Unsolved Mysteries

Our Very Own Catfish: How a Creepy Stranger Co-opted an Observer Photo to Infiltrate a Small Town

An impostor uses Facebook and a co-opted photo to befriend California kids.
Eli Steveness' Facebook profile picture

Eli Steveness’ Facebook profile picture

On August 20, the Observer received an unsettling email from a grandmother in small town California named Cheryl Nagle. She asserted that a mysterious man on Facebook was infiltrating her community’s social media networks, and creepily sending friend requests to a bunch of local kids. And that the Observer, in some bizarre way, was connected to it all.

Obsessed with MTV’s Catfish, we took Ms. Nagle up on her tip. It turned out to be true. The ordeal started in August, when a person calling himself “Eli Steveness” began sending Facebook friend requests to dozens of people in Grand Terrace, CA, a pleasant little commuter town about an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles. Mr. Steveness was new in town, according to his timeline; he’d recently graduated from NJ’s Mercer County Community College and decided to move out west. He looked attractive in his profile picture: his brown hair was mussed; his jaw was square; his face was friendly.

To the kids and adults who swiftly accepted Mr. Steveness’ friend requests, the guy probably seemed a normal (though perhaps  a tad old) college grad, enthusiastic about his cross-country move. “My ‘everyday’ is about to change,” Mr. Steveness posted on August 9, under a picture of an airport security line. Nine days later he posted a photo of a wrinkly puppy, captioned: “Now that I’m all unpacked, time to get a pooch to make this house a home!”

As of 2010, there were 12,040 people living in the 3.6-square-mile town of Grand Terrace, CA. It’s a close-knit community, Ms. Nagle said—the kind of place where friends hang out at the local rec center, and parents use a communal Facebook page to solicit spare soccer gear or to inquire whether anyone might have spotted their sister’s runaway dog.

So when Mr. Steveness joined the town’s Facebook group—as well as the groups for the town rec center and Grand Terrace High School—everybody opened their virtual arms to him.

“A little bit of friendliness goes a long way, thanks RecCenter GT!” wrote the friendly Mr. Steveness, presumably after connecting with the rec center on Facebook, “You are appreciated!”

“Thank you!” The rec center responded, “And welcome to Grand Terrace :)”

Mr. Steveness was initially welcome to Grand Terrace by local establishments.

Mr. Steveness was initially welcome to Grand Terrace by local establishments.

But something about Mr. Steveness seemed iffy to Christina Brodbeck, a Grand Terrace parent and active community member. After accepting the newcomer’s friend request and checking out his profile, she became bothered that a 31-year-old man was sending friend requests to local high school and even junior high school students. She also noticed that his dates didn’t add up: if Mr. Steveness was born in 1982, how was it that he hadn’t graduated high school until 2009?

“I began looking through his profile and found that it looked fishy,” Ms. Brodbeck told the Observer in an email, “It was new. He had friends from [Grand Terrace], and then friends from random places (none from where he said he was from). Then his profile said that he graduated high school in 2009, but was born in 1982. That would make him 27ish.”

Suspicious, she Googled his profile photo—and discovered it had actually come from a 2011 Observer article. The article was Stephen Duffy’s “What Would Stop The Occupation?”, which profiled a series of New York City Occupy Wall Street protesters. There was Eli Steveness’ face, only the name of the man in the Observer piece wasn’t Eli Steveness—it was Eli Conrad-Hamton.

“Did you change your name?” Ms. Brodbeck wrote on Mr. Steveness’ timeline on August 20, accompanied by a link to the Observer article. She also sent him a private message, asking him who he was, and letting him know that she was concerned.

The original Observer article, featuring a photo of Eli Conrad-Hamton

The original Observer article, featuring a photo of Eli Conrad-Hamton

Shortly afterwards Ms. Nagle sent her tip to the Observer:

“There’s a new Facebook profile of an ‘Eli Steveness’ using YOUR photo of 11/04/11 of Eli Conrad-Hampton as his profile picture. He just set the page up claiming he just moved to our small bedroom community AND claims he is new to Facebook as well…has started making contact with our community groups, has requested some as facebook friends…there’s a few children among his new Facebook friends…something very fishy here.”

Drawing on the gentle instruction of Nev Schulman, we opened up Eli Steveness’ Facebook page and began our investigation by reverse Google image searching “Eli’s” other photos.

Remember the photo of the airport security line, purportedly taken en route from Jersey to Grand Terrace? We found it in this About.com air travel video. Good one, Steveness.

Screen Shot 2013-08-20 at 5.03.34 PMMr. Steveness had also posted a photo of a young boy staring into a shark tank, captioned, “Took the little brother to the aquarium today. A good time!” Turns out, the photo was actually taken by Luc Viatour, a Belgian photographer. Quelle dommage.

For good measure, we contacted Eli Conrad-Hamton, the man depicted in Mr. Steveness’ profile picture, and whom the Observer profiled in 2011. Could he perhaps have moved to Grand Terrace, and started a Facebook account under a false name?

“That is not my Facebook page, not even a little bit,” Mr. Conrad-Hamton said when we showed him the profile. He laughed in astonishment. “I have no idea who would do such a thing,” he said.

We sent a Facebook message directly to Mr. Steveness, asking if he’d like to respond to allegations that he wasn’t who his profile said he was. We received no response.

Through Facebook, word spread across Grand Terrace that everybody’s new “friend” was actually a creepy imposter with a disturbing affinity for befriending adolescents. In the town’s communal group, residents shared frantic warning messages. “Friends and neighbors PLEASE be aware of who you are friending on fb,” one woman wrote, “Make sure your kids are especially cautious! This guy who claims to be new in town…anyone really ever meet him? Do you know your kids are friending him as well???”

And so Grand Terrace became the setting of a whodunit, as paranoid residents shared their fears on Facebook. “Too much does not add up,” wrote Ms. Brodbeck, “I just want to keep myself and my kids safe.” The rec center, high school, and other local entities blocked Mr. Steveness from their Facebook pages. People un-friended him in droves.

Here’s a photo Mr. Steveness posted, supposedly documenting his cross-country trip.

Here’s a photo Mr. Steveness posted, supposedly documenting his cross-country trip.

“[I] contacted as many people as I could who had added him as a friend to let them know it was a fake profile,” Ms. Brodbeck said, “He still is FOLLOWING a few children from GT. I am not sure how many friend requests he still has out there…but it worries me, A LOT. So many kids will accept him. He is friendly, well written, (but bad at math….) and handsome in his profile picture.”

We spoke with Ms. Nagle, our original tipster, on the morning of August 21. “I don’t like the idea of someone being able to follow what a child’s doing on their Facebook page; [kids] are very open about things—where they’re at, who they’re with,” she said. “If you have this person who’s a fake guy that could be hanging around getting all [the kids’] details, [then] when they’re walking home from school…” Ugh.

Troublingly, if the imposter was lurking around Grand Terrace High School—or anywhere in the town, for that matter—no one would really be able to spot him or her. “We’re 13,000 people,” Ms. Nagle said, “We sit right in the middle of some major cities. Somebody wouldn’t stand out like that. I wouldn’t think anything of it if he showed up to one of our functions.”

Mr. Steveness' Facebook friend list

Mr. Steveness’ Facebook friend list

We asked if anybody had contacted the police. No, Ms. Nagle said. The gosh darn good people of Grand Terrace were still inclined to give Mr. Steveness the benefit of the doubt.

And just as Grand Terrace’s tension levels were peaking—just as somebody on Facebook began to wonder if maybe we, the mysterious east coast reporter, might be an imposter as well—the elusive Mr. Steveness posted a note to Ms. Brodbeck on his Facebook timeline, finally responding, publicly, to the private message she’d send him two days ago.

“Hello Christina Brodbeck, I tried to message you but I have been blocked from everything. I’m just a simply [sic] guy trying to see where I want to move next. I meant NO harm. PLEASE let everyone know that there is nothing to fear here, I wouldn’t hurt a fly, or even try to do so…You have a good community. Again, I mean no harm and sincerely apologize that anything negative came from this. I was simply trying to see how welcoming Grand Terrace would be to a new face as I prepare for a move. I have cancelled all pending requests and will delete this profile shortly. Thank you. – “Eli”

As promised, Eli Steveness’ Facebook page was deleted by noon, EST on August 21.

Mr. Steveness' message to Christina Brodbeck

Mr. Steveness’ message to Christina Brodbeck

At this point, it’s hard to know who was ever behind the Eli Steveness Facebook page, and why he or she had tried to connect with so many local kids. What we do know is that the pictures he posted were fake, and that the man in the profile picture was not the person who was operating the page. There’s no way to tell if the “real” Eli Steveness is still in Grand Terrace—or if he or she was ever really there at all.

The good news is that dealing with Mr. Steveness taught the town a lesson on social media safety. Parents posted messages vowing to teach their kids about privacy settings, and others shared instructive articles about spotting fake profiles. It’s possible, as Ms. Brodbeck rightly pointed out, that the imposter would make another fake profile in the future. But should that time come, the town of Grand Terrace will be on high alert.

Follow Jordyn Taylor on Twitter or via RSS. jtaylor@observer.com