Navy captain shared ‘erotic’ photos of his ex while impersonating her online, feds say

When a woman learned a fake Facebook account with more than 1,000 friends was impersonating her and shared private photos of her online, she “was devastated and confounded by who could hate her so much,” according to court documents.

Then her mother found a LinkedIn account, which wrongly listed the woman as a pole dancer. The account was also impersonating her, court documents say.

The person behind the accounts was U.S. Navy Capt. Theodore E. Essenfeld, the woman’s ex-boyfriend, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California.

Essenfeld, 52, spent more than a year impersonating his ex-girlfriend online while using her name, information and photographs of her to harass her, federal prosecutors said.

He did so while they were dating and after their break-up, according to court documents.

Under the fake Facebook account, Essenfield joined dating groups, liked multiple users’ posts, sent users “kissy-face emojis” and messages — and posted “erotic and sexually explicit” content of his ex, prosecutors said.

On June 14, a federal jury convicted Essenfeld, of Chula Vista, California, of cyberstalking and identity theft, the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a news release.

Criminal defense lawyer Kerry Lee Armstrong, who represents Essenfeld, told McClatchy News on June 17 that he and his client are “dejected about the verdict,” but they “respect” the jury’s decision.

“While Mr. Essenfeld’s actions in this case were immature and juvenile, I do not believe they rose to the level of a crime,” Armstrong said.

Fake accounts are created

Essenfield and his ex-girlfriend, who was previously in the Navy, met on and began dating in the Spring of 2018 when they both lived in San Diego, according to court documents.

After the Navy transferred Essenfeld to Colorado in January 2020, he and his ex-girlfriend were in a long distance relationship, according to the trial brief.

By the Fall of 2020, they both “went on without the other’s knowledge,” the trial brief says.

Essenfeld eventually discovered his then-girlfriend on the site and created two fake profiles under the names “Ed” and “Jerry” to message her, according to the filing.

With the fake accounts, he ultimately told her that the Ed and Jerry personas knew about Essenfeld and that they would confront him if “she did not tell (Essenfeld) about what she had done,” the trial brief says.

The woman then told “everything” to Essenfeld, who never told her “that he was ‘Ed’ and ‘Jerry,’ or that he was also contacting people on,” according to the trial brief.

Essenfeld and his ex-girlfriend stayed together and she moved in with him in Colorado in May 2021 — before they broke up in August 2021, the trial brief says.

More imposter accounts

In November 2020, Essenfeld created a fake Yahoo email account and Facebook account pretending to be her, the trial brief says.

On the fake Facebook account, he blocked his ex-girlfriend, her family and his family, according to prosecutors.

Using the account, he engaged with the woman’s prospective employer’s social media accounts, former co-workers, the university she attended, the Navy and gyms she used to visit, prosecutors said.

The month of their breakup, Essenfeld created the imposter LinkedIn account, according to the trial brief.

A few months later, in December 2021, a relative of the woman was using an alternative Facebook account and came across the fake account Essenfeld created, according to the trial brief.

The woman’s family alerted her to the account before she soon learned of the LinkedIn account, the trial brief says.

Though she reported the Facebook account more than 400 times, Facebook didn’t take it down because it “appeared more authentic than the victim’s actual account,” prosecutors said.

In February 2022, Essenfeld posted a new Facebook photo album under the Facebook account for his ex-girlfriend called “Bedroom Fun,” according to prosecutors.

Sixteen “sexually explicit” photos shared in the album showed the woman and a man believed to be Essenfeld, whose face wasn’t shown, the trial brief says.

After she suspected Essenfeld was running the fake accounts, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service started investigating, the trial brief says.

Possible prison time

For one count of cyberstalking, Essenfeld is facing up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, prosecutors said. He faces a maximum 15 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine for one count of identity theft, according to prosecutors.

Armstrong told McClatchy News that “the crime of cyberstalking really came down to the definition of what ‘harassment’ was, and the court rejected my proposal of how to define that word for the jurors.”

He said Essenfeld is appealing the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and has hope that the Ninth Circuit “will overturn his conviction,”he said.

Essenfeld is set to be sentenced on Sept. 6, according to prosecutors.

“Mr. Essenfeld deserves to be held to account for his cruel campaign to stalk, harass, and intimidate his victim,” Nicholas Carter, the special agent in charge of the NCIS Southwest field office, said in a statement.

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