Cyber crime and a mistaken search upend the lives of innocent Kalispell couple

Fear factor

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Rodney and Margaret Stell tell their story Friday about a federal investigation that first ensnared and then exonerated them.

Rodney and Margaret Stell don’t want to answer their door any more. It gives them a tinge of fear.

The same now goes for unknown phone callers. If someone calls Rodney and leaves a number but no name, he won’t return it. Maybe it’s a client or a friend, but he doesn’t want to take a chance.

The Kalispell couple fears the vicious things that people might say or do since Rodney Stell’s name popped up in a federal child pornography investigation — even after he was cleared of any suspicion. Stell was the innocent victim of cyber theft and now faces the risk of being hounded by people who don’t know any better.

“I don’t want to go through that,” he said Friday, turning to his wife. “I don’t want her to go through that.”

Law enforcement officials formally exonerated Rodney Stell in the ongoing investigation but only after a raid of his home, harsh interrogations and media coverage that placed his name next to crimes he never committed. The genie is out of the bottle, as Stell puts it.

Now he and his wife wonder what the lingering effects will be with friends, family, co-workers or any person when Stell introduces himself by name.

“I can only tell you that this has not gone away for my wife and I,” Stell said. “And I don’t know when it’s going to go away and how that’s going to happen. And that really concerns me on a lot of levels.”

 

THE STELLS were cooking food around 8 p.m. on Feb. 9. Margaret said that she was chopping Brussels sprouts and Stell was nearby.

A knock came at the door. Behind it was a Homeland Security agent and five other law officers from local and federal agencies. Stell was handed a federal warrant and the agents flooded his home.

Snapping her fingers, Margaret recalled, “Within that amount of time, six agents were in my house between my front door, my dining room and my kitchen.”

Stell said that he immediately read the 28-page warrant from U.S. District Court in Missoula. It was the result of an investigation primarily by a Flathead County sheriff’s deputy who worked for a Homeland Security cyber crime unit.

On the third page of the document, Stell learned what he was suspected of doing — the investigation connected his home Internet Protocol address to possession of multiple pieces of child pornography. The investigator had determined that the material was downloaded using an Internet address owned by Stell.

It was a shock, because Stell was innocent.

Stell said he offered all of his computer hardware to the lead agent and told him to check it first, but the agent wanted to talk. Authorities split up Stell and his wife and questioned them for nearly two hours.

It was an invasive interrogation.

Margaret said that she was asked deeply personal questions about her relationship with her husband. But Stell got the brunt of it. He said that he became flustered at one point and rose to his feet, and the lead Homeland Security agent commented that it made him appear guilty. There were many comments like that.

“The most emphatic way he said it was, ‘I’ve talked to your wife and I’m convinced it’s not her, so I know you did this,’” Stell said.

An initial search of Stell’s computer and devices found no evidence of pornography of any kind. Then the agent asked if anybody had been in their home with access to their Internet. They thought about it and mentioned that some people had been there in the fall doing service work. They had the receipts, signed by the technicians.

The agents copied the receipts and left.

Stell wasn’t arrested. It would be nearly a week before officials exonerated him.

Things got worse over that week, but a letter eventually came. It was from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Montana and addressed to Special Agent Richard McManaway with Homeland Security.

It said of Stell: “Please note that we have elected to decline prosecution at this time on charges relating to child pornography” as a result of the served search warrant.

 

BEFORE THAT letter came, Stell needed a lawyer.

They consulted with the priest at St. Matthew’s Catholic Parish, where they are members. Margaret works as a teacher at the adjoining school. Stell also works for St. Matthew’s and works separately in real estate.

The priest referred them to Thane Johnson, an attorney in Kalispell. Stell told Johnson everything.

Stell was an uncommon client in that Johnson thought he seemed solidly and believably innocent. Johnson said that he wanted to prove his client’s innocence “at all costs.”

“You just don’t see that conviction of innocence very often,” he said.

Nearly a week passed while Johnson worked on the case.

Then Stell got a call from a friend in Helena that floored him. The friend sent Stell a link to an online story from the Helena Independent Record, which picked up on the search warrant and reported on the investigation. There was Stell’s name printed on a warrant in a child pornography investigation, and there was no clarification that Stell had essentially been exonerated by that time.

He brought the newspaper story to Johnson’s attention.

“He said, ‘Rod, we’ve got big issues now. Your name is out there,’” Stell said.

This is when fear started creeping into the equation for the Stells. Rodney wondered how many readers had already presumed his guilt just by seeing him named in the warrant. The couple received calls from people they knew. Margaret fielded questions at work and Rodney worried about losing business in real estate.

Above all, he wondered if anything worse might happen from the exposure. The search warrant, now public, contained his full name and home address.

“What if somebody tried to do something and hurt one of us, or the house or both of us in the house?” Rodney said. “I know that must sound kind of silly today, but it’s not silly to me. People can and will do anything.”

The feeling of worry crept in. Margaret hadn’t been sleeping in days.

 

ALL THE WHILE, Stell was completely innocent.

The letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office was written on Tuesday. Homeland Security cleared Rodney Stell as well in a rare move for an agency during the middle of a federal investigation. Johnson said that he hadn’t seen anything like it in years.

“Rodney Dean Stell is not the subject of, or a person of interest in, an HSI investigation,” Homeland Security spokesman Shawn Neudauer said on Thursday. “We believe he is an innocent victim of cyber theft.”

It’s believed that someone took control of Stell’s Internet system and took his Internet Protocol address, a sort of numerical identity for a computer on the Internet.

Neudauer characterized the original search warrant as part of the overall investigation that was based on initial reports. But after agents served the warrant, their investigation developed and Stell was cleared. Alongside the search warrant for Stell, agents also filed a warrant for a Polson man in a similar case. Both cases are still open.

But to the Stells, being exonerated doesn’t fully make up for their name being publicly dragged through the process. They aren’t sure what the future holds because Stell’s name is already out there both in print and online.

The Stells said there were two errors made, which compounded each other and have done irreparable harm. One was that a judge didn’t seal the search warrant, which made it public information. The second involved the initial media reports in an ongoing investigation.

“When you’re going to change someone’s life, you really need to cover your bases because it really is a life-altering event,” Margaret said.

The Helena Independent Record and The Missoulian, two Montana papers that reported on the search warrant, have published follow-up articles on Stell’s exoneration. But for the Stells, it’s too little, too late.

THE STELLS have sent all their computer hardware to Scott Johnson, a computer expert in Bozeman, to make sure that no latent evidence came through their system as a result of the IP address theft. Thane Johnson, Stell’s attorney, originally tapped Scott Johnson to help with the case.

Scott Johnson said that with the right knowledge and equipment, someone as far as two miles away could take over and use a person’s Internet. An IP address isn’t a direct link to a person.

“That doesn’t prove anybody did it,” he said. “That just says where it originated from.”

The Stells still wonder if the damage is already done to their name. With the search warrant articles floating around the Internet, there’s a lot left to question. Who might come across them and how will they react?

It has been a long two weeks for the couple. They said that they have found strength in their church and in their faith. Rodney Stell said he was thankful that authorities chose to publicly clear him of suspicion for a crime he knew he didn’t commit. But he thinks about the future with a glimmer of apprehension.

“Time heals all wounds,” he said. “My concern is that there are no more wounds between now and whenever that time is because somebody does something stupid.”

Reporter Matt Hudson may be reached at 758-4459 or by email at mhudson@dailyinterlake.com.

Rodney Stell is pictured at his home in Kalispell on Friday. The computer in the background currently is not working. It is being examined by an expert in Bozeman to determine how it was illegally accessed. Stell, who was suspected of trafficking child pornography, has been exonerated and found to be a victim of cyber crime. Rodney and his wife, Margaret, are unsure whether they will keep a computer in their home once this issue has been resolved.

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