Many of us today are familiar with the term “Catfish” which describes a person who uses a fake online identity to lure someone into a relationship. Some, however, may be less familiar with the term’s origins.
In 2007 a middle-aged housewife named Angela used multiple fake identities to seduce 24-year-old Yaniv “Nev” Schulman. She used 15 fake Facebook profiles to flesh out her deceit, and one of her identities was that of her own non-existent teenage daughter who was the main object of Nev’s misguided affections. When Nev finally uncovered Angela’s deceit, Angela’s husband Vince told Nev a story about catfish.
Vince said that during transportation from Alaska to China, live cod stored in vats would become tasteless and their flesh would turn to mush, so someone decided to put catfish in the vats with the cod to keep them agile, “and there are those people who are catfish in your life, and they keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank God for the catfish, because we’d be droll, boring, and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”
And so the term “Catfish” was born. However, 14 years ago, four years before a word existed to describe this specific type of internet fraudster, a far more extreme Catfish lured a teenager into a twisted net of deceit that ended in bloodshed and one of the most unique criminal charges anyone in modern times has ever received.
10The “Real Stalker” and the Kidnapped Cyber Girlfriend
In February 2003, in a suburb of Manchester in the UK, a 16-year-old boy named Mark met a beautiful teenage girl called Rachel in an MSN chatroom dedicated to Manchester teens. Mark quickly became obsessed with 16-year-old Rachel despite the fact that he had never met her in person or even seen her on webcam, all he had was one photo of her that she had shared online. Rachel and Mark eventually began a cyber relationship and (in the chatroom) she introduced Mark to her 14-year-old brother John who became a regular chatroom member.
Mark tried to meet Rachel on multiple occasions but she repeatedly found excuses not to turn up, and Mark became increasingly frantic in his efforts to meet her. That is when Kevin, the “real stalker” turned up. He would only write in pink because he was gay, he said, and according to him, he was a “proper stalker” who had done all sorts of terrible things. Rachel and John both confessed to Mark that Kevin was stalking and harassing them.
Mark became increasingly concerned for the safety of his cyber girlfriend, and then one fateful day, when she failed to show up in chat, Kevin admitted that he had kidnapped her. Kevin said he would only let Rachel go if Mark would masturbate live on webcam for him. Mark performed the embarrassing task in exchange for the safe return of the cyber-lover he had never met in person.
9Gang Rape, Murder, and a Coma Baby
Kevin let Rachel return to chat initially, but Mark was soon to learn that his live webcam humiliation had not actually been enough to satiate Kevin’s sadistic desires. Rachel disappeared from chat again, and this time a horrified Mark learned from Kevin that Rachel had again been kidnapped, but this time she had been gang raped before Kevin brutally murdered her. Kevin went into explicit detail, explaining all the awful things he and his evil cohorts had done to Rachel before she died.
Mark became deeply depressed after the initial horror of what had happened to his girlfriend wore off. His grades at school dropped, and he became increasingly withdrawn, immersing himself in the dramatic online narrative that played out in the MSN chatroom. Mark did not have anyone to turn to in his grief other than Rachel’s little brother John, who now frequented chat for hours every night. Mark and John started meeting in person and quickly became best friends.
Weeks later, out of nowhere, Rachel made a brief but shocking appearance back in the chat room. She revealed that she had actually been in a coma since the attack and had birthed a baby while she was unconscious. She claimed the baby was Mark’s, but as they had never met in person, this was hard even for someone as gullible as Mark to believe.
Yet again Rachel disappeared, and then on April 27, 2003, another girl from chat named Lindsey East was apparently killed. After she disappeared from chat, Mark received a post-dated email from her explaining that she had been trying to protect Mark and John. In the email, she claimed that if Mark received her message, it would mean that she was dead and that she had lost her life trying to protect the two boys.
8The Secret Agent
Soon a much more intriguing character was to join the local Manchester hub of drama and intrigue that the MSN chatroom had become. A housewife called Janet Dobinson, who unbeknownst to her husband was actually an agent and spy mistress for the British Secret Service, began to frequent the chatroom, and she quickly became the new object of Mark’s obsessions.
Janet wrote only in capital letters and though in her forties, described herself as “still very sexy.” She revealed to Mark that she wanted to recruit him into the British Secret Service and explained that if he could pass some initiation tests, he could become a rich and powerful spy. The foxy secret agent told Mark that he would be taken to London to visit the queen and the prime minister, but first, he had to prove his worth as an agent by being a bodyguard to an extremely important person named James Bell. If he could complete this task, he would be paid 30,000 pounds and his initiation into the British Secret Service would officially begin.
Mark’s lawyer, David Hatton, later explained that Mark felt like all his birthdays had come at once when faced with the prospects the mysterious spy mistress was offering him.
7James Bell and the Huge Massive Safe
According to Janet Dobinson, 14-year-old James Bell was one of the most important people in Britain. He was worth 548 billion pounds to the country and had to be protected at all costs because only he knew the code to a “huge massive safe” kept at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The safe, Janet explained, belonged to the queen and contained “all the world’s richest jewels.” Coincidentally James Bell lived in Sale, only three miles away from Mark, and even more strange; he just happened to be Mark’s best friend, John.
On Janet’s orders, Mark was to go to James Bell’s school and take him out of class. Mark managed to convince teachers at his friend’s school that James/John had an urgent dental appointment so they let him leave with Mark, and the two boys spent the rest of the day together. This was the first of many tasks Janet was to set for Mark, and while he did initially question the validity of her claims, he became convinced she truly was a spy as she seemed to have a lot of inside knowledge about his day-to-day life. Somehow, she knew whenever he had had a haircut, and she always seemed to know where he had been each day and what he had been doing.
She eventually explained to Mark that Manchester, particularly the suburb of Altrincham where Mark lived, was a hub of secret intelligence activity. Practically everyone in Mark’s town was a secret agent including bus drivers, the ice cream man, school teachers, even the mailman, and according to Janet, she was grooming Mark to become the most important secret agent of them all.
6Special Orders Direct from Tony Blair
The tasks Janet set for Mark became increasingly bizarre until one day she revealed that she had urgent orders that came directly from Tony Blair, the Prime Minister. Janet could not explain why this task needed to be carried out, but she said that it was a matter of national security and that she would lose her job if Mark could not go through with it.
What was this vitally important task? James Bell had to be made to look gay: the two boys had to have oral sex. Mark was initially unwilling to go through with this task, but, convinced of the danger Janet faced if he did not make James Bell look gay, and coaxed by the ever more extravagant rewards that Janet promised he would eventually receive, Mark finally agreed. Later that day the two boys went back to John’s house where they had oral sex with each other for the first time.
5Emergency Abort Code: 6969
In June 2003, Janet revealed to Mark that John (the extremely important James Bell) had developed a deadly brain tumor and because of this, he needed to be executed. It would be a mercy killing, Janet explained to Mark. He needed to end James Bell’s suffering, and if he could complete this final task, he would, at last, be able to go to London to meet the Queen and be officially initiated into the British Secret Service. In London, Mark would also be able to finally collect all the money he had earned so far, along with the 80 million pounds he would earn for carrying out this last task.
Mark was initially unwilling to contemplate killing his best friend, but over the months he had become completely obsessed with Janet, so when she revealed that he could finally meet her and have sex with her once he had killed his best friend, the temptation was too much to resist.
Janet went to great lengths to outline every step Mark would need to take in order to complete the execution. She explained where he had to buy the weapon he would need (a butcher’s knife), how big it needed to be, and how many times he needed to stab James Bell in order to kill him. Mark needed to wait exactly twenty minutes before calling the police in order to give the younger boy sufficient time to bleed to death, if the stab wounds did not kill him instantly. Janet said she would be posing as Detective Superintendent and would be there to protect him from arrest when the police arrived. Mark was also given an abort code: 6969. If anyone shouted this at him, he had to immediately abort the mission.
Mark had no reason to question Janet’s explanation about the brain tumor because in the chatroom John himself revealed to Mark that he had received a letter from his doctor confirming that he was mortally ill: “I got a brain tumor thingy but its big” was how John worded it.
4A Stabbing in Goose Green
Around 7:00 p.m. on June 29, 2003, Mark and John entered the Goose Green alley, which at the time was a dead-end alleyway behind a row of shops in the Altrincham shopping center. The two boys had spent the entire day together, and John had been with Mark when the older boy bought the knife that he was intending to stab his best friend to death with. When John asked what the knife was for, Mark explained that it was a gift for his mother. Now alone together in the alley, Mark stabbed his friend in the chest and then in the stomach. Following Janet’s orders, Mark waited 20 minutes before calling an ambulance. He told responding officers that a stranger had approached them and stabbed John before fleeing.
John suffered from a pierced kidney, a lacerated liver, and his gallbladder had to be removed. He remained critically ill in Wythenshawe hospital for a week after the attack while police hunted for the unknown stranger who had stabbed the schoolboy. When John regained consciousness, he initially confirmed Mark’s claims about a stranger attacking them in the alley, telling police that he also did not know the identity of the knife-wielding assailant.
3The Hunt for a Knife-Wielding Madman
After a frantic hunt for a knife-wielding maniac loose in the Manchester area, police eventually reviewed the CCTV footage from a camera outside the Goose Green alley and found that the only people who entered the alleyway at the time of the stabbing were Mark and John. Camera footage showed both boys entering the alley, then 25 minutes later only Mark exited, and that is when he made the call to emergency services. Once faced with this revelation, John admitted that his best friend was the person who had stabbed him but he could not give any explanation as to why the attack had happened.
Mark was arrested in July 2003, charged with attempted murder, and detained in a juvenile detention center. He could not understand why Dobinson had not come to his rescue and eventually revealed to police that he was a secret agent who had acted under orders from his superiors in the British Secret Service.
Investigators initially assumed Mark made the story about Dobinson up in an elaborate attempt to take suspicion off himself, so Mark’s computer was seized in the hopes that investigators could get some clue from emails and chat history as to Mark’s true motivation for stabbing his friend. What they found was that Janet Dobinson was very real and had been directing and manipulating Mark’s actions and behavior for months. Police assumed there was possibly a pedophile, or even a group of pedophiles, behind the online persona of the mysterious spy mistress, and investigators turned to the task of trying to find the true identity behind the facade that was Janet Dobinson.
2A Twisted Net of Deceit
A hunt for the true identity of Janet Dobinson was launched, but it would take three months before police even began to unravel the truth behind the circumstances that led to John’s attempted murder. The amount of material discovered on Mark’s computer was staggering. Criminal intelligence analyst Sally Hogg was given the task of poring over the 58,000 lines of text recovered from his hard drive, and according to Hogg in an interview with a reporter from Vanity Fair, those 58,000 lines were only a fraction of the total recovered.
In the seemingly endless lines of text, Hogg uncovered what read like the plot of a B-grade thriller movie: a homosexual stalker who only wrote in pink, a beautiful love interest who was gang raped and murdered only to turn up weeks later having been in a coma and apparently having given birth during that time, government assassination plots, secret agents and spies, and at the center of this hub of conspiracy and intrigue was the MSN chatroom where all the personalities involved in these plots interacted with each other. What was the connection between these people, and how did they all lead back to Dobinson?
Hogg was initially fooled by the personas, believing them all to be different people. They all had different typing patterns and unique narratives and stories that were meticulously maintained without fault . . . except for one flaw that took Hogg weeks to pick up on. Four of the major chatroom personalities had at some point misspelled the word “maybe” in a very unique way: mybye. Even more interesting, one of the chatroom users who misspelled the word in such a unique way was someone already known to authorities. That user was John himself.
With this new information, investigators turned to John’s laptop for clues and found that the last person to log into chat before the stabbing was Janet Dobinson, from John’s computer—at a time when only John was home. John was now brought in for questioning as a suspect, and the truth was finally revealed: John was the only person who had ever been in the chatroom with Mark. In the months leading up to the stabbing in Goose Green, the 14-year-old boy had been the person dictating and manipulating the events that led to his own attempted murder.
1The Puppet Master
In May 2004, the entire story finally came out in court. John, a well-spoken, polite, grammar school student had created and administered the MSN chatroom in which he and Mark had interacted with multiple fake identities, that John himself had created. John had almost completely stopped eating and sleeping in order to maintain his extensive facade, staying on his laptop in chat from 4:00 p.m. when he got home from school until 7:00 a.m. when it was time to leave again.
Investigators remarked on John’s flawless ability to switch from one character to another while continuously maintaining each separate narrative, personality, and writing style. John had created up to 193 fake email addresses in the time he had been maintaining his deception, and he explained that his initial main identities, Rachel, Kevin, and Lindsey, had merely been tests to discover the extent of Mark’s gullibility. The personality of Rachel had also been a ploy to get John, who had become sexually and romantically obsessed with Mark, closer to his target.
When John realized that Mark was becoming too obsessed with Rachel he terminated the fake identity and the violent method of that termination served to bring himself and Mark closer together. The tasks John then manipulated Mark into carrying out while pretending to be Janet Dobinson served to form an ever more unique bond between the two schoolboys. In the 2005 documentary Kill Me If You Can, John’s defense lawyer explained that “John was a puppet master, and Mark was the puppet dancing to the strings being pulled by John.”
No one can explain exactly what drove John to trick Mark into stabbing him. Some claim he became so immersed in his own narrative that he could not back out, some claim it was an elaborate suicide attempt as a result of knowing he would eventually lose Mark when the Janet Dobinson persona could no longer be maintained, and some claim he was merely trying to escape the mess his life had become.
Whatever his motivations, John eventually pleaded guilty to inciting his own murder. The prosecutor at the time noted that the crime is a novelty as no one else has even been charged with engineering his own murder before, and to this day there are no other known cases where someone has been charged with this crime. John was also charged with perverting the course of justice and sentenced to a three-year supervision order during which time he was not allowed to enter chatrooms or use the internet unsupervised.
Mark pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to a two-year supervision order. The two boys are never allowed to contact each other again.
For the most part, Delilah avoided posting links in the main list so as not to spoil the outcome of the story for those unfamiliar with the case. Here are the sources she used that were not linked in the list:
The 2005 Channel 4 documentary Kill Me If You Can: Much of this list was comprised of statements made in interviews by Johnathan Goldberg—John’s defense lawyer, and David Hatton—Mark’s defense lawyer.
Vanity Fair “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?”: In 2005, reporter Judy Bachrach interviewed John and the investigators involved in the case. She also viewed the trial records and the chatroom transcripts. Her report is a detailed account of events that occurred during the trial, the investigation, and the events that occurred leading up to the stabbing.
The Telegraph released a portion of the chat exchange that took place between Mark and John (as Janet) the day before Mark stabbed John.
And here are some articles that were published shortly after the boys were sentenced:
“Bizarre tale of boy who used internet to plot his own murder”
“Internet boy convicted of grooming his own killer”
“Internet ‘murder’ boys told: Never see each other again”