Coroner Recommends the Criminalisation of Catfishing

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Goulburn prison inmate Brayden Spiteri finally texted his on-again, off-again girlfriend Renae Marsden on 5 August 2013, after a month of not responding. Spiteri had cut off communications as he had a court appearance coming up that might see him released and united with Marsden.

The pair, who had never actually met face-to-face, became acquainted in 2011, via mutual friend Camilla Zeidan. Spiteri and Marsden had maintained their relationship through text messaging and social media, as the inmate’s criminal defence lawyer had been able to arrange an illegal phone inside for his client.

However, despite Marsden having recently broken off an engagement with another man – as she’d decided her relationship with Spiteri was more important and had since been focused on marrying him – the prisoner broke up with her via the first text he’d sent her in a month.

After receiving the message, a distraught Marsden returned home. Spiteri then sent a message to her mother, telling her to “sort your daughter out threatening to kill herself”. But, Renae assured her mother that there was nothing to worry about, as she was over the man.

Marsden then drove to The Gap at Watson’s Bay and deliberately slipped off the clifftop to her death. And as the just released coronial report into her suicide explains, it appears prior to taking her own life, the 20-year-old was still unaware that Brayden Spiteri wasn’t a real person.

A tangled web

The NSW police investigation into the suicide death of Renae Marsden soon focused upon her relationship with Spiteri, and promptly determined he was a fake. And officers went on to find that Marsden’s long-term friend Camilla Zeidan was the likely source of the fraudulent messages.

Marsden and Zeidan met at school in 2008 and became romantically involved. Their relationship came to an end though, when Marsden distanced herself from Zeidan and started dating a man the following year. The two women then became close again in 2011, when Zeidan introduced Spiteri.

However, when leading senior constable Georgina Robinson confronted Zeidan about Spiteri and the phone logs police had since obtained, she denied everything. So, the police executed a warrant at the then 27-year-old’s house, but the phone linked to Spiteri’s text messages wasn’t located.

Zeidan told an officer during the search that from around March 2013 she’d been texting Marsden as if she was Spiteri, as the deceased requested she did so. And the woman has since maintained that Spiteri was a deception on the part of both women to hide their romance from others.

Lonely hearts deceit

NSW state coroner Elaine Truscott determined that it was actually Zeidan pretending to be Spiteri via messages sent to an unwitting Marsden. And the ruse was an attempt by the older woman to keep her younger companion close and out of any relationship with a real man.

The act of assuming a fake identity online and luring others into a relationship is known as catfishing. And while this behaviour can facilitate many criminal acts – including fraud and the grooming of underage persons for sex – the act of catfishing itself is not an offence in NSW.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) outlines that there are increasing numbers of catfishing incidents, involving offenders assuming fake profiles on dating apps and social media platforms to deceive those looking for love into handing over money or private data.

According to the ACCC website, in April this year there were 313 reports of catfishing nationwide and 34 percent involved financial losses that amounted to close to $3 million. A third of these instances occurred on social media sites, with just over 23 percent attributed to the internet itself.

The coronial findings

“The evidence demonstrates that Camila’s motive was likely not so that she could harass or intimidate Renae but rather so that Camila could keep Renae for herself to the exclusion of all others,” NSW deputy state coroner Elaine Truscott said in her report released on 20 May.

The coroner noted that Zeidan couldn’t stand Marsden “having an intimate relationship”, as she didn’t like being “second-best”. And she noted that the content of the messages between Marsden and Spiteri clearly reveal Marsden was completely unaware of Zeidan’s role in the affair.

Ms Truscott wasn’t impressed with Zeidan as a witness, describing her as showing “no warmth” or “concern” about the “impact her lies had”. “Her evidence can only be described as disingenuous at best and ultimately nothing but a pack of lies,” her Honour made clear.

The coroner further explained that Zeidan continued to paint “a cover story over why and how Brayden Spiteri” was created by both women, when the texts eventually retrieved from Renae’s phone reveal that she was an unknowing victim, who truly believed that the man was real.

Renae’s law

“Renae’s family are seeking to have a discrete and distinct criminalisation of the conduct called catfishing,” the coroner continued in her report. “I hope these findings provide some support and assistance in that regard.”

Ms Truscott recommended that the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team look into Marsden’s case in line with the ninth recommendation of its recently released report that has a view to widening the scope of state laws to take in nonviolent types of domestic harm.

Such consideration could lead to the implementation of offences relating to coercive control, which would capture the sort of conduct that Zeidan engaged in. This would mean that catfishing could be considered in the courts in a similar way to the offences of intimidation and stalking.

Marsden’s parents have been campaigning for a catfishing criminal law to be enacted to prevent future scenarios like the one that led their daughter to take her own life. And in a similar way that other tragedies have led to such laws, they’d like the offence of catfishing dubbed Renae’s Law.

In June 2017, federal parliament passed the offence of “using a carriage service to prepare or plan to cause harm to, engage in sexual activity with, or procure for sexual activity, persons under 16”, which is contained in section 474.25C of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth).

The crime that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years behind bars is known as Carly’s Law, as it is named after 15-year-old South Australian girl Carly Ryan, who was murdered by a 50-year-old man who catfished her online.

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About Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on civil rights, drug law reform, gender and Indigenous issues. Along with Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he writes for VICE and is the former news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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