They met on Match.com. The single mother, then living in Las Vegas, couldn't resist when the guy from Special Forces messaged her. The two met for dinner at Gardunos, a Mexican restaurant at The Palms hotel off the Vegas strip. They were married a month later.
But it wouldn't last. Haberman moved on even before their bitter annulment, eventually settling in Sarasota County, while Rhoad moved to San Diego.
And like many scorned lovers, she turned to the most efficient weapon in her arsenal: the Internet. She spun her side of the story to online publications like Lovefraud.com and greensickle.com, and eventually started her own blog.
Set against a brown floral background, Rhoadwarrior became a repository for her outrage. In just a few months, she imbued the website with research into ...Haberman's best-kept secrets and most-private embarrassments.
Now, nearly three years after exchanging vows and two months after the blog began, Haberman was in court, asking for her to get out of his life completely. Through the hiss of the audio recording taken during the hearing in Sarasota County, Rhoad and Haberman's voices sound equally resolute as they make their cases before Judge Robert Bennett Jr.
"She hunts me down," Haberman stated in his testimony. "She tracks me down."
"What's the purpose of this, your honor, but to harass for no apparent reason, via Internet?" he asked the judge.
"I don't write to harm him," Rhoad testified in response. "I write to expose him."
She told the court that Haberman hadn't worked with Special Forces, that he'd committed bigamy and falsely claimed he received a Purple Heart. (Haberman's lawsuit did not contest or refute the allegations in Rhoad's blog, nor did he deny any of its claims during the court hearing. He declined two requests from Creative Loafing to comment for this story.)
"The reason I posted my blog," Rhoad told the court, "is for clarification of who Phil Haberman is and to warn people of his sociopathic behavior."
Bennett didn't see it that way.
On grounds of cyberstalking, he ordered Rhoadwarrior taken down. Rhoad has refused, claiming the injunction unconstitutional. On Jan. 16, Judge Bennett responded to Rhoad's civil contempt of court with an order to return to the Sarasota courthouse on Jan. 25 or face a bench warrant for her arrest.
Bennett may have had reason to find Rhoad guilty of cyberstalking. But considering the murky and constantly evolving legal status of freedom of speech on the Internet, his ruling also challenged the First Amendment.
BREAK-UPS CAN BE HARD, but the Internet has revolutionized amorous revenge. And the judicial system is not necessarily keeping up with technology.
"[Bloggers' rights] is very much an emerging area of the law," says Gerald Weber, legal director for the Georgia branch of the ACLU. "Personal jurisdiction comes up with some frequency, and there are a lot of unsettled questions."
Many of which are coming from those -- mostly men -- who've inspired the wrath of Web-savvy exes. Sites like DontDateHimGirl.com, where former dates can review and comment anonymously on men, have gathered nationwide attention.
Last June, Pittsburgh lawyer Todd Hollis slapped Joseph, the site's domain owner, and several DontDateHimGirl.com posters with a $50,000 defamation suit. Joseph argues that her site is protected by the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a protective measure for Web hosts distinguishing them from their users. (The law was cited in a November 2006 decision in California that found webmasters and bloggers not liable for defamatory comments written by others on their sites.) Hollis maintains that the defamatory language should provide him rights to certain damages.
Hollis' suit was dismissed and DontDateHimGirl.com is still going strong.
First Amendment law places some limits on speech, and those same limits apply online: False allegations and direct threats aren't covered.
"Concerning the rights of one citizen to speak about another citizen, the online world doesn't have any special rules," says John Morris, a staff attorney at the D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology.
An ex with a Web connection can plaster information online for thousands to see. Charges against lovers (or co-workers, friends, even junior high classmates) can quickly circulate through cyberspace with the assistance of sites like MySpace.com and Blogspot, and end up in the real world.
AT THE BEGINNING OF THEIR RELATIONSHIP, Haberman and Rhoad made an attractive couple.
She, slim and doe-eyed, looked younger than her 38 years. He, almost six years her junior, showered her with compliments and seemed to glow with intelligence.
"The nice, 'good boy' kind of thing," Rhoad recalls. "He seemed clean cut -- the puppy dog eyes! -- and he traveled a lot. He sounded like he was established."
Plus, he was a soldier. According to Rhoad, he even wore a black long-sleeved Special Forces shirt to their first date.
"I'd had a streak of bad luck with men," she says. "I figured, 'Military, they do background checks and keep in shape.'" Having grown up in Phoenix, Rhoad had a thing for troops; at 16, she'd dated a Marine.
Though they had known each other less than a month, Rhoad was convinced Haberman was a good catch. She had been through a messy divorce and a string of "losers with no jobs." To care for her 13-year-old daughter, Heather, she had been balancing work as a legal aide with modeling gigs and small walk-on roles in Vegas-based flicks like Casino and Showgirls. She says she was unemployed and living on food stamps when her romance with Haberman began.
Within weeks, he and his dog had moved in, but money remained tight. Rhoad even stripped at a local club for three days. "I was working the b-shift," she recalls, "the day shift. The kind of place where you're lucky if you leave with the 20 dollars you paid out."
On Jan. 9, 2004, her last night dancing, Haberman had news. He'd just gotten orders to ship to Iraq, and wanted to know, would she marry him?
Rhoad accepted -- "It's Vegas, you know?" -- and right after their lickety-split vows the following day, he left for Fort Bragg.
Soon, however, Rhoad was accusing Haberman of cheating (in the September hearing, she accused him of proposing to four different women while still married to her). The distrust only deepened when he was deployed to Iraq in March.
"I'd had it with him," she says. "[But] it's supposed to be 'good or bad or otherwise,' you know?"
She stayed with him, but began investigating her husband's finances, specifically money Haberman received from the military.
Military personnel on permanent duty are eligible for basic allowance for housing (BAH) payments, which vary depending on where they live and whether they have dependents. Key West, where Haberman had a P.O. box, has high property values and thus one of the highest BAH rates in the country. Believing she deserved a part of his payments because he was living with her when he left for his service, Rhoad filed complaints with the military, according to evidence in the September hearing.
Just seven months after their wedding, Haberman filed for an annulment. In a rage, Rhoad upped her research of her now ex-husband, beginning an investigation into his military credentials and reaching out to members of the press in an attempt to get her version of his story told.
GLENNA WHITLEY WAS WILLING TO LISTEN.
A reporter at the Dallas Observer, an alternative newsweekly, Whitley was also the co-author of Stolen Valor, a book about people who lied about their military service during Vietnam. After Rhoad contacted her, Whitley took an interest in the story and launched her own investigation into Haberman's military history. What Rhoad did to disseminate Whitley's findings would play a central role in the ongoing story of her relationship with Haberman.
Whitley tracked down Haberman's military records through Freedom of Information Act requests, and contacted his teachers, relatives and other acquaintances in Dallas. Through this investigation, which lasted nearly three months, she uncovered discrepancies in Haberman's military record.
In September 2005, the Observer published her lengthy report ("G.I. Jerk"), with a subhead deflating his Special Forces credentials ("He's about as real as Rambo"). The article piqued the interest of wounded veterans angered by Haberman's alleged lies and feminists sympathetic to Rhoad's plight, like Donna Andersen.
Andersen, a self-described victim of "cheating," (cheating? try bigamy, fraud & a serial con man) has been prolific in her own online reporting. On her site, Lovefraud.com, she posts stories about con men and criminals, all purportedly guilty of deception in their marital and romantic lives.
Two months after Whitley's article went live on dallasobserver.com, Andersen published her own account of Haberman and Rhoad's relationship.
Phil Haberman's campaign to get stories about him removed from the Internet began long before he sought an injunction against Rhoad.
Haberman left a voice mail for Lovefraud on February 22, 2006. He demanded that the True Lovefraud Story about him, originally published in November, 2005, be removed. The message was ignored.
He called back on March 27 and said Lovefraud's report that he was no longer in the military was untrue. "I'm in a new reserve unit in Florida ," Haberman said. He was asked to supply documentation of his reenlistment.
None was received.
Haberman's campaign picked up steam in June when he sent Lovefraud a scan of his new military ID. The card showed an issue date of May 30, 2006 and an expiration date of October 30, 2007. To verify Haberman's claim, Lovefraud contacted the P.O.W. Network.
...All of these websites had posted their Haberman stories before Rhoad launched her blog on July 13, 2006. All of the authors had conducted their own research and determined that Haberman's stories were half-truths, exaggerations or outright lies.
....Kristen Rhoad was prepared to present proof to the Florida court that the statements in her blog were true, and that Haberman was a fraud. She had the following with her:
- Proof that Haberman was not currently in the Florida National Guard
- Military documents that Haberman had forged
- Military discharge documents, indicating "other than honorable" discharges
- Confirmation that Haberman had received $17,000 in excess military payments
- Proof that Haberman had taken $5,000 from another female victim
- Proof that Haberman's wages were being garnished
- Letter from Haberman's employer stating that he was a fraud
- Records of civil and criminal cases against Haberman in Florida
Rhoad was never given the opportunity to present the documents into evidence.
...Rhoad said she posted information about Haberman to warn other women about him. She has heard from women thanking her for the information...
Lovefraud received the following e-mail in May, 2006:
Ha, too funny. He started IM'ing me on AOL. I KNEW he was a psycho, so I did some research and found your article. His AOL screen name is Forcreconmarine. Too funny, what a psycho; and YES, he does have a temper.
Saw it come out when I declined his offer for a home cooked meal, with his request that I wear stockings, garters and stilettos. I said, "You're looking for a prostitute buddy," and blocked him. He is still on though - constantly!!!
With the Observer story in hand, Rhoad got in touch with POWNetwork.org, a not-for-profit website that tracks prisoners of war, soldiers missing in action and a group it calls "Phonies & Wannabees." After receiving a tip about a soldier's service -- or lack thereof -- P.O.W. Network then verifies the accusation by talking to troops who served with the soldiers in question.
The website, which boasts an archive of over 60,000 documents, started researching Haberman in November 2004. "We requested military records from the St. Louis Records Center," says co-founder Mary Schantag. Haberman sent records himself, hoping to clear his name, she says, and others were tracked through military service branches. Many of the posts on the P.O.W. Network page devoted to Haberman -- links to articles, clips and blog entries -- came from Rhoad.
Soon Haberman's photo, and his sullied reputation, would become a mainstay on at least four military-themed blogs.
Then, in July 2006, another blog joined the digital discussion.
For Rhoad, setting up an online journal of her own wasn't difficult. On Blogger.com, the terms of service are defined: While bloggers are advised to steer clear of slander, the site claims no responsibility for any false statements.
A blog was the perfect medium for her message.
In the beginning, RhoadWarrior blog posts came out in long form. She ruminated about her feelings for him: "Let's get one thing straight -- I do not want Phil back in my life." She called him names: "I know Phil is a small, insignificant scumbag at the bottom of the military's list of prosecution."
She gave sweeping descriptions of Haberman's alleged wrongdoings:
According to the September testimony of North Port Police Department detective Mary Thoroman -- who made a point of saying that she had run a clean background check on Haberman -- Rhoad wrote that he had been arrested on a theft charge and dishonorably discharged twice.
...Rhoad also posted definitions of her own First Amendment rights.
"Is my blog slanderous?" she wrote. "Not even."
As evidenced in the pleading of the September hearing, Rhoad began adding other juicy tidbits about Haberman's affairs. She published updates on at least one woman she alleged Haberman had "scammed" out of $5,000, e-mails from informants stating where he might be working -- even his address and a picture of his house.
Finally, Rhoad provided a full catalog of links to other blogs lambasting her estranged ex-husband, and included the P.O.W. Network and the articles from both Whitley and Andersen.
Meanwhile, Haberman prepared his own retaliation.
On Aug. 23, 2006, he filed for a temporary restraining order against Rhoad. Accusing her of domestic violence, Haberman claimed she had been "cyberstalking" him through e-mails and her blog.
"At the annulment hearing," he alleged in his petition, "[Rhoad] said afterwards to me that 'This is not over and never will be. You WILL PAY for what you did to me. Mark my words.'"
He continued with anecdotes about Rhoad's planned attacks on him, as relayed from her daughter to a friend of Haberman's. Citing numerous sustained injuries to his morale, he snapped back with character slams of his own.
"I have genuine fear of Kristen and what she will do," he wrote. "She has the ability to manipulate and connive people to doing what she wants by eliciting sympathy out of others. All it will take is for someone to read her blog, click the links, and decide they want to come to my house and take care of me the way she wishes to have done." (readers, does this sound familiar?? How many times have we heard this baloney? - Fighter)
Haberman knew what he wanted; his petition ended with several requests. Along with a halt on Rhoad's direct communication with him, he pleaded for an end to his ex-wife's online scavenger hunt.
"I am also asking for an injunction to be issued ordering her blog, and any collaborations she has had with other internet sites to be removed from the internet. These should include greensickle, the Dallas Observer, Lovefraud, POW Network, Veriseal, MySpace and Blogspot."
The hearing was scheduled for early September, to be presided over by 12th Circuit Judge Robert Bennett Jr. in Sarasota County.
HABERMAN'S REQUEST TO SHUT DOWN RHOAD'S BLOG stumps some legal experts weighing in on the case.
"Normally, people don't do it this way," says University of Florida law professor Lyrissa Lidsky, former associate dean of UF's law school and a First Amendment expert.
The problem, she explains, is that in this case, an "injunction" -- or court-ordered halt of an activity or behavior -- serves as a form of "prior restraint," in effect stopping Rhoad from continuing her writing in the future.
While protective orders are routine in stalking cases to prevent victims from being confronted by their harassers, those restrictions do not typically limit speech.
"If the speech is legal, if it's truthful," says Morris of the Center for Democracy and Technology, "then I'm skeptical that it ought to be taken down."
The best chance Haberman would have for getting Rhoad's blog removed, Lidsky says, would be to prove it full of lies or threats of violence.
"If Rhoad's stories are false," she says, "Haberman has a right to sue her for defamation."
But, she says, taking a blog off the Web in this situation, based on anything but its accuracy or its threatening nature, would likely be a violation of the First Amendment.
ON THE MORNING OF SEPT. 7, Rhoad, Haberman and his primary witness, North Port Police detective Thoroman, appeared in Courtroom J before Bennett. Haberman was asked to testify first in the civil hearing.
He made two points. The first was that Rhoad had left voicemails in 2004 stating she would seek revenge. Second, he was eager to prove that Rhoad's e-mails, the stories on LoveFraud and the P.O.W. Network, and her blog had combined to cause him harm. (Under Florida's cyberstalking statute, to cause someone "substantial emotional distress" through online communication without serving a "legitimate purpose" is illegal.)
"Anything and everything that she can do," he testified to the judge, "in order to cause me emotional duress, emotional stress, anything -- it's what she's doing."
"Under freedom of speech, your honor, the First Amendment gives me the right to post on the Internet, true allegations. True!" said Rhoad.
"Is he in danger of being found that he is a fraud and a con artist?" she asked.
"That is a civil side of the law," Thoroman responded. "And that is not my jurisdiction."
Bennett asked her directly.
"And your purpose for posting all this over the Internet is what, exactly?"
"To alert the women who have been his victims like me," she answered. She wanted "to warn people of who Phil Haberman is."
The judge wasn't impressed.
"I think, Ms. Rhoad," he said, "you're a menace. I think you're absolutely motivated by revenge and a desire to destroy this man. Your allegations may be true; the First Amendment protects you to the extent that you don't use it to harm others. [But] the First Amendment is not an absolute guarantee. None of the Bill of Rights is absolute."
Rhoad reports that she was stunned. But the judge had more to say.
"We can't use our free speech to set out and accomplish the destruction of a person's reputation," he said.
His decision was succinct but ambitious.
"Respondent shall remove, or cause to be removed, all blogs, e-mails or other Web-based communications to petitioner or third parties that refer to petitioner and which are posted, or caused to be posted, by respondent."
Reading his order to the defendant, Bennett acknowledged its pitfalls. "I don't know how you go about doing that," he said. "But that's going to be required. You are to have absolutely no contact with this gentleman, directly or indirectly. If this injunction is violated further I can sentence you to six months in county jail, and don't think that I will not do it."
The audio recording of the trial ends with Haberman verifying that all related pages would have to be taken off the Web.
BENNETT DECLINED CL'S INVITATION to comment on the ramifications of shutting down Rhoad's blog; exactly how one follows such a ruling remains difficult to determine. Because the allegations on the blog were not proven true or false -- and thus not liable for defamation -- applying the ruling to the blog is a challenge.
Cyberstalking charges are typically grounded in some form of direct communication, such as e-mail. Yet in this case, a blog was treated with the same parameters as an e-mail -- whether it arrived in an inbox or sat in cyberspace didn't matter.
"Harassing e-mails are really different than a blog," says Morris, "and I think would be treated differently from a constitutional perspective. If one person is harassing from e-mail, throwing toilet paper on the house, if you have an action like that it can certainly be enjoined."
Lidsky says blogging should not count as cyberstalking at all.
"It seems farfetched that blogging could be a form of domestic violence," says Lidsky. "From what I understand, the cyberstalking statute is designed for, well, stalking-like activities: 500 phone calls a day, that kind of constant harassment. But telling your story on a blog? That doesn't seem like domestic violence to me, but then again," she says with a laugh, "I'm only a First Amendment specialist."
While Lidsky says that blogging does count as communication, as it has a definite audience, "I don't think that's what the statute was designed to address," she says.
"If a blog could now be enjoined under cyberstalking, during any heated divorce, that could have a lot of implications for free speech. What's the difference between this and a memoir?"
Finally, the injunction is only valid throughout the state. But "[Rhoad] doesn't have the technical means to keep her blog out of Florida," says Lidsky. "In foreign countries, some bigger organizations have managed to block content from going to certain places. For her to keep her blog out of Florida, she'd have to shut down her blog everywhere."
When she's not on the set working as an extra for TV movies ("It's good when it's good," she says of her day job), the aspiring starlet is still updating her blog, in violation of Bennett's decision. Other sites have continued to publish stories on the case -- LoveFraud wrote an account of the trial -- and the P.O.W. Network's Haberman page is still up, complete with Rhoad's posts.
Haberman hasn't given up fighting, either. In late October, he filed a motion for contempt of court with the state attorney, who rejected his case, referring him back to the 12th Circuit judge.
"As of today," Haberman wrote a few weeks later in his request for an emergency hearing to deal with Rhoad's violations, "there have been roughly 75 violations of the court order, which bars both direct and indirect contact with the plaintiff."
Half a week later, 12th Circuit Judge Lee Haworth denied the motion.
But with Judge Bennett's decision on the books, one can't help but wonder whether Rhoad shouldn't stop posting. She can't completely remove Phil Haberman from the Internet, but is it worth it to keep writing?
"I did think about doing that," she says, "but people keep e-mailing me: 'Thank you for posting your blog.' I realize it can look vindictive, my keeping a tab on him. But if people are aware of what's out there, I don't see the real harm."
People like Haberman rarely get arrested or prosecuted. I hear horror stories all the time of predators getting away with victimizing people. They run up credit cards and leave the victims with the debts. They falsely accuse their ex-spouses of being unfit parents and win full custody of children. They bleed their victims of assets, and then harass them through the courts, when the victims can’t afford to defend themselves.
Then the victims get no justice from the legal system.
Victims are frustrated. They’ve been had, and they know the predator is going to do it again. They at least want to warn others about the person who conned them, hoping to save someone else from the devastation they suffered.
I’ve seen that exposing con artists works. People have contacted both Rhoad and Lovefraud, expressing gratitude for the warnings about Haberman. They avoided becoming victims.
To me, posting the truth about a predator on the Internet is more than legitimate. It’s a public service.
(We, FightBigamy and other sites have also been threatened by cyber-conmen like Haberman... and none of us have removed these stories. Nor will we. We do not negotiate with con men & terrorists. - Fighter)
Creative Loafing (CL)