Cyber stalker charged with sexually assaulting autistic woman he found on social media

I-TEAM uncovers why it's so hard to prosecute online predators

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects, Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The I-TEAM has been tracking convicted cyber stalker William Bigel for two years. We started in 2016 when he was living in Interlachen. It was then, that a Bradford County woman turned to us, saying Bigel was stalking and harassing her and her family on Facebook, but she couldn't stop him. 

Bigel is behind bars now, but because of an entirely different case: He's accused by the Putnam County Sheriff's Office of cyber stalking and raping an autistic woman with the mental capacity of a young child. 

2018 sexual assault arrest: Putnam County

According to reports from the Putnam County Sheriff's Office, deputies began investigating Bigel on Nov. 30, 2016, 13 days after the original News4Jax report. They say Bigel met his victim on social media, and sent her pictures of someone who wasn't him.

Without her caretaker's knowledge, the 20-year-old autistic woman -- who has the mental capacity of an 11 or 12-year-old -- met Bigel in person and agreed to go to his home.

While there, deputies says Bigel forced her to perform a sex act, he videotaped the sexual assault and then threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

Days later, police say Bigel hacked the victim's Facebook page and posted that explicit video. He also posted that video on the Facebook page of the victim's pastor.

Bigel is accused of doing this while he was on federal probation in Illinois for hacking the Facebook page of a 15-year-old girl who died of a brain defect. Police in Winnebago County say in 2014, Bigel posted on the dead teen's page as if he was her, alleging she had been sexually assaulted by her own father. He was convicted for aggravated stalking and making credible threats.

2016 Cyber stalking accusation: Bradford County

While Putnam County was investigating Bigel in 2016, that same year, Amanda Sterling -- who was then living in Bradford County -- turned to the I-TEAM for help, accusing Bigel of cyber stalking her.

In our interview, she said Bigel befriended her on Facebook after her father died of cancer. She said he played on her emotions, even saying he wanted to kill himself. He then asked to meet her.

When Sterling refused, she said Bigel locked her out of her own Facebook account and created an imposter page. There, she said he posted allegations of incest, infidelity and other obscenities too vulgar to say, saving screen grabs of the posts as evidence. 

With her account locked and the imposter page still up, Sterling had to reach out to her Facebook friends and let them know none of this was real.

When we confronted William Bigel at his home in 2016 about Sterling's allegations, the then 23-year-old told us he wasn't doing anything to anybody online, even though he had been charged 10 times previously for stalking and harassment. 

Fast forward to 2018. We met with Sterling again, this time to talk about Bigel's sexual assault arrest in Putnam County.

"When I read that police report, I broke down and cried," she said. "I was angry so angry and hurt that Bradford county couldn't do anything at all, he's on probation for the same thing, why can't you do anything? I didn't understand that at all."

The Bradford County Sheriff's Office says it was unable to charge Bigel in Sterling's case because the crime didn't occur in the county. Remember, Bigel was living in Interlachen when he allegedly cyber stalked Sterling. 

"It's changed my life drastically," Sterling said. "I went through a bad depression. I have my moments and still break down about everything, I'm afraid to talk to anybody through Facebook. I don't know anymore."

Cyber stalking can be hard to prosecute

In the case of the 20-year-old autistic woman in Putnam County, originally Bigel was charged with two counts of sexual cyber harassment and threats, along with the lewd and lascivious battery of a disabled person charge.

But, Captain H.B Woods with the Putnam County Sheriff's Office said the State Attorney's Office only found enough evidence to prosecute Bigel for sexual battery, so the cyber harassment charges were dropped.

"In a case like this, actually placing that individual in front the computer, there are various ways to skirt around being detected," Woods said.

Deputies said Bigel used throwaway cellphones to harass victims and utilized public WiFi to avoid being tracked.

"There's so many different ways to hide who you are online," said Kevin Johnson, owner of the computer security company Secure Idea. 

Another issue with prosecuting cyber stalkers, laws differ state to state and country to country.  Each social media site may fall under a different set of rules, depending on where their headquarters are located -- adding more challenges for police and prosecutors.

"With all the privacy laws that are coming out and the changes made because of European privacy laws -- which seems like it shouldn't affect us at all, but it does -- it's just going to get harder," said Johnson. "A lot of organizations are deciding not to track this stuff."

Johnson, says law enforcement is having a tough time keeping up with investigating these crimes online. 

The key for investigators, although a tough one, is for them to establish close contacts with employees at all of the major social media companies, according to prosecutors with the 4th Judicial District, who are not involved in Bigel's case. 

"It's hard to get somebody on the other line. There's no phone number to call, there is no one to help you. Everything is online, so not having someone to talk to can make it frustrating sometimes," said Special Prosecutor Joe Licandro.

It's also frustrating for victims like Sterling who say too many roadblocks exist in prosecuting suspected cyber criminals.

"Without you (the I-TEAM), he wouldn't have been caught, no one listened," said Sterling. "So I called the media and I'm glad you did what you did."

Bigel remains behind bars in Putnam County with his next pretrial hearing on the sexual assault charge is scheduled for May 22. He has already entered a "not guilty" plea.

Protect yourself from a profile predator

There are steps you can take to protect yourself if someone is stalking you or bullying you online.

  • Do not respond, as it may make matters worse
  • Screenshot and keep a record of the abuse on your computer
  • Block the attacker and report the incident to the social media provider

So when should you contact the police department? If the online contact is repeated, malicious and causes you emotional distress, you have every right to reach out to your local law enforcement.

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