hadn’t bothered to come see her.
When she tried to cut contact, Belandres escalated, she said, contacting her hundreds of times from spoofed numbers; he apparently used an app or a website to generate numbers that looked like they were from the UK. (Belandres denies doing this.)
“It’s been amazing and so transformative to find community and support with all these other victims. But what I really want is for him to not be able to do this anymore.”
For a while, she relented and would talk to him, just to placate him; over time, as she continued to pull away, the harassment got worse and worse. Amy keeps a detailed spreadsheet of his contact attempts, documenting some 500 times when she says he harassed her through a dummy email address, phone number, or Twitter account.
She’s struggled with how isolating and frightening the experience has been, and has been unsuccessful with police in the UK. “I didn’t know how to talk to people about what was going on. I’m sure some of the other women have said this to you, right? It’s a very strange thing to explain to people who haven’t been in that kind of virtual relationship or dynamic,” she said. The police “haven't been understanding at all. They’ve laughed at me, they've said, ‘Why would you talk to some guy on the internet you don’t know, why would you send photos to someone you haven’t met?’ Lots of ignorant comments and questions.”
In April 2021, another woman who’d had an unsettling experience with Bell saw Sarah’s Twitter thread, discussing the harassment. Theia reached out to her, and together, they began putting all of the survivors in touch, to share experiences and try to figure out what to do next. (They also managed to figure out where “James Bell’s” photos had been taken from: They belonged to an Italian man who’d posted them on social media years ago. Belandres admitted to using photos that were not of him to talk to women online, but said he only did it around 2010-2011: “I did then and still do feel shame and guilt about it and apologized sincerely to everyone I had misled, it was a mistake to do it and I regretted it even before anyone found out.”)
In many cases, there was both comfort and shock in realizing how many other women were in the same situation. “He’s very opportunistic,” said one woman, Laura, who interacted with Bell on Twitter in 2019 and 2020. After she broke off communication with him, he also threatened to release nude photos of her, she says, and harassed her constantly from dozens of phone numbers. “He’s very methodical. He’s been doing this for almost 20 years. He has a lot of emotional intelligence and is mindful and calculated about the timing.”
Laura added, “It’s been amazing and so transformative to find community and support with all these other victims. But what I really want is for him to not be able to do this anymore.”
After finding the other women, Sarah was ready to do something else: build a case.
Sarah had already sought a restraining order against Belandres, the Monday after she began tweeting about what she alleges he was doing to her. But the same afternoon, a judge denied it, saying he did not see an immediate threat to her safety because Belandres was located out of state.
“I was so disappointed,” Sarah said. “I was shocked this could be denied. I printed out 20 or 30 pages [of harassing communications]. He was going through it and saying, ‘I don't see any threats made to hurt you or against your life.’ I couldn't believe that’s what it took. It’s such a failing, in my opinion, on our judicial system.”
Sarah retained a lawyer, who sent Belandres a cease-and-desist. She also made a complaint with her local police department, hoping the district attorney would choose to bring criminal charges. They did not.
“That didn’t get much traction with the DA’s office,” Sarah’s attorney, Joe Carlisle of Buckley Law P.C. in Oregon, told Motherboard. “To be fair to the DA’s office, I suspect that they thought, ‘He’s in California, she’s here, we’ve got all kinds of stuff going on right outside our doorstep and this is all online.’” That’s not uncommon, he said. “The unfortunate thing is it doesn’t seem to fit neatly into the harassment laws on the books.”
The DA’s office, according to Sarah, told her attorneys that they’d called Sarah directly and left her a voicemail, informing them of their decision not to pursue the case. “I did not receive a call nor a voicemail at any time from them,” Sarah told me. “So I am not sure what number they called.”
“I want it written and validated in the legal system,” said Sarah, “that this is happening to me and it’s a big deal.”
The law firm then advised her to file a civil suit, because it could possibly serve as a foundation for later criminal charges, Sarah said, and because it would be a way to immediately address the behavior.
Besides that, she wanted to create a record, Sarah told me. “I want it written and validated in the legal system that this is happening to me and it’s a big deal.”
Carlisle said he chose to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation, particularly after examining how often Belandres tried to contact Sarah and the contents of his messages.
“The comments are completely outrageous,” he said. “They’re over-the-top. The sheer volume of messages and efforts to contact her despite her efforts to block him, he keeps contacting again and again and again and making threats to expose this or that, or make false allegations publicly or to her family. He was tracking her family down. All of it was extreme.” The defamation claim was due to the fact that he attempted to tell her family and employers that she had an incest fetish, a false and “reprehensible” allegation, Carlisle said. (Belandres claims that any incest roleplay they had was Sarah’s idea: “She was the one initiating it.” The screenshots he provided to corroborate his claims were sexual texts between the two. However, those texts did not disprove that she had asked him to stop describing incest scenarios about her family members.)
The law firm was confident they had the right person in serving Belandres, Carlisle added, particularly because he alluded to hearing from a lawyer in communications with Sarah. “That was a crucial part of it.” They also, he said, “did a lot of research, I'll just say that, to track him down. And I feel very comfortable that we found the right person and served him according to the rules of procedure and then provided him notice to appear in the case.” (The person they served in person was a woman who Carlisle said “would have been of the proper age to be” Belandres’ mother, but they are not certain if it was her. A process server wrote in an affidavit that the woman “became very aggressive” and refused service of the documents. The process server put them down on the doorstep and walked away; at that point, the woman began throwing the papers into the street, the server wrote.)
Belandres claimed not to know an older woman was served at one of his listed addresses. “I did not hear about this,” he said. “I don’t know how they’d leave it on the doorstep because my parents have a bunch of dogs.” Broadly, of the suits and judgments, he said, “I guess I have to find out what’s going on.”
“I guess I have to find out what’s going on,” Belandres said when told of multiple judgments against him.
After the hearing where the judge granted Sarah’s request for damages, Carlisle said, “I think she had a huge sense of relief.” The process, he added, “formally acknowledged that she’d been wronged. That’s where I felt like the relief came for her. This was a long process, and she went through it. She had to put a lot of herself out there, even though he didn’t show up… I think that’s a relief for a lot of people. You don’t know until you get that judgment or the judge saying, I agree with you and I'll put it on paper.’”
But the process of collecting on those damages is far more uncertain, according to Danielle Citron, an author and law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. A recognized expert on cyberstalking and harassment, Citron also the author of an upcoming book about digital privacy and its violations, focusing especially on what she calls “intimate privacy.”
Citron was unsurprised to learn that Sarah didn’t win a restraining order; it’s something she sees all the time.
“The cultural and social attitudes are like, ‘It’s just your vagina, no one can see your face,’” she said. “They don’t get it. Or if it’s already been released on another site they say, ‘What’s the harm it’s already out there?’ It’s the most frustrating thing you’ve ever seen. From one bad reasoning and misconception to another.” Doxxing websites also play a huge role, she said, including a specific site that several women in this story said their images were hosted on. The site is hosted in Las Vegas, Citron said, after being hosted in the Netherlands and then shut down by Dutch police. “ So many victims I talk to around the world, their images are on that site.”
The GoFundMe went live on July 6, 2021. Sarah expected mockery and shaming online; that didn’t happen.
“Coming forward was the best thing I could've done for myself,” she said. “I expected and was prepared for a huge backlash and to be punished even more by him. It ended up being the right choice for me. It’s difficult to put yourself out there and be vulnerable. It’s embarrassing. This is the type of stuff that happens. People don’t believe you or you’re making it up or it’s a couple’s row. You’re both toxic, you're in disagreement. It’s hard to advocate for yourself with strangers who don't know you.”
The money from the GoFundMe helped Laura send Belandres a cease-and-desist letter, which he confirmed to me that he received. In an email response, someone using one of his email addresses told the law firm he hadn’t had contact with Laura in three years. (The date he named was well before they’d actually met, Laura said.) The emailer added, “any claim otherwise is false and harassing me via false accusations will be reported to my lawyer. Notify your client I am well aware of her year long campaign posting my private information online and half [sic] proof she has participated in harassing me through texts, direct messages and voicemails and welcome any legal battle she wants to engage in.”
The legal costs of dealing with stalking and harassment, Laura says, are something no one seems to really talk about.
“It’s not an insignificant amount of money that you can just throw around to deal with someone who’s stalking me,” she said.
In early May of 2022, after Belandres did not respond to her civil suit, Sarah won a default judgment; the judge then granted her the damages in the amount she’d requested, according to her attorney. She intends to try to collect those damages from Belandres, which will require more time and a separate legal action in California, in order to register the ruling she won in her home state with local courts where Belandres lives.
Citron told Motherboard that it’s incredibly common for men accused of cyberstalking to fail to respond to lawsuits or pay default judgments decided against them. Even then, she said, “Default judgments say something to victims. It says you’re seen, that the court system can be there for you.” A judge writing an opinion in a victim’s favor “that says we see you, this is horrific. He doesn’t show up, but the court system sees you.”
In many cases, Citron adds, cyberstalkers aren’t people with vast resources. “These folks are not deep pockets. You can try to garnish their wages.” But broadly, she said, “the civil system should work better” to help victims who win judgments in their favor. (That said, even if Sarah and Andrea are never able to collect damages from Belandres, having two unpaid legal judgments may reflect against him if he ever tries to buy a house or take out a loan.)
It’s not likely that Belandres is unaware of the lawsuits, as he claimed. Attorneys have served Belandres with legal documents at least three times, both at an address that’s been listed for him in public records and via email: in Sarah and Andrea’s cases, and when Laura had her attorney send him a cease-and-desist letter.
In each case, the emails were sent to accounts used by “James Bell” and addressed him as Santiago Belandres. And in each case, he responded via email, not to deny involvement or say they had the wrong person but to threaten legal action of his own.
“I’ll easily beat you in court as well,” Belandres wrote to Sarah. “Fuck you.”
“Do your client a favor and let her know I’ll be pursuing legal action myself,” he wrote to Sarah’s lawyers, accusing her of violating the law by posting his “personal information” online. He also claimed to have received threats from her bosses and co-workers, “and as such I am free to discuss this with her place of employment, let her know I’ll be doing that as well.”
“I’ll easily beat you in court as well,” he wrote in a separate email to Sarah in the summer of 2021. “Fuck you.”
The legal actions, however, also seem to have caused Belandres to stay away. The day Sarah posted the fundraiser on Twitter, she said, she got one more call from an unknown number, which she didn’t answer, and since then, she hasn’t heard a word.
“I think it became very real to him,” Sarah said, “that I'm pursuing something.”
Belandres said he hasn’t contacted anyone for the past year. (Amy—the UK victim with the extensive, meticulous record of the harassment against her— disputes that, and said he contacted both her and her mother on Feb. 4. She provided screenshots of an email he sent to her mother’s work address. She also provided many, many additional screenshots of “James Bell” threatening to contact her mother, using her mother’s name.)
His legal troubles are not yet over. Amy is planning to pursue legal action there. “I’m not seeking any damages,” she said. “That would be pointless, in my opinion.” But she’d like to find a way to make sure he can never legally contact her again.
In emails to her, Amy said, Belandres has frequently referenced the other women he’s allegedly harassed. (He also shared a redacted email communication that he said was with his attorney, a personal injury firm in Oakland, saying the firm was “pressuring me to hurry up and file charges against you and push forward with a civil suit.” He has never filed criminal or civil charges against Amy.)
“He’s obviously aware we’re in communication with each other,” Amy said, and seems “provoked” by it. But it’s been cathartic to connect with each other, she added, and to share their stories.
“I’m mad that so many of us have been pushed into the shadows and had to be silent about things that someone has done to us,” she said. “We haven’t done anything wrong. It’s not a crime to connect with someone on the internet or have a full-blown romantic intimate relationship for years. That’s not unusual or weird. It’s not wrong.”
Finding each other has been the way to wrest control back from him, Amy added. “He has had so much control over all of us and probably other women we don’t even know exist.”
Today, some of the women who say they’ve been subjected to harassment from Belandres say it was ongoing as recently as earlier this year: weird calls from unfamiliar numbers, hostile tweets from burner accounts. Motherboard compiled a list of the accounts the women thought belonged to him and checked them regularly for a period of several weeks. All of them contain strange snippets of aggrieved conversation, directed at no one—just ambient tweets about resenting someone, or complaints about a group of women ganging up on him.
Sarah is living in a sort of uneasy peace; while Belandres hasn’t tried to contact her again, she believes he’s always watching anyway.
“I know he’s watching my public spaces on the internet,” she said. “I think he’ll always be there. He has this habit. It’s just an obsession, with everyone he’s ever stalked like this. But I'm in a much better place mentally and emotionally from him being gone from my life.”
Several of his victims said they’d like to see him criminally charged. But they’re also realistic about the odds.
“I don’t think this person's behavior is going to change,” Amy told me. “I think he’s been doing this for a very long time… A big chunk of his adult life has been devoted to harassing women and engaging in these abusive online relationships that are very coercive and manipulative. I don’t think he is someone who is interested in reform and rehabilitation or changing their behavior. I don’t think he will.”
“The severity of what he’s done and the sheer quantity of victims and the years it’s been going on could be used as a kind of poster child case,” said “Patricia,” the then-18-year-old who says she believes he may have posted her nude photos online. She thinks the show Catfish created a sense that people who get targeted this way online are often “hopeless in love people who see red flags.” But, she said, “it's so much more conniving and deep than that.”
In the end, Patricia said, referring to herself and the other women, “We really have to mobilize. It becomes a full-time job to organize other people and hunt down law enforcement and be like you have to take this, it’s important. It’s a whole other layer of trauma. If I want anyone to listen, I have to force them.”
For his part, Belandres said he just wants to be left alone, for the harassment he claims is being directed against him and his family to stop.
That said, he is considering, he told me, why his online relationships seem to end so badly. He entered therapy last year after one of his dogs died, and he found himself discussing the situations with these women.
“When I feel like I've been lied to or hurt or someone’s not being honest with me,” he told me, “I react poorly. I want to believe people when they tell me something. When you care about someone or love them, you don’t expect them to be lying to you or sleeping with someone else.” He’s adamant that he never tried to scare anyone, and that he’s trying to live a quiet life—working, watching TV, playing with his dogs. He barely goes online, he said.
I asked if he felt any sense of regret or distress about the allegations the women have made.
“I do feel bad,” he told me. Once, after he and Amy argued, he said, he texted her four times, and she later told him that made her feel scared. “I told her I felt bad and I made her feel scared and unsafe. I didn’t think that’s what was happening.”
Some of the women, he alleged, have tried to get back in his life after he ended things; he sent me screenshots of text messages from several of them, apologizing after arguments during the relationship and asking him to unblock them. “It goes both ways.”
“Maybe,” he added, after a moment, “We’re all just bad for each other.”
(Shortly before this story was published, he also accused me of colluding with the women, writing, “I’m not really sure I’m comfortable sharing anything else, after I sent you screenshots of some of these girls messaging me on Instagram multiple times trying to manipulate me into getting back together with them as proof I’ve tried to end our relationship multiple times and was not obsessed or couldn’t handle their rejection they began unsending messages days later, like that could be a coincidence but hopefully you can understand why someone would wonder if you have shared what I’ve sent you with them.” I was not sharing communications I had with Belandres with the women, except to ask some of them for comment on specific claims he made. The messages he referenced were not discussed.)
The women communicate regularly with each other, forming a stable and supportive group of, if not quite friends, fellow travelers. If Belandres indeed perpetrated the harassment they claim, it seems like a strange, and in some ways, fitting punishment. Terrified of exposure, filled with resentment against women, locked in an unending cycle of surveillance of the women whose lives he made briefly miserable—only now, with the uneasy knowledge of knowing that they are always watching him back.
“I was shocked that there were so many girls he’d done this to,” said Alexandra, the woman who’d threatened to curse him. “I honestly thought I was the only one.”
Knowing there are other victims, she said, she feels more empowered to discuss what she went through. “Now that there is a group of women,” she said, “it’s the power of many versus one piece of shit.”