Courtney Allen says she has spent a year and a half living in a state of perpetual terror. A wife and mother from suburban Seattle, Allen said what started as an online flirtation led to a dogged, diabolical campaign of cyberstalking.
“I’m having nightmares that my husband is dead, that my son is being taken away from me,” Allen told "Nightline."
She says playful banter in the chatroom of an online video game curdled into a tsunami of threatening phone calls, emails and text messages, as well as intimate videos of her being sent to her colleagues and the police being called to her home to investigate reports of child abuse.
She said the months of harassment and humiliation she and her husband, Steven Allen, endured led her to even contemplate suicide.
The man the Allens blame for the torment is Todd Zonis, a 44-year-old married man from Arizona.
Courtney and Steven Allen got married in 2001, and when they had their son, Rand, Courtney Allen quit her job and became a stay-at-home mom. That’s when she said their marriage began to change.
“Steve was not home a lot,” she said. “I felt abandoned and then having no time to talk to friends or anything, I really just felt very secluded.”
She began playing an online game called “Grepolis.” Set in ancient Greece, the game lets players use the powers of the gods to protect them and forge alliances with other virtual players. It was while playing this game that she met Zonis. At first, she said he was “rude and crude” but she thought he was funny.
“And we just began conversing through the online game,” she said.
Then Courtney Allen said they began emailing each other.
“We started flirting and then that turned to texting, sexting,” she said. “And that's mainly how the relationship started to evolve.”
Courtney Allen was having what she calls a secret online affair, even though she and Zonis had never met face-to-face.
“I felt like he [Zonis] was my best friend,” she said. “I told him very private things about myself, things that I really didn’t tell other people. He replaced my husband.”
Then, she said, things turned sexual.
“He had this idea where we should exchange some illicit videos of ourselves,” she said. “So he sent me several and then asked for one in return, and I obliged.”
In September 2013, Steven Allen discovered the relationship.
“It was devastating to me,” he said. “You just don’t ever think that your spouse would do that.”
Steven Allen confronted his wife and she told him she would end the affair with Zonis. But, she didn’t and instead hid her and Zonis’ interaction inside a password-protected tablet.
Months later, Steven Allen caught her again.
Disappointed but unwilling to give up on their marriage, Steven said he began searching for answers and found a website called MarriageBuilders.com. The website says that in order to end an affair, it must be exposed to “family, friends … and especially the lover’s spouse.”
The website’s author says, that while controversial, overall the advantages of exposure far outweigh the disadvantages and that it’s just “a part of [his] complete plan for marital reconciliation.”
So Steven Allen told his parents and then sent individual Facebook messages to “about 40 of our common friends,” telling them, “I feel it is very important to inform you that Courtney has been participating in an internet, sexual affair, which has shattered my heart. I am asking that you pray for us … and use whatever influence you have to encourage her to work on our marriage.”
But then he took it even further and emailed Zonis’ wife and parents, telling them, “He’s having an internet affair with my wife.… This involves texts, emails … and shared recorded videos of masturbation.”
According to the Allens, Zonis was furious and he focused his anger on Steven.
Steven Allen said his bosses started receiving anonymous emails “saying bad things about me, lies about me, trying to get me fired.”
Then the couple said there was a death threat sent to Steven's grandmother.
“She called me up and said … a man threatened to burn down the house with us in it,” said Courtney Allen.
Courtney said the next year and a half was an “all-out attack” on their family. Hundreds of emails began pouring in. One email sent on Dec. 12, 2014, at 9:25 p.m. read, “Where are you? Are you OK? … Are you just hoping I fade away so you can enjoy twisting the knife?”
Another email that same night at 9:26 p.m. said, “God damn you, why won’t you talk to me?” There were more emails that night, sent at 9:30, 9:42, 10:00 and 10:34.
“I just kept trying to think, ‘There’s got to be a way for me to get rid of this guy in a nice way where he’ll leave me alone,’” she said.
She said she received five more emails. “What the ----? … Are you joking?” one email said. “You are cruel,” said another. Another asked: “Have you even thought about me at all in the past month?”
More emails arrived, angry and abusive ones, followed by ones looking for sympathy or demanding apologies.
Then came the voicemails.
“Now it’s all just payback and fun. … Hope Steve’s credit didn’t take a hit. That would be a shame,” was one voicemail received on Feb. 2, 2015.
“I’m telling you, passion is passion. I did nothing wrong. I’m not going anywhere,” said another received on Feb. 26, 2015.
“There’s no job either one of you guys can have that I won’t know about and be there,” was one received on Feb. 27, 2015. “I will tell you, I’m going to make this as painful and expensive as possible.”
Steven Allen said he received so much of this sort of harassment at work that he had to quit his job.
“I remember going to Steve and saying, ‘This is scaring me. I’m not able to sleep anymore,’” Courtney Allen said. “I don’t know what he‘s going to do next. … I tried emailing and saying, ‘Leave me alone,’ and kept getting progressively firmer” but the harassment wouldn’t stop.
Steven Allen said he had his moments where he thought if his wife hadn’t had this affair, they wouldn’t be dealing with this. But he said he knew “she’s not doing this, he’s doing this.”
“He could choose not to,” Steven said. “He, for whatever reason, felt the way to go was to harass and stalk her and that’s on him.”
The Allens changed their phone numbers, but the calls kept coming. One evening, Courtney Allen said she received more than 200 text messages.
“Like a switch was flipped, like he’s just gone crazy,” she said.
But then the cyber torture became even worse. An explicit video of Courtney Allen masturbating was posted to a website called YouPorn and sent to her bosses and Facebook friends from a Facebook account of someone named Jennifer Jones.
“It was a full-out attack,” she said. “It was personal.”
Cyber harassment attorney Carrie Goldberg said, “Sharing an intimate image with one person doesn’t license that person to then share it with the world. But even more importantly in this case, it doesn’t license the recipient to destroy her with the image.”
Sometimes perpetrators can feel that there’s been “some sort of injustice” and they want revenge, Goldberg said, but “it’s also a sadistic need to control and dominate another person.”
The Allens called the police, but said they were told there was nothing the police could do. They live in Seattle and said the officer they spoke to had told them they could try relocating.
“The police officer told us … because he [Zonis] is in Arizona, ‘Our hands are kind of tied. We don’t really know what to do with this,’” Courtney Allen said. “So he told us … that a detective would contact us.”
It’s not uncommon for local police department to not know how to handle cyberattack cases, Goldberg said, “but stalking is stalking, whether it’s through a computer or a phone, in person, and certainly this offender broke many, many laws.”
A few days later, the Allens were relieved when a detective did knock on their door, but then they were blindsided again.
“The detective … says, ‘I’m here on a welfare check for your son. You’ve been reported for child abuse,’” Courtney Allen said. “And she apologized and said, ‘I’m sorry. I need to see your son’s body.’”
Courtney was terrified, thinking that her son could be taken away from her.
“And then I think my son was playing with my dog the other day and he’s got a tiny scratch, they’re going to see that scratch and they’re going to take him away,” she said. “My son comes down and he sees me upset so he doesn’t want to show the detective anything, and so through coaxing, me and the detective are able to take his shirt off and see that there are no bruises.”
“I break down and I’m like, ‘We’ve got a stalker. I think this is his doing. He told me something was going to happen and this is it,’” she continued. “And she [the detective] told me … ‘We’ll figure this out. I’ll call you in a little bit.’”
But the next day, Courtney Allen said their neighbor came over and told her she had gotten a letter in the mail accusing Steven Allen of abusing and psychologically torturing his wife, urging the community to act and hold him accountable. The letter had been sent to the entire neighborhood and was postmarked from Phoenix, Arizona.
“I stopped being able to function. … There was always a threat hanging over my head and I didn’t know what to do,” Courtney said. “These threats are not vague threats to me. They’re very real because I believe him.”
The Allens then went to the FBI and an agent picked up their case. But then death threats started coming in. One message sent on April 25, 2015, at 2:25 p.m. said, “They are going to hurt you, maybe even kill you. You deserve it.” Another one sent on May 1, 2015, at 7:05 a.m. said, “You and Steven are garbage and he’s gonna die.”
Courtney Allen said the FBI agent told her to call 911 if she felt like she was in danger. While she had a documented death threat, she said, the issue was that not all of the messages were traceable. This was because whoever had been harassing the Allens was using Tor, anonymity software that makes tracing emails and identifying the sender impossible.
After months of brutal harassment, Courtney Allen said she considered taking her own life.
“I got … an anonymous email [that said], ‘It’s better for you if you just die,’” she said. “And all this guilt came crashing down that I introduced this maniac into the lives of my family and into my life … and maybe there's some way I can protect my family and maybe this is it. Maybe if I die, you know, if I kill myself, maybe that will be the end.”
She said she went as far as to take a gun out of the family’s safe.
“And my son popped into my head and I started to think about the times that I would miss if I weren't there. … I wouldn't get to see [his] first date or to teach him how to drive a car,” she said. “And I stopped. Got up, stopped crying and went about my day and I was like passing a test... The thoughts of my son and my husband, that's what saved me."
The Allens took Todd Zonis and his wife, Jennifer Zonis, to court in June 2015. Proving he was responsible for the cyberharassment would have been impossible if it hadn’t been for the handful of emails the Allens’ attorneys linked to the Zonises’ IP address.
One such email that was sent March 17, 2015, at 9:35 a.m., said, “OK, isolation, shaming and ridicule, coming right up.” Another that had been sent on March 29, 2015, at 2:05 p.m., said, “I’ll be in Washington [state] real soon. I think we will be seeing a lot of each other for quite a while.”
The jury found the Zonises responsible for intentional invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation to the sum of $8.9 million.
The Zonises agreed to sit down with “Nightline.” Todd Zonis said he had met Courtney Allen while “playing an online game for the first time in my life,” but that’s where his and the Allens’ story diverge.
Todd said he and his wife Jennifer Zonis had befriended Courtney Allen and that Jennifer was even involved in the correspondence with her.
“She [Courtney Allen] sent me gifts,” Jennifer Zonis said. “She made little tags for the things in my garden, stuff like that.”
Todd Zonis said that Courtney Allen’s claims that their online relationship was more emotional and romantic are “not true at all” and that the story they heard in court about the Allens being harassed for months on end was “very difficult to contradict because we’ve never heard [it] before.”
Todd Zonis said that Courtney Allen had told them her husband Steven was “very controlling” and an “abusive kind of guy.” They also said that she had propositioned them for sex. But Jennifer Zonis said, “We turned her down.”
The Allens’ attorneys argued in court that the explicit images of Courtney Allen that were sent to the Allens’ friends from the Jennifer Jones Facebook account was an account that had been logged into from an IP address at the Zonises' house.
“That wasn’t me,” Todd Zonis told “Nightline.”
He also denied sending the emails that the Allens’ legal team referenced in court. In fact, he said some of the emails accessed from his IP address, and the calls to police alleging child abuse, were actually done by Steven Allen pretending to be him.
Todd Zonis gave “Nightline” a drive containing evidence that he said was proof of his innocence. But "Nightline" found very little on it that hadn't already been presented in court. He also repeatedly stressed in the interview that he wasn’t good with computers.
“Literally, I'm a computer moron,” Todd Zonis said. “I've never done any of this before. So, no, I had no involvement in any of that.”
As for the letter that was mailed to all of the Allens’ neighbors claiming Steven Allen was abusive, Todd Zonis said Courtney Allen had written it herself and asked him to send it for her, which is why the letters were postmarked from Phoenix.
“Because he [Steven Allen] had … done an exposure of her to all her family and friends,” Jennifer Zonis said. “She was pissed and wanted retribution against her husband.”
When asked about the threatening voicemails the Allens’ received, Zonis admitted that it was his voice on some of them but that, “all of these [voicemails] could be explained if they're taken in context.”
Todd Zonis claimed that Steven Allen had sent an email to Zonis’ wife and parents claiming he and Courtney were having an affair, “three or four months before any of this happened.”
The voicemail that says, “It’s all payback and fun,” Todd Zonis said, “Do you know what ‘the payback and fun’ was? The Super Bowl was here that year. … I'm a sound guy and I work those shows. … That's a lot of money.”
“Steven Allen … intentionally hired lawyers down here to move the date of the hearing,” he continued. “He intentionally dragged his feet on it and then switched it to four different times during that week. I lost the Super Bowl [gig].”
The Zonises claim they never got a fair trial because the judge wouldn’t let them submit their own evidence or claims. Their biggest claim is they lost out on their inheritance after Steven Allen emailed Todd Zonis’ parents exposing the alleged affair.
“I mean in my case, it's $2.5 million, plus the home that I grew up in,” Todd Zonis said. “I mean my parents kept saying we had a great relationship ... and all of that was gone. I was trying to contact them. They wanted nothing to do with us.”
“You haven't heard any of this stuff and there's a reason, OK?” he continued. “They didn't want you to. There's a reason that you weren't provided with any of this stuff or that it's not available. That's why I started my blog, which by the way we get death threats on now.”
“And some of them are very ... very personal,” Jennifer Zonis said.
Today, the Allens said they are trying to move forward.
“What I did wasn’t cause to try and ruin our life,” Courtney Allen said. “Those are his [Todd Zonis’] actions. They're not placed on me. I may have helped with ruining our lives by providing that information but that's not my fault. It's him and his actions.”
“We didn’t have a stalker until we had one," Steven Allen added. "You may think you're fine now but something [is] going to happen. You've put all that stuff on the internet and it could be there for decades.”
Cynthia Hetherington, an expert in internet intelligence who trains military, law enforcement and security professionals, said anyone posting online can make themselves vulnerable.
“Your profile might be set to private. You think you've locked yourself down, but now the person you're commenting about has an open profile. You've just opened yourself up,” she said. “All I need is a name and the general area of where you live. And thank you for also putting pictures up there because now I know what you look like … and I've totally stolen your identity.”
Hetherington said posting photos and information online, such as pictures of a car, a new home, the kids’ first day at school, a vacation spot or a neighborhood can contain subtle, identifying details that can be used to compromise your privacy and security.
Chances are, she said, your most critical information, such as your address, Social Security number and phone number are already available online. She recommends contacting the major credit reporting agencies and placing a fraud alert on your accounts. This requires them to call you to verify loan or credit applications.
“I've watched every major public record vendor admit to a compromise,” Hetherington said. “Everyone in this country has had their information stolen. … It’s just they haven't used your information yet.”
The Allens feel this ordeal is far from over. They fear that the media attention on their case could possibly make them targets again, but they also want to warn others.
“We think it's important that people understand what can happen,” Steven Allen said. “You don't have to be a celebrity, you just have to meet the wrong person. Put your trust in the wrong person. And this can happen.”
And the Zonises have already filed an appeal.
“This is all going to be overturned on appeal,” Todd Zonis said.