DOCUMENT: Bizarre, Internet

Online Hoax Prompted Man's Revenge Plot

FBI: Suspect sought to harm those behind deception

Tiffany Watkins

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Brian Hile Affidavit

JUNE 20--It is a classic Internet love story gone wrong:

Boy meets girl.

Boy falls in love with girl.

Boy exchanges nude photos with girl.

Boy discovers girl is actually a gay guy.

Boy plots revenge killings.

Boy travels to California on Greyhound bus.

Boy stalks prospective victims.

Boy arrested by FBI.

A Michigan man who was the victim of an online hoax was indicted last month on two felony charges for allegedly plotting to harm a California couple whom he mistakenly believed was somehow involved in the cruel, two-year-long romantic ruse, The Smoking Gun has learned.

Brian Hile, 28, was arrested last year after traveling to the San Diego area “with the intent of killing various individuals,” according to federal investigators. The unemployed Hile, who had been living with his 86-year-old grandmother in her mobile home, is now locked up without bond in a federal correctional center.

The bizarre details of Hile’s online romance, his realization that he had been duped, and his subsequent plan to retaliate for the hoax are contained in a riveting court affidavit sworn by Agent Steve Kim, who is assigned to an FBI cyber squad. A spiral notebook used by Hile, Kim reported, “contained a list of names, addresses, telephone numbers, and other personal information of individuals Hile intended to kill.” The notebook, Kim added, included “a section entitled ‘supplies: trench coat, rope? duct tape, mace? chloraform?, knife, plastic zip ties.”

A second affidavit identifies Hile’s alleged California targets as Tiffany Watkins, 23, and her boyfriend, 30-year-old David Cranford. In FBI interviews, Watkins (pictured above) and Cranford said that they did not know Hile, nor had they ever communicated with him.

So why were they allegedly targeted?

When Hile “discovered information” causing him to believe that his online girlfriend--who supposedly lived in South Africa--“was actually a male posing as a female,” he sought to “exact revenge against the individuals he believed were involved in the deception,” Agent Kim noted.

Court records do not reveal how Hile, who had never met or spoken with his Internet girlfriend, came to learn she was a mirage. Or how he determined, in Kim’s words, that his purported girlfriend--who he met playing an online game--was “actually a homosexual male posing as the female.”

Focusing on photographs that “the male posing as the female sent” during the course of their lengthy online relationship, Hile undertook online searches to identify the attractive blonde woman depicted in those risqué images. The photos--self-portraits snapped in a mirror--sent to Hile showed the woman naked and dressed in lingerie. Hile’s brother Brett told the FBI that his younger sibling once showed him a nude photograph of his South African girlfriend.

Hile’s sleuthing eventually resulted in him correctly identifying the woman in the photos as Watkins, a southern California native who has previously modeled swimwear. He was also able to pinpoint the address of her Santee home, which she shared with Cranford.

As Hile likely discovered, Watkins had previously achieved Internet notoriety for her explicit images. In late-2007, a collection of around 200 photos of Watkins began circulating online--from Facebook to pay-per-view porn sites. The pictures showed the comely Watkins (seen at left) mugging with friends, posing with family members, and modeling bikinis. There were also many shots of her partially or completely naked.

While various theories cropped up as to the source of the photos, the prevailing opinion was that the images were likely part of a viral ad campaign for a porn site. The original Facebook post about the images claimed that they were downloaded from a lost digital camera (that the finder was seeking to return to “the lovely lass in these photos”).

In fact, the images had been stored in a Photobucket account maintained by Watkins, who used the handle “tiffytoodlepoo” on the photo sharing site. Years after the images first surfaced, posts about the “Tiffy Toodlepoo” series are still being made.

In an FBI interview, Watkins said that her photo storage account had been “compromised” around 2007 and that her photographs, including some nudes, were taken without her permission. The images, she said, were subsequently posted on various web sites, and an unknown individual (or individuals) “created fake on-line profiles by assuming” her physical identity.

The dissemination of these photos, Watkins told federal agents, resulted in her being “subjected to constant harassment through Internet postings” and prompted “threatening communications” to be directed at her. Cranford, Watkins’s boyfriend, told investigators that he was aware of the anxiety she has experienced due to the “loss of [her] nude photographs and as well as being a victim of identity theft.”

According to Kim’s affidavit, while Hile’s online research had not convinced him that Watkins was involved in the hoax, he nonetheless traveled on a Greyhound bus from Michigan to California to stalk her. In fact, Brett Hile told investigators that his brother “vacillated between wanting to kill” Watkins and Cranford and “wanting an apology” from the couple.

Remarkably, Brett Hile also said that his brother--who admitted locating the whereabouts of Watkins and her family members--acknowledged that while she “most likely had nothing to do with the deception,” Watkins “represented the closest point of retribution to” the male hoaxer.

Such irrational thinking prompted officials to initially place Hile in a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. While being interviewed by an intake staffer, Hile remarked that he had traveled to San Diego to “kill a slut,” according to Kim’s affidavit. Brett Hile told the FBI that his brother said he intended to stab Watkins and Cranford to death with a knife, and that he wanted to see them “die a slow and painful death.”

After a U.S. District Court magistrate judge ruled last October that he was not competent to stand trial, Hile was transferred to a Bureau of Prisons medical center in Springfield, Missouri, where a forensic psychologist conducted treatment to “restore him to competency.” That effort proved successful.

On April 18, Judge Janis Sammartino ruled that Hile was competent to stand trial on two felony charges accusing him of interstate stalking “with the intent to kill, injure, harass” Watkins and Cranford. Each count carries a maximum prison term of five years. Hile’s lawyer, Marc Xavier Carlos, declined to discuss specifics of the case against his client beyond asserting that Hile denies stalking of Watkins and Cranford (who is pictured at right).

Cranford did not respond to two Facebook messages seeking comment from him and Watkins about the Hile case. Brett Hile did not respond to a message sent to his Facebook page, while Toni Miller, Hile’s mother, declined to answer questions during a brief telephone conversation.

According to family members, Hile’s desire to avenge his online tormentor(s) was prompted by the devastation caused by the hoax. His grandmother, Virginia Dewitte, told the FBI that he “fell in love with the female” and later became “obsessed with the failed Internet relationship and deception.” Dewitte added that Hile, who did not finish high school and only worked intermittently, “had been happy just to have had a girl with whom he could speak.”

Her grandson, Dewitte said, had confided that he had sent “photographs of his genitals to his girlfriend.” Hile, she added, “was very upset knowing that a ‘gay man’ had photographs of his privates.” In fact, as Kim reported, Dewitte recalled that Hile said he “could kill this guy for doing that to him.”  

In a TSG interview, Dewitte said that Hile’s online relationship “started out in pure innocence,” and that he would share details about his South African girlfriend with her during strolls through the woods near their home in Fremont, a Michigan city (pop. 4081) about 35 miles north of Grand Rapids.

Dewitte said it was during one of these “grandma walks” that Hile disclosed that he had been hoaxed, exclaiming, “Grandma, it’s a gay!” He then added, “I hate gay guys.”

Asked if she ever questioned how a foreign beauty could fall for her grandson--who earned money cutting grass, running errands, and collecting cans for recycling--Dewitte admitted having doubts that “some beautiful girl” fell for Hile. These were not, however, misgivings she shared with her grandson, whom, she remarked, was “such a good boy. I can’t describe him as anything but a teddy bear.”

Dewitte said that Hile--who moved in with her after his mother went bankrupt and lost her home to foreclosure--“doesn’t reason things out. He’s intelligent, but doesn’t reason well.” She added, “Brian is not street wise. He’s hardly been out of Fremont.”

Hile left Michigan bound for California last August 9, though he told relatives that he was going to Texas to visit an online friend. Hile, who does not own a car, got a ride from a friend to a local bus station.

When family members learned that Hile had actually boarded a Greyhound bus due to arrive in San Diego on August 12, they became alarmed since they were already aware that he had compiled information on California residents he suspected were involved in the hoax.

After consulting with his mother, Brett Hile immediately flew to San Diego in search of his brother, who does not own a cell phone. Remarkably, after he “searched various neighborhoods,” Brett located his brother near downtown San Diego on August 14. “The FBI told me it was an act of God that he found him,” recalled Dewitte.

While upset that he had been located, Hile confessed to traveling to California to kill Watkins and Cranford, and showed his brother a list containing the couple’s names along with “others he wanted to kill,” according to Agent Kim’s affidavit. Hile, who admitted that he had already cased the home shared by Watkins and Cranford, opened his backpack and showed his brother that it contained zip ties and duct tape.

Brett Hile, who “disbelieved” that his brother planned to carry out the murders, actually offered to drive his sibling to a nearby Walmart to purchase a knife (before leaving for California, Hile used a friend’s computer to conduct searches for buck knives at a Walmart in El Cajon, a city outside San Diego).

When the pair arrived at Walmart, Hile became upset and fled the parking lot, leaving behind one of his two backpacks. Fearing that Watkins and Cranford could be in imminent danger, Brett Hile called 911.

El Cajon Police Department officers arrived at Walmart and Brett Hile showed them his brother’s spiral notebook, with its list of targets and notations about supplies like mace, chloroform, and duct tape. The notebook also contained reminders to “learn to pick lock, get in car, and or work on ruse to get people to invite/let me in” and “make certain all info is up to date and ACCURATE—I’ll know where/who to go to and what I can do.”

After two hours, Hile returned to the Walmart parking lot, where his brother and police officers were waiting. He was taken into custody and transported to the San Diego Psychiatric Hospital. Hile was named in a felony complaint on August 18, and has been in federal custody since that date. On May 4, he entered a not guilty plea to a two-count indictment returned days earlier by a federal grand jury.

While awaiting trial, Hile has engaged in some jailhouse lawyering. In mid-March, while being held at the federal medical center in Missouri, he filed a pro se handwritten lawsuit contending that, among other things, prosecutors and prison officials had violated due process and speedy trial provisions.

He also accused FBI agents and El Cajon cops of not reading him his Miranda rights or providing a lawyer after he twice asked for counsel. An attorney “should have been waiting for me,” wrote Hile, who added, “I’m no seasoned criminal, 1st offense.” (14 pages)