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.)
Do you know anything we should know? We would love to hear from you. Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Signal at 267-713-9832.
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.”
“Not to sound self-pitying,” Belandres told Motherboard, “but I feel like a victim too.”
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.)
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.”
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.
“Lmao you’re on a website called [redacted], just saw you and thought you’d like a heads up, good luck with all that.”
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.
The account posted incredibly old videos of her and a sibling, which she still doesn’t know how the account-holder found.
“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.
“It was so much bigger than I realized. It’s not a weird off-chance thing that happened to me. It’s a pattern.”
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.”)
“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.”
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.”
“I want it written and validated in the legal system,” said Sarah, “that this is happening to me and it’s a big deal.”
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.”
“I guess I have to find out what’s going on,” Belandres said when told of multiple judgments against him.
“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.”
“I’ll easily beat you in court as well,” Belandres wrote to Sarah. “Fuck you.”