Madison Zezzo and her mom, Erin, were all smiles sitting in Pennsylvania Representative Brian Fitzpatrick's office on Tuesday. At age 13, Madison was cyberstalked by her former best friend's father— twice.
Inspired by her story, Fitzpatrick presented the Combat Online Predators Act to Congress.
Madison's story started in 2013, when her then best friend's father began messaging her on Facebook. As Erin told Dearly, the messages were innocent at first.
“At first I read it, it was very innocent. It was like, 'Hey how are you?' 'Hey Happy Thanksgiving.' 'Hey I heard you hurt yourself.' They were innocent things, not really things I want you conversing with my child on, but nothing bad either. Being that she was friends with his daughter, I just thought it was a friendly conversation. You kind of go into this denial.”
But as time went on, Madison started to feel uneasy about the correspondence she was having with 51-year-old Shane Holderer on social media. She told her mom that the messages he was sending her had turned sexual in nature and Erin notified authorities.
Holderer eventually pled guilty to a misdemeanor stalking charge. He was sentenced to probation and counseling.
Erin told Dearly that she was initially shocked by how light Holderer's sentence was, but both she and Madison were assured that Holderer would never bother the teenager again. They took comfort in that reassurance:
"Everybody just kind of said be quite about it, don't say anything, it will all go away. He'll get charged with this misdemeanor and you're done. And that's exactly what we did. We didn't know, what we didn't know.
And then only to find out two weeks after we walked out of that courtroom, [Holderer] starts doing all of this and we are flooded with 15,000 pieces of date and evidence, knowing that he has looked at every aspect of our lives."
Holderer targeted some of Madison's closest friends to get information on her.
After being alerted to a retweet on Twitter, Madison learned that Holderer had never stopped cyberstalking her, he had just become more discrete about it.
Using a random name on Twitter, Holderer constructed and retweeted over 13,000 tweets, many of which professed his love for Madison. He was active on other forms of social media too.
On November 17, 2016, a sting lead to Holderer's second arrest. This time he pled guilty to a felony stalking charge and received a sentence of 18 months to seven years in state prison.
Although grateful for a harsher punishment, Erin was still not pleased with the outcome. She believed that because of the sexual nature of some of the tweets and messages, her daughter's stalker should have also been charged with a sex crime.
But the law didn't allow for it.
She explained to Dearly:
“He should have been charged with a sexual crime, but the laws just didn't provide for it. They didn't think they could prosecute it because of the way [the laws] were written, not because he didn't commit the crime, but because there were gaping holes.”
Once Madison's story gained some publicity, Fitzpatrick called the Zezzo family into his office. As Erin and Madison told Dearly, it was the first time since they learned about the stalking that it felt like someone understood them and was prepared to help get them what they wanted.
What they wanted was harsher punishments for cyberstalkers across the United States. As a result, the Combat Online Predators Act was written. It easily gained the support of other representatives, according to Rep. Fitzpatrick.
He told Dearly:
“The highest responsibility we have as legislatures is to protect our kids, that comes in terms of gun safety, school safety, cyberstalking, it all kind of fits into that same orbit.”
Rep. Fitzpatrick explained that any time you are attacking a crime you have to look at it from all angles, and that is what they did when constructing the Combat Online Predators Act:
"Typically issues of criminal justice and crime are state law issues, the feds can build bridges where there are gaps in state laws and what a good first step here is if there is a cyberstalking crime that affects a minor it provides a sentencing enhancement, it also requires the U.S. attorney general to issues best practices reports to take a look at the cyberstalking laws across all 50 states to see who's legislatives schemes are working, which ones aren't and make recommendations to states.
Because we live in Pennsylvania and he was prosecuted under state law and that was part of the problem. [...] Another piece of this is giving federal prosecutors also the option of charging. This is a work in progress, a really good first step, but we got to build on this.
Erin then added to Fitzpatrick's sentiments:
“When we came to [Fitzpatrick], I remember him saying, 'What can I do for you?' One of the biggest things is that there is no distinction between a crime against minor and crime an adult. She was 13 when this started, but when we were finishing the second time around, she was now 18. I was torn because, yeah, I want the children's laws to be enhanced, but I always wanted the adult laws to also be looked at. So federally, if we can enhance the laws and actually get the criminals to have bigger sentences because we were told at first, maybe six months — second time offense, same victim, heinous crime, this really shouldn't be this way.”
If it wasn't for Madison's willingness to share her story and her family's eagerness to fight for better laws against cyberstalking, this Act may not have existed.
Erin said this ordeal had shaped her as a mom— she was torn between staying silent and actually going after her daughter's cyberstalker and others and fighting for harsher punishments.
Madison doesn't like to say that this experience has changed the trajectory of her life. And although she wishes she could put that whole chapter of her life behind her, she told Dearly that she has essentially become the face of cyberstalking so that other people won't have to go through a similar experience.
“You know, the first time this happened, I was so young, I didn't really understand kind of why this was happening to me and what was going on. I was so sure I never had to deal with that ever again after I was 13 and then here I am a senior in high school, getting excited to start the rest of my life and going off to college and it was such a fun time that was completely ruined by it happening for a second time and little did I know it was happening all five years. It was so hard for me to cope with that.”
“I remember when [my mom] first said, 'Would you be interested in talking to Congressman Fitzpatrick,' I didn't know, I wanted this to be over with, I wanted this to be done, but thinking about how it would honestly be a shame if something so traumatic, something so negative that happened to me and my family just stayed that way. So I thought if there is any positivity that can come out of this, if there is any way I can semi-prevent what happened to me from happening to somebody else, then how could I not do that.”
Rep. Fitzpatrick give her “tremendous credit” for turning her nightmare into something positive.
On April 10, he took the Act to the floor of the House. That same day, the act was passed.
Now a college student, Madison has been able to move on from that traumatizing time in her life, but she wants to tell kids who spend a lot of their time on the internet and social media to always be aware of their surroundings. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't right and it's okay to open up to a trusted adult if you feel that way:
“There is no shame in saying, 'Hey mom this is making me uncomfortable, do you think this is something we should look into?'”
Fitzpatrick's official website also includes tools parents and kids can use to identify cyberstalking.
Madison said that she refuses to let this define her, and all of the positivity to come out of this has really helped her cope with it all.