A Union County jury last week said the damage those postings did to Cooley was worth $404,000, the largest award ever handed down in this North Georgia county. The case itself, in which the poster was identified through her computer's numeric IP address, is believed to be unique for Georgia as well as the rest of the nation.
Cooley barely knew his web attacker, a woman who worked at a Blairsville store where he sometimes shopped. Had it not been for the willingness by the website, Topix.com , to out Sybil Denise Ballew, her identity may never have been known.
Stookey took an infrequently used route to find Ballew's identity. He used a subpoena to get the IP address, which is something unique to every computer, behind the libelous postings on Topix.com . The website, which acts as a news aggregator for local communities, readily complied.
"She [the poster] might have said these things in the past, but you write it down and it can be traced back to your computer," said Topix.com CEO Chris Tolls. "People are going to find it's hard to have complete anonymity."
The poster wrote Cooley was a "pervert" and drug addict with a lengthy criminal record, a man who had been in prison and rehab. Harper’s daughter, who was 9 at the time, must be protected from Cooley, the poster wrote.
Cooley had a criminal background check run on himself showing that he had no such past, but people didn’t seem to care. Eventually he had to leave Blairsville, where his mother, sister and two sons lived, to find another job. He now lives in Augusta and works as a hairdresser.
Ballew is the woman who wrote the posts under the pseudonyms Mouth, Calvin, Bugs, Yuck, Rebel and Slim. She admitted in court that she also had conversations with herself, posting her concerns on the site under one name and then agreeing with the posts under another persona.
When asked in court why she wrote those things about Cooley, Ballew answered,“I watched him and I can tell a pervert. Every time a pretty girl walked by, he would look at them. I get a feeling.”
A Sept. 18, 2008, exchange on Topix.com started with “Calvin” asking if anyone knew Gene’s last name because he wanted to warn Harper’s family of his past.
“Keep that creep away from the children,” wrote “Mouth,” who was Ballew.
Ballew responds as “Calvin,”-- Thank you very much!!! I cant thank you enough. I will notify the family as soon as possible. If you know or have any more information, please let me know… Mouth -- If you don't mind me asking, how do you know all this about Gene???”
Moments later,“Yuck,” also Ballew, writes,“keep gene away from that little girl!! hes not even qualified to have the children hes got. yes, he is a boozer and a pot user, and a nutcase. he has gotten fired from every salon hes worked at...he is so gross!!”
Others tried to defend Cooley but then another Ballew persona,“Slim,” posted,“sometimes the truth hurts.… I am not one to sugar coat anything. If people get mad at me [for] what I think , then they certainly have that right... Everyone on this earth has a decision how they're going to live their life. If it 's not right then they will pay for what they done as we all will when we stand at judgement.”
And the posters who defended Cooley were insulted.
“you stupid a$$...you are a few bricks shy of load… GROW UP YOU LITTLE TWIT,” Mouth wrote.
Stookey, the lawyer, said he and the local district attorney and a legislator were drafting a bill to make this kind of libel a crime and not just a civil matter. In the meantime, he will look for others who anonymously post false allegations.