The recent murder of 19 year old teenager Cynthia Hoffman involved catfishing, an online interaction in which one or more people impersonates another person for various reasons which may include criminal activity. A catfisher, or catfish, is someone who uses catfishing to contact someone else online. The term originated from a U.S. documentary that was based on a real life online impersonation and later became a T.V. hit.
Catfishing is a relatively recent phenomenon and its incidence has naturally grown with increasing use of the Internet, but is not necessarily illegal. It only becomes illegal when someone impersonates someone else online in order to engage in a criminal act. The most common crime is fraud, but there are other potential crimes that can be carried out, including murder.
The murder of Cynthia Hoffman
In the Hoffman case, a New Salisbury, Indiana, man, Darin Schilmiller, convinced an Alaskan teenager, Denali Brehmer, to kill Hoffman, who was allegedly Brehmer’s best friend, in return for payment. Schilmiller had struck up an online relationship with Brehmer but said his name was ‘Tyler’ and that he lived in Kansas. Schilmiller convinced Brehmer to carry out the killing in return for 9 million dollars. She was told that she would be paid if she carried out the murder and took video footage of the event, as well as carry out sexual assaults on some minors and video that activity as well.
Brehmer engaged others to help her carry out the murder. Kayden McIntosh, who was actually the one to kill Hoffman by shooting her in the back of her head with Brehmer’s gun, Cayleb Leyland and two minors whose names have been withheld were involved in the killing. Schilmiller is to be extradited to Alaska to face charges of first degree and second degree murder. Brehmer and the other four have already been charged and if found guilty face a potential 99 years incarceration. They have pleaded not guilty to the charges, although McIntosh has admitted to shooting Hoffman. Hoffman’s body was discovered on the banks of the Eklutna River near Anchorage after she had been reported missing by her family for three days.
Catfishing with the purpose of encouraging a homicide is unusual. Most criminal activity that results from a catfishing episode involves fraud of some type or other. If the impersonator who initiates the catfishing lives outside of the U.S., it is far less likely that any activity that results in illegal activity in the U.S. could be charged in the country they live in unless an investigation can be carried out in that country to discover the real identity of the catfisher and launch criminal charges against that person.
Example of crimes through catfishing
A typical example of the way that catfishing can lead to fraud is as follows. The catfisher impersonates someone else and contacts a suitable ‘target’ with the intention of extracting money from them or information that could be of value. The money could be stolen through information about the person’s bank account or revealing something about their assets which can be used to obtain them. The catfisher often assumes the role of an unfortunate victim of family misfortune or financial woe and attempts to befriend the ‘target’ with the eventual aim of asking them for money.
Catfishing may also be used to defame another person contacted online or engage in illegal sexual activity with a minor.
Not all catfishing is illegal
If the catfisher only impersonates another person and does not use the impersonation in order to benefit from it, then no crime has been committed.
Because catfishers may attempt impersonation online for other reasons other than crime, they may be accused wrongly of criminal activity. Other reasons for catfishing include boredom, entertainment and amusement. Anyone who has been accused of fraud or another criminal offense through the use of catfishing and whose true identity has been revealed will need an experienced criminal defense attorney to help them defend themselves. In Anchorage, call the Law Office of Dattan Scott Dattan at 907-276-8008.