The Catfish and the Journalist: How a Fake Profile Landed a Reporter in Jail
In a quest to a expose a ring of debauched teenage drinking parties hosted by wealthy parents, a reporter is accused of creating a fake profile that featured posts about high school gossip and personal letters exposing sexual information about an...
Illustration by Juliette Toma
Teri Buhl is getting ready to go to jail. Buhl, 43, is a journalist. She was sentenced to 30 days in prison for catfishing a teenage girl and harassing her—something she says she didn't do.
"I'm really numb," she says, days before her surrender. "I just want to go and get it over with."
Buhl was found guilty of creating a fake Facebook profile of a high school girl. According to court papers, the profile featured posts about school gossip and personal letters exposing sexual information about an underage girl.
Buhl insists this is all a big misunderstanding.
This all started in 2009, when Buhl was living in New Canaan, a town on Connecticut's so-called Gold Coast—one of the wealthiest areas of the country. About an hour from New York City, New Canaan is home to wealthy commuters, Wall Street types, and old-school WASPS. Perfectly manicured lawns flank multimillion dollar colonial homes. CNNMoney ranked New Canaan one of the nation's richest zip codes in 2014, with a median income of over $500,000.
Buhl was there working as a journalist—or trying to.
In the past she'd written for the New York Post and New York magazine, reporting mainly on Wall Street and hedge funds. In New Canaan she was unemployed, struggling to find work, but she hit the jackpot in her personal life, dating the chief financial officer of a brokerage house; he was recently divorced, with a teenage daughter.
Buhl says he was supporting her and paying her rent while she wasn't working.
And then she got a great tip on a story: A group of local activists contacted her and told her that several high-profile families in the area were throwing drinking parties for their teenage kids.
"Parents were hosting these underage drinking parties where teens were getting date-raped and alcohol poisoning," Buhl says the activists told her. "And the New Canaan cops were covering it up. [Parents] would hire them as off-duty guards and just let it go."
The group that contacted Buhl comprised a handful of parents who "were sick of it," she says. "Sick of the parties, sick of the cops doing nothing."
"I feel like I'm in Making of a Murderer right now."
Buhl thought this could be the story that brought her out of her slump—a meaty, investigative piece she could sell to a magazine. She kept in touch with the activists. She put the word out at the gym where she worked out, casually talking to people she met in town—to see if anyone could give her more details about the alleged parties.
And then she got a bite.
Buhl received an email from a high school girl we'll call Kelly. Kelly said she had information—a firsthand account of what went on inside those New Canaan million dollar homes. "[She] said, 'I have a letter about Avery Underwood's party,'" Buhl says. It was one of the exact parties the activists had told her about.
The two met in person, and Kelly gave Buhl a personal letter written by a party attendee that read like a diary entry.
"The letter—it was insane," says Buhl. "It was great evidence of these parties happening at Avery Underwood's house." The author of the letter details her experience at the party, describing "drinking a water bottle full of vodka, taking a guy upstairs, and giving him a blowjob," Buhl says.
As Buhl read the letter, which was written on stationery that looked familiar to her, she started putting the pieces together: The author of the letter might be her boyfriend's 17-year-old daughter.
"I went back and compared the handwriting to a birthday card she'd given me, and they matched," she says.
Buhl wasn't close with her boyfriend's daughter. They'd been on vacation once together, but otherwise, Buhl says she made sure he had time alone with his kids.
She didn't know what to do.
Buhl shared the letter with the activists who contacted her, part of a quid pro quo they'd agreed on from the outset.
"I had agreed with them to share information," she says. "So, when I was approached with the letter about Avery Underwood's party, I did share it with them. I've never told anyone that."
The group, Buhl says, sometimes set up fake Facebook pages through which they'd pretend to be a teenager asking about parties. One night Buhl invited them over to see how they did it. "I wanted to observe," she says.
"They wanted someone to admit that Underwood's mother had absolutely supplied the alcohol," says Buhl, so that Underwood's mother could be arrested.
According to court papers, on June 23, 2010, Buhl's boyfriend's daughter—referred to as "M" because she was underage at the time—got a call from a friend who said he saw a fake Facebook profile, under the name "Tasha Moore," that made reference to M.
M immediately logged on to Facebook and used her friend's account—someone Tasha Moore had friended—to see the post. Tasha's post read (We have some added pseudonyms for the clarity's sake):
[M] ... gets so drunk at parties that boys know she is an easy hook up. In April at [Avery's] house party she gave [Kyle] a blow job and then threw up... [M] told her friends she thought giving the best BJ would help make [Kyle] her boyfriend. You wonder why some [high school] girls never learn how to behave around boys.
According to court papers, the post also contained a photograph of M and photographs of M's handwritten letter, which described her drinking and performing oral sex on a boy
Buhl says she didn't set up the Tasha Moore profile, but she won't reveal the identity of the people who did.
As this was happening, Buhl began to worry about M. She felt an obligation to tell her boyfriend what his daughter was doing.
"I was trying to figure out how to tell him," she says. "I've got to find a way to tell him his daughter is having major problems."
She decided to do it anonymously.
Buhl asked Kelly for help. Even though Kelly and M weren't close, Buhl thought it made sense for the information to come from her—after all, Kelly had given Buhl M's letter in the first place. Buhl suggested Kelly write a note to M's father, and Buhl would send it to him via overnight mail.
The next day, M's father received an anonymous package containing the letter and photocopied pages of his daughter's journal.
The letter said:
I am a casual friend of your daughter [M] ... [Kyle] the guy [M] hooked up with, has been bragging to my boyfriend and other senior guys about what [M] did with him that night. He's not really a nice guy. She just gets so drunk so fast sometimes I don't know if she even remembers hooking up with guys ... She only showed a few of us these letters when she got back from vacation. Please don't tell her one of her friends wrote you but my mom said it is best of you read them.
According to court papers, M's father later told authorities he was "shocked" and "outraged" when he received the letter.
The next day, he and Buhl went out to dinner. In court, he would later testify that Buhl did not have a reaction to the news about the letter.
Two days later, Buhl admitted to him that she sent the anonymous mailing; then she confessed to police.
She and her boyfriend broke up.
"It was sad," she says. "I really loved him. I would have married him."
Police traced the Facebook page to several IP addresses, one of which was Buhl's, according to court papers. Buhl notes that's because of the night the activists used her home to show her the page.
Buhl was also charged with harassment for sending the anonymous package even though she didn't contribute content.
Buhl is the first to admit she probably should have handled things differently, that she should have bowed out of the story the moment she saw her boyfriend's daughter was involved.
If she had to do it again? "I probably would not have mailed him the letter," she says. "I shouldn't have mailed him the letter. Although, then I get conflicted." She pauses for a moment. "I should have dropped out of the story," she continues. "But it was important, and I thought it was an important issue."
And the rumors about the parent-sponsored underage drinking parties turned out to be true.
After Buhl was arrested, police raided a party at the Underwoods' house, where a reported 50 to 60 underage teens were drinking. They arrested Underwood's mother, who was hiding in a closet when police came, as well as Underwood.
Buhl was charged with harassment and breach of the peace, and found guilty. She appealed, and got one of the two convictions thrown out. A small victory. Then, last month, the Connecticut Supreme Court reinstated the conviction.
Which came with a jail sentence.
One of the keys to the trial was whether posts on Facebook are considered public if the posts are on a private page.
"The legal argument's ridiculous," Buhl says. "I did not commit breach of peace; it was a private Facebook page—M was never invited to see the page," she says, and therefore no private information was made public. "I feel like I'm in Making of a Murderer right now," she adds.
She plans to appeal to the United States Supreme Court—only if someone else wants to pay the legal fees.
For now, she just wants to get jail over with.
She's researched the jail. She's interviewed women who have served time there. She's taken self-defense classes.
Buhl expects to get out in 15 days.
"I'm ready," she says. "I'm ready to go."