Innocent Man's Life Destroyed by Anonymous Topix Poster

Copy Gossip: Free Speech or Defamation?

Days after Cooley returned to Blairsville, he was fired.

"Because of rumors and gossip. That's exactly what I was told," he said.

He desperately wanted to defend himself but had no idea how or where to begin, he said.

"How are you gonna defend yourself against somebody who you don't know who it is that's doing the attacking?" he asked.

Worried how it all might impact his sons, Cooley moved south to Augusta, Ga. During a trip to Blairsville to see them, he called on local attorney Russell Stookey.

"He laid this tragic tale out," Stookey told Cuomo. "I couldn't believe the story -- it was incredible. And I said, I'll try to do this case."

Stookey didn't know much about Topix before Cooley saw him. The idea of anonymously talking behind someone's back went against his principles, Stookey said.

"I confront people. They want to say something to Russell Stookey? I'll go to them. And I'll say, Here's your chance, you can say it to my face. And if I don't like it, we will fight. That's the way I do business," he said.

Stookey, who keeps a trio of rescued dogs he coos at while they sleep under his office desk, realized Cooley was barely holding on to life. The two men became friends.

"He was suicidal," Stookey said. "I was worried about him. And we talked every day."

Stookey went to work but discovered unmasking anonymous Internet posters wasn't easy. Then he learned of the one key piece of information he needed: the Internet Protocol (IP) address, a unique fingerprint left by every device that accesses the Internet.

"Once you get the IP address, you can go to your telephone companies and say, 'Give me the telephone number it comes back to, along with the name and address of the person who owns that telephone number,'" Stookey said.

It took two years, but Stookey got Topix to turn over the IP addresses of Cooley's critics.

Or critic. It turned out the majority of the negative comments had come from one woman, Sybil Denise Ballew.

"[Cooley] didn't even know who she was," Stookey said. Later it was determined that Ballew once worked with Cooley at a Blairsville department store a decade earlier.

Stookey said there were other names, but Ballew was the most prolific. She was also the most recent, which, due to the statute of limitations on defamation, made her the one Stookey had to go after.

Stookey said Ballew, using several names but mostly "Mouth," called Cooley a drug addict and pervert, and said police should investigate Cooley in the murder of Paulette Harper.

In January 2010 Ballew was tried on defamation charges. She admitted to going online to criticize Cooley as payback for what she said was his inappropriate behavior toward her when they worked together 10 years earlier at a Blairsville department store, and to protect Harper's daughter from being around Gene after her murder. At one point she said it was her First Amendment right to post what she did about Cooley.

"The First Amendment doesn't have a damn thing to do with defamation," Stookey said.

"I put her on the stand and said, Defend yourself," Stookey said. "I stepped back and let her say anything she wanted to say to the jury. And they hated her. We got a verdict of $404,000 -- $250,000 of it was punitive damages."

Cooley hasn't received a dime from Ballew, he said. Ballew told "20/20" she stood by her actions and she wouldn't give him "one red cent."

He got his life back, although the wounds remain.

"The worrying is the hardest part, you know, Is this ever gonna come back up? But everybody's been really happy that I've been back. I've had a lot of support," Cooley said.

Topix Chief Executive Officer Chris Tolles declined to be interviewed, but in a statement to "20/20" Tolles said Topix "pre-filter[s] user commentary" and "cooperates with law enforcement ... while being as respectful as possible with our user's privacy."

The Cooley case has launched Russell Stookey on a crusade, working with lawyers across the country, to bust others using Topix to defame.

"You've always had an ilk of individual out there that, I think they just harbor a dark side. And this is an outlet for them to anonymously blast people," he said, adding there's enough out there to keep him busy for a long time.

"I have caught a preacher's wife. I have caught people that work in the courthouse. 9-1-1 operators. These bastards are doing character assassination. And then they're just tripping off, thinking they got away with it. Well they don't get away with it anymore," Stookey said.

Gene Cooley has returned to Blairsville, where he found a job and friends eager to welcome him home.

Watch the whole story on the full episode of "20/20"

Full text of statement from Topix CEO Chris Tolles:

Topix believes strongly in people's right to freely state their opinions. There are over 5,000 towns with daily activity in their Topix forums and the content is remarkably local, with many of the participants knowing each other.

In the Gene Cooley matter, Topix worked with the authorities on an active court case. The information provided by Topix helped identify someone guilty of defamation. We are never happy about people misusing our site and were happy to assist in this matter.

We strive to keep our forums focused on productive community discourse and dedicate nearly 20% of our staff to manually reviewing every piece of feedback we receive, usually within 48 hours, as well as using artificial intelligence systems to pre-filter user commentary. Of the more than 100,000 daily posts we receive, we remove an average of 15% of posts and review over 1000 pieces of feedback a day.

We cooperate with law enforcement and court requests for information while being as respectful as possible with our userĀ¹s privacy. We are proactive in working with school officials when we see any cyberbullying of minors and have had success in the early detection and removal of such content.

Topix is focused on continually improving the site and the products it offers. We are creating new products around civic issues, politics and public matters, many of which will be deployed around the 2012 election.

Chris Tolles CEO Topix

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