In just a few days, Gene Cooley lost his fiancee, his job, his future in-laws and his home.
It started with the murder of Cooley's fiancee by the woman's ex-husband. While still reeling from that loss, he became a target of Internet postings from someone he barely knew. The anonymous poster went on a community website for Blairsville, where Cooley lived at the time, and accused him of being a pedophile with a criminal record and a drug addict. None of it was true.
A Union County jury last week said the damage those postings did to Cooley was worth $404,000, the largest award ever handed down in this North Georgia county. The poster was identified through her computer's numeric IP address.
"She absolutely ax-murdered this boy's life," said Russell Stookey, Cooley's lawyer.
Cooley barely knew his web attacker, a woman who worked at a Blairsville store where he sometimes shopped. Had it not been for the willingness by the website, Topix.com, to out Sybil Denise Ballew, her identity may never have been known.
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Stookey took an infrequently used route to find Ballew's identity. He used a subpoena to get the IP address, which is something unique to every computer, behind the libelous postings on Topix.com. The website, which acts as a news aggregator for local communities, readily complied.
"She [the poster] might have said these things in the past, but you write it down and it can be traced back to your computer," said Topix.com CEO Chris Tolles. "People are going to find it's hard to have complete anonymity."
Cooley's saga began with the murder of his fiancee, Paulette Harper, at the hands of her ex-husband in September of 2008. A few days later, the postings on the Blairsville page of Topix.com started showing up.
The poster wrote Cooley was a "pervert" and drug addict with a lengthy criminal record, a man who had been in prison and rehab. Harper’s daughter, who was 9 at the time, must be protected from Cooley, the poster wrote.
“I didn’t really even know the woman. I knew her in passing,” Cooley, 44, told the AJC. “She worked at two places [where] I was a customer.”
Cooley had a criminal background check run on himself showing that he had no such past, but people didn’t seem to care. Eventually he had to leave Blairsville, where his mother, sister and two sons lived, to find another job. He now lives in Augusta and works as a hairdresser.
Ballew is the woman who wrote the posts under the pseudonyms Mouth, Calvin, Bugs, Yuck, Rebel and Slim. She admitted in court that she also had conversations with herself, posting her concerns on the site under one name and then agreeing with the posts under another persona.
When asked in court why she wrote those things about Cooley, Ballew answered, “I watched him and I can tell a pervert. Every time a pretty girl walked by, he would look at them. I get a feeling.”
Even after the jury of five men and a woman ruled in Cooley's favor, he knows he's unlikely to collect much of the $404,000. Stookey, the lawyer, says he is now researching Ballew's assets in hopes of getting some of the money for Cooley.
Ballew could not be reached for this story. Calls to phone numbers that public records have connected to her name were unsuccessful.
Ballew never hired a lawyer, according to records, even though Stookey and the judge in the case, Union County Superior Court Judge David Barrett, urged her several times to hire one.
“This young man was getting his life ruined because this woman didn’t like him. She went out of her way,” Stookey said.
It began Sept. 11, 2008, when Harper and her ex-husband were found shot to death in her home on Marie Way in Union County. Police ruled that Steven Harper had first shot his ex-wife, firing a gun under her chin, and then himself.
Days later, Cooley took Paulette Harper's body to South Florida so she could be buried near her parents’ home.
The first night he was there, Cooley said, Harper’s father asked him about a drug addiction.
“I’ve never had a drug addiction. I’ve never been in rehab,” Cooley said. “Then he was wanting a [criminal] background check. So I … got a background check and it came back with a clean bill of health.”
Cooley said he has never owned a computer, so he was unaware of the Topix site. Then his sister called with news of the postings, and only then did he know why Harper’s parents were asking such questions.
They asked him to leave their house and to come to the funeral only at the end of the service. They also wanted him to sit in the back of the church.
Cooley said he slept in his rental car for two nights before returning to Georgia.
Once home, the owner of the hair salon where Cooley worked fired him because “all this stuff had come into the salon. A woman that fit the description of Denise Ballew came in and said if ‘Gene Cooley’s here, I’ll never come back in here again.’ "
He got a similar reception around town.
"I wasn’t able to find anywhere to work in Blairsville,” he said. “What little shred of anything I had left she [Ballew] took.”
A Sept. 18, 2008, exchange on Topix.com started with “Calvin” asking if anyone knew Gene’s last name because he wanted to warn Harper’s family of his past.
“Keep that creep away from the children,” wrote “Mouth,” who was Ballew.
Ballew responds as “Calvin,” -- Thank you very much!!! I cant thank you enough. I will notify the family as soon as possible. If you know or have any more information, please let me know… Mouth -- If you don't mind me asking, how do you know all this about Gene???”
Moments later, “Yuck,” also Ballew, writes, “keep gene away from that little girl!! hes not even qualified to have the children hes got. yes, he is a boozer and a pot user, and a nutcase. he has gotten fired from every salon hes worked at...he is so gross!!”
Others tried to defend Cooley but then another Ballew persona, “Slim,” posted, “sometimes the truth hurts. … I am not one to sugar coat anything. If people get mad at me [for] what I think , then they certainly have that right. .. Everyone on this earth has a decision how they're going to live their life. If it 's not right then they will pay for what they done as we all will when we stand at judgement.”
And the posters who defended Cooley were insulted.
“you stupid a$$...you are a few bricks shy of load… GROW UP YOU LITTLE TWIT,” Mouth wrote.
Cooley said after last week's verdict, he got calls from others who feel they have been targeted. “She has trash-talked them,” he said.
Stookey, the lawyer, said he and the local district attorney and a legislator were drafting a bill to make this kind of libel a crime and not just a civil matter. In the meantime, he will look for others who anonymously post false allegations.
“We’ll find them, we’ll get them,” Stookey said. “Mean and dumb is a bad combination. I will catch them and I will put them into bankruptcy.”