The family of a Buckingham teenager twice victimized by an internet stalker during the course of more than four years initially was hesitant to speak publicly about the ordeal.
But the Zezzos have since decided to confront the issue in an effort to prevent others from becoming victims.
This led them to the office of U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-8, of Middletown. The congressman later introduced legislation inspired by their story, dubbed the Combat Online Predators Act, that calls for stiffer penalties for those convicted of cyberstalking in cases where the victim is a minor.
H.R. 4203 — which increases maximum prison sentences for such offenders by up to five years — is now closer to becoming federal law following its approval by the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday night.
“Madison is a hero,” Fitzpatrick said Wednesday in a phone interview, of the now 18-year-old victim in the case. “It’s a very painful thing for people to go through. It wasn’t easy, but she made a positive difference, a positive impact on kids across the country. This is a step in the right direction toward keeping kids safe.”
In 2013, Shane Holderer, 56, of Plumstead, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor stalking charge for his social media activity surrounding Madison Zezzo, which began when she was just 13. He was sentenced only to probation and counseling.
Those measures, however, didn’t stop the behavior. Holderer created multiple social media accounts to stalk the girl, who was a friend of his daughter. In 2016, authorities set up a sting operation and arrested Holderer when he arrived for what he thought was a meeting with the girl.
In an op-ed letter recently published by this news organization, Fitzpatrick talked about Holderer’s “perverted library of over 15,000 posts” that displayed his infatuation with the teen and his desire to marry her.
Madison and her mother, Erin Zezzo, were guests of Fitzpatrick in Washington, D.C., for Tuesday’s vote.
During a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, Erin Zezzo said this type of action — which distinguishes victims who are minors — was needed because “technology has well surpassed legislation” regarding stalking and bullying.
She thanked Fitzpatrick for his work on the bill, adding that “he took it and ran with it and he immediately got legislation in that we knew could get passed.”
The bill also calls on the U.S. Attorney General to include evaluations of federal, state and local law enforcement efforts to combat cyberstalking in future annual reports.
This provision establishes a set of best practices benchmarks to be followed by prosecutors and law enforcement across the country, Fitzpatrick said Wednesday.
“We need to make sure that the legislation is seamless, that it encapsulates all kinds of factual scenarios and that it doesn’t matter what state this occurs in,” he added.
The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.