It was a modest newsletter published by a suburban couple, hardly something that seemed likely to draw the ire of a Fortune 500 company. But eBay executives were growing weary of the bloggers’ pointed criticism, federal prosecutors said Monday, and they vowed reprisal.
“We’re going to crush this lady,” one eBay executive texted another in April 2019, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Boston that alleged a bizarre intimidation campaign against a Natick couple by the online juggernaut.
Six former eBay employees are accused of harassing and cyberstalking the husband-and-wife team, sending a host of disturbing items that included fly larvae, live spiders, and a bloody pig mask to their home and traveling to Massachusetts to surveil the couple to make them stop publishing a newsletter critical of the online retailer, federal prosecutors said.
It was a “systematic campaign fueled by the resources of a Fortune 500 company to emotionally and psychologically terrorize this middle-aged couple in Natick,” US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said at a news conference.
That campaign included “anonymous and disturbing deliveries to the victims’ home, including . . . a bloody pig Halloween mask, a funeral wreath, a book on surviving the loss of a spouse," and pornography sent to neighbors but addressed to the husband.
Some executives allegedly “sent private Twitter messages and public tweets criticizing the newsletter’s content and threatening to visit the victims in Natick," prosecutors said. Some defendants also tried to install a GPS tracker in the couple’s vehicle.
In a statement, eBay said it launched a “comprehensive investigation" of the matter with outside legal counsel once law enforcement informed them of the alleged harassment in August 2019.
An independent committee formed by eBay’s board of directors found that the company “took these allegations very seriously from the outset. Upon learning of them, eBay moved quickly to investigate thoroughly and take appropriate action,” the company said.
"eBay apologizes to the affected individuals and is sorry that they were subjected to this. eBay holds its employees to high standards of conduct and ethics and will continue to take appropriate action to ensure these standards are followed,” the company said in the statement.
The employees were terminated. Lelling said Monday that eBay has cooperated with federal investigators.
Prosecutors identified the defendants as James Baugh, 45, of San Jose, Calif., eBay’s former senior director of safety and security; David Harville, 48, of New York City, eBay’s former director of global resiliency; Stephanie Popp, 32, of San Jose, eBay’s former senior manager of global intelligence; Stephanie Stockwell, 26, of Redwood City, Calif., former manager of eBay’s Global Intelligence Center; Veronica Zea, 26, of San Jose, a former eBay contractor who worked in the center; and Brian Gilbert, 51, of San Jose, a former senior manager of special operations for eBay’s global security team who served previously as a Santa Clara police captain.
Zea’s attorney, Frank Ubhas, said his client “went along" with the plan and that more culpable people have not been charged.
“She was a young analyst at eBay, and the government’s view" is that she could have walked away, Ubhas said. “Our view is that she couldn’t have. But here we are. It’s just a very, very unfortunate, very tragic set of circumstances.”
The other defendants’ lawyers either declined to comment or couldn’t be reached. They will make initial appearances in federal court in Boston at a later date.
According to prosecutors, two eBay officials, identified as Executive 1 and Executive 2, followed the couple’s newsletter closely. In April 2019, Executive 2 told Executive 1 via text, “We are going to crush this lady," the complaint said.
Executive 2 included a link to the newsletter’s coverage of Executive 1′s compensation, records show. The following month, Executive 1 told Executive 2 in a text message, ‘Take her down,’ " the complaint said.
On Aug. 1, the newsletter ran an article headlined "eBay RICO Lawsuit Meant to Curb Seller Exodus to Amazon?” According to prosecutors, the article stated that Executive 1 “has been unable to stop a decline in market sales, but trying to dissuade sellers from turning to Amazon (and trying to get Amazon to stop recruiting sellers) may not be the best tactic.”
The couple had previously noted that eBay had built a replica of a popular Manhattan bar on its campus.
“It’s probably news to sellers (and shareholders?) that eBay has a pub-like lounge on campus — especially one built with what appears to be no-expenses spared,” the article said, according to court papers.
On Twitter, someone posted a link to that article, calling the bar “a throwback to Internet and gaming company CEO’s lavish overspending on ‘legacy’ facilities and landmarks,” the complaint said.
Prosecutors did not identify the Natick couple.
The alleged harassment of the couple began in early August. On Aug. 7, the wife received a private Twitter message from an account she didn’t recognize. On Aug. 10, the couple started receiving home deliveries they hadn’t ordered, and they believed the person controlling the account was involved, according to court records.
When the bloody pig mask arrived at the couple’s home, the account sent the wife a message that read, "DO I HAVE UR ATTENTION NOW????” prosecutors said.
On Aug. 15, surveillance of the couple intensified. That night around 11:30 p.m., Baugh and Harville “approached the victims’ home, planning to install a GPS device on the couple’s car, prosecutors said. They couldn’t because the car was locked.
Lelling’s office said the former employees also tried to obstruct the police investigation into the matter.
“Aware that the police were investigating, the defendants allegedly sought to interfere with the investigation by lying to the police about eBay’s involvement while pretending to offer the company’s assistance with the harassment, as well as by lying to eBay’s lawyers about their involvement," Lelling’s office said.
After the defendants had allegedly tormented the couple, Gilbert contacted the wife, feigning concern about their harassment, prosecutors said.
He identified himself as an eBay employee and “claimed that the company had seen and was concerned by the online harassment of the victims, and offered eBay’s help,” the filing said.
In an e-mail that Executive 2 sent Baugh at one point, the employee voiced frustration about the newsletter.
“I am utterly vexed by this!” Executive 2 wrote, according to the complaint. “I genuinely believe these people are acting out of malice and ANYTHING we can do to solve it should be explored. Somewhere, at some point, someone chose to let this slide. It has grown to a point that is absolutely unacceptable. It’s the ‘blind eye toward graffiti that turns into mayhem’ syndrome and I’m sick about it. Whatever. It. Takes.”
In its statement, eBay said it examined what role, if any, former chief executive Devin Wenig may have had in the alleged plot. The company announced in September 2019 that he had left eBay. He has not been charged.
“The internal investigation found that, while Mr. Wenig’s communications were inappropriate, there was no evidence that he knew in advance about or authorized the actions that were later directed toward the blogger and her husband,” eBay said. “However, as the company previously announced, there were a number of considerations leading to his departure."
Baugh and Harville are charged with conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and conspiracy to tamper with witnesses, and the remaining defendants are each charged with conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and conspiracy to tamper with witnesses, prosecutors said.
Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com.