The Murky Politics Of Making Assault Charges Online

Recently, a woman began leaving messages on Facebook pages related to Western Michigan University and institutions in Kalamazoo, including the Prague summer writing program and yoga studio, saying that she had been assaulted by a well-known poet in San Diego. She included an arrest report and photos of her injury. She said he "beats and batters women," and called him a monster, and implicated his wife. Most of the Facebook messages were quickly deleted, and the poet, Richard Katrovas, has denied all of the allegations and the characterization of the events.

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Meanwhile in New York, for the past year Luciana D'Angelo has been leaving posts on the Yelp and Citysearch pages for Devachan, a salon in downtown New York City, accusing the owners of harassment. Each time, she writes, "I have a civil suit pending against the company. I also have police reports, testimonials, and other eye witnesses that saw my disgusting treatment there. I have proof of everything! I was consistently physically harassed and sexually harassed." Eventually, Yelp and Citysearch staff delete the posts, according to an official at Devachan, who denied all the charges. The official also said there was no police report and no lawsuit. (Update: The official clarifies that there may be a police report.)

Are these women using social networks to bravely speak out about assault, left with nowhere to turn? Or are they abusing a hard-to-police medium that allows information to spread unfettered and unregulated? Unfortunately, the facts are murky. What's clear is that Katrovas, who is the director of the Prague writing program at Western Michigan University, vigorously denies that he assaulted Diane Sweet, the San Diego woman who has been leaving posts all over Facebook accusing him and his wife of punching her and leaving her bleeding on the ground. (Sweet is engaged to Katrovas' wife's ex-husband.)

The Murky Politics Of Making Assault Charges Online

"This is a horrible, horrible lie," he wrote us, in one of two emails before eventually saying his lawyer had advised him not to speak. "The woman fell on her face. Literally. She is the girlfriend of my wife's ex-husband. I was in San Diego giving a reading from my new book at San Diego State University." He added, "The bottom line is that Krista and I were not charged with any crime. We're back home dealing with the poison that this person has put out. She has access to much more money than I and she seems much more interested in hurting my wife, through hurting me, than she is in any civil suit. Please don't give this person any credence." He said they planned to "explore our legal rights and whether we have the resources to press our rights."

Sweet has a different take. She says that during a family dispute related to her fiance and Krista's son, Katrovas cursed at her and punched her, knocking her to the ground and running away. She was inspired to go to Facebook, she said, partly because "I was incensed that law enforcement wasn't taking it seriously." (She says that's changed since then.) And after reading the Time Man Of The Year portrait of Mark Zuckerberg, she was inspired by what she called "the psychological aspect."

"No one ever goes on Facebook and wants to hear bad stuff. It's a happy place," she said. She sounded infuriated at Katrovas' status as a published poet and the director of a prestigious writing program, and was determined to get her own version of him out there. "It was a little cathartic," she said, although she didn't get much of a response. (One person did tell her to shut up; most of the posts were deleted by the page owners.)

The official at Devachan told us that D'Angelo has been posting about the alleged harassment for about a year, but said he had no knowledge of any lawsuit filed against the salon or its owners. He did say that they had called the police when D'Angelo and company had picketed outside the salon (This post originally said the boyfriend had been arrested; he was not.) "Nothing is founded in truth, quite honestly," he said. "We're pretty active with Yelp and Citysearch and they are very vigilant. They check and they remove it." Had it been bad for business? "We're fortunate that it has not hurt us one iota," he said. D'Angelo says, "I stand by my story."

Regardless of who is telling the truth in these strange stories — and, even if we had all the details, we suspect it would come down to one person's account over another — this is about more than just the fact that anyone can say anything about anyone on the Internet. It's also about how even the appearance of documentary fact can suggest veracity. "I have documents" may mean that a story is backed up in fact, or it may not at all — who will take the trouble to check? On the other hand, anyone would even a cursory knowledge of violence against women cases and how they're prosecuted, when even reported, knows to be wary of a "he-said/she-said" dismissal. One thing is clear: No matter how often you delete, the Internet remembers.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect the precise legal history of the dispute between Devachan and D'Angelo.