Two years ago, late on a February night in Vernon, British Columbia, Melissa Trixie Watt was struggling to sleep, so she reached for her phone. She saw that she had a Facebook message. “How are you? I hope you are well,” read the DM from an unknown man. According to his profile, he was a tow truck driver with a long, graying beard. He lived 45 minutes away and said he’d been talking to her on OkCupid—a site she’d never used. “I think I should come to Vernon and see you,” he wrote. “What are your thoughts on that?” Lying under her duvet, Watt felt a chill.
She wrote back and asked for screenshots of the conversations. It turned out that he knew more of her personal details: the car she drives, that she works as a massage therapist, the name of her practice. Scariest of all, he was under the impression that they’d made plans to meet up and enact a rape fantasy.
“I’ll wear black pantyhose with the crotch ripped open, no panties and high heels,” wrote the poseur, whose profile pic was Watt in a tie-dye tank top, her long blond hair swished to one side.
“Mmm good little slut. You know what I want,” the tow truck driver wrote.
“I can wear the pantyhose and heels at work all day with a short skirt and tease all the men I treat so that I get raped extra hard by you,” wrote the person impersonating Watt.
“Just wait till I have you in my hands,” the driver texted back.
“I am your property. I am your rape meat. I am a whore Daddy,” wrote the impersonator.
This wasn’t the first time Watt had received messages like this or seen a similarly horrifying exchange. Fake profiles impersonating Watt had been popping up on KinkD, FetLife, and OkCupid for the past four years. At times, late-night texts and calls poured in from men hunting for explicit photos or a hookup. Still, this one was different.
When she saw that the tow truck driver had a photo of her wearing a bra and panties, something clicked. She began to think she knew who was doing this—someone she had once considered a friend.
Watt’s first step was to send an email to OkCupid, describing “extremely concerning” messages she’d been receiving on Facebook from someone who said they had been talking to her on OkCupid. “Someone is using photos of me to talk to men and they are inciting these men to rape me, they are posing as me, saying that they would like to be raped,” she wrote. “I fear for my safety.” Then she called the police. Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer James Spoor told Watt he would need a production order—similar to a warrant—to compel OkCupid to provide information about who had created the fake profile. But to get one, he said, he would have to show a judge that a crime had occurred. “While I would agree that this would seem like a crime, the current laws do not have a section to charge for this type of behavior,” Spoor wrote in an email to Watt.
After two days, a representative from OkCupid agreed to remove the fake account and block the user. But the company refused to tell her who had created the profile and said it needed authority from the police to release that information.
It seemed like Watt had reached an impasse, and for a moment she felt like giving up. She’d worked hard to get her life on track, and she was afraid to lose what she’d built. Maybe she should ignore the harassment, she thought. Then a fresh wave of anger coursed through her. She emailed Spoor: “How is it not harassment to intentionally make me feel unsafe? I work as a registered massage therapist and now have to assume every naked man on my table potentially thinks we have an agreement for sex.”
Spoor replied the next day. If she wished to “push for new laws to be created,” he wrote, she should contact her local legislators. She didn’t. Instead she found her own way to fight back. Not only against the harassment, but against a system that seemed apathetic toward women.
Vernon is a blue-collar town that sits in the Okanagan Valley, surrounded by apple orchards, wineries, ski resorts, and turquoise lakes. But Watt, who grew up there, never saw it as bucolic. As she tells it, she grew up “white trash,” in a home with plywood floors, sheets tacked up for walls, and, at one point, a bucket for a toilet. Her parents fought constantly about money. Sometimes, her mother, who answered calls for an alarm company, would lie in bed all day. Her father was a greenkeeper at a golf course. At home, his demeanor could flip quickly; he had bouts of anger and blamed Watt for her mother’s malaise.
At school, kids teased Watt for her out of style, hand-me-down clothes and her family’s wood-paneled Ford Escort. She was a scrawny and nervous child who loved to paint and draw—her escape from the mayhem. When she was around 14, she began to seek refuge at a friend’s home down the street, where there was always dinner—even if it was just microwaved nachos or a packaged Caesar salad—and an adult who asked about her day.
Watt graduated from high school in 2008 and moved 800 miles away to northern Alberta. She became one of the few women to brave it out in the oil sands work camps among thousands of men. She made $36 an hour clearing snow—more than she’d ever made in her life. But her time in the oil sands was lonely, and the men harassed her constantly. They offered to pay her for nude photographs and asked her to sit on their laps.
After a year, Watt moved back to Vernon, into her childhood home. Her mother had left, and Watt had to figure out next steps under the scornful eyes of her father. She felt that she had no skills and that this yeehaw town had nothing for her.
Eventually, she found her footing. She moved into a duplex with a friend and began working as an aide in a group home for adults with disabilities. She enrolled in school to learn massage therapy. Many days, she’d run to class just off the graveyard shift, bleary-eyed and still wearing scrubs. At the end of 2016, Watt graduated and became a registered massage therapist. She established her own practice, where many of her clients are people suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her business had been steadily building for about six months when she decided in June 2017 to treat herself to a new tattoo—a sprawling rainbow dragon on her right thigh that took multiple five-hour sessions to complete. When it was done, she went to a pub where her friend was a bartender. Watt’s skin throbbed under the bandage as she chomped on a sandwich and fries. On the way out, the friend made a suggestion, almost out of the blue.
“Oh, you should meet my friend Pete.” She showed Watt a photo of the guy. Pete Dimov was balding a little on top. He had a blond beard and eyes that bugged—Watt thought he looked like “a sexy Steve Buscemi.” “He has a weird sense of humor, just like you,” said the friend. “He really likes pandas.” Watt laughed when she saw a photo of a cheeseburger tattoo on his butt.
After she got home, Watt texted her friend a photo of a painting she’d made. It showed two pandas, one baring its teeth, the other slumped and looking sad. “Hey, show this to Pete,” she wrote. A few days later, he DMed her on Instagram. “Our mutual pal showed me your panda painting and I must say, it’s most impressive!” he wrote. “I’m a big fan of the panda.”
“Hahaha oh my god,” Watt responded. “I was kind of joking when I told her to show you but thanks.” When Dimov asked her out for a drink, Watt hesitated at first, but she agreed to go.
Dimov picked her up in a beat-up beige Lincoln. Watt wore cuffed skinny jeans, a black T-shirt, and a backward ball cap. Over beers, he made self-deprecating jokes, and they bantered and giggled for hours in a booth at the back of the sports bar.
The next morning he messaged her: “Meeting you was totally awesome … Let’s do it again sometime.”
Dimov, born in Toronto, was raised in the small, formerly industrial town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. His parents split up soon after his birth, and when he was 7, Dimov and his mother moved to France, where his stepfather worked for a tire plant. As an adult, he has lived an itinerant life. He briefly attended Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, baked croissants in Ottawa, and played bass in various heavy metal bands in Western Canada. He doted on all of his friends, and this was especially true of Watt. She liked his boyishness and quick wit and decided to give their relationship a shot.
But something about him unnerved her. He would stay indoors for long stretches of time. She always had to cajole him into going out. He was a decade older than her, played gigs with his roommate, and trimmed weed for a local couple. After a month, she messaged Dimov to say she didn’t see their relationship going anywhere.
Dimov resisted. “We don’t have to be in a relationship, but I want you to know I’m not going to see anyone else,” he wrote, ending the text message with a panda emoji. He messaged her daily to say hello and good night. Soon, they got back together, but she still felt uneasy.
By the time she corresponded with Officer Spoor, Watt had been dealing with the online harassment for four years. Just before Christmas dinner in 2017, she got a text from a guy she had chatted with a few times on Tinder. “I didn’t know you were into this stuff,” he wrote and attached a screenshot of Watt in a profile on the fetish dating site KinkD, under the name VernonCumSlut. “Maybe we should have met up.” Watt immediately welled up with tears.
Standing beside her as they prepared to sit down to a dinner of roast beef, Dimov gathered her into his arms. “It’s going to be OK,” he told her. “I’m here.” But the abuse had begun, and would only intensify. Fake profiles popped up on KinkD, FetLife, and OkCupid—social media sites she had never used.
At the massage clinic, Watt’s colleagues noticed that she had begun tremoring. Some days she closed herself in an empty room to endure anxiety attacks in private. She shortened her hours and removed the option for online booking. Any time a man looked at her for too long she wondered whether he thought he knew her. A survivor of sexual assault, Watt worried constantly about being raped. She also worried about her reputation as a clinician and an instructor at the local college. A whiff of impropriety could lead to an investigation and ruin her livelihood. It all felt like such a struggle. Without information from OkCupid or help from the police, Watt knew she’d have to find her own evidence against the guy she felt sure was doing this to her.
She thought back to a phone call she’d had with her bartender friend, the one who had set her up with Dimov. After they’d broken up, the woman told Watt that Dimov had been accused of making fake social media profiles of another woman he’d dated. She told Watt to be vigilant.
Watt reached out to her friend and asked for the other woman’s contact info. She learned that her name was Shawn Jones, and that she was a 39-year-old restaurant manager in Vancouver. Jones told Watt that a similar fake profile of her had popped up while she was dating Dimov, but he’d denied it was him. Jones told Watt that about a year after she broke up with Dimov, a strange guy had approached her on the beach and showed her a photo of herself on a dating website under the name SamanthaCumSlut. The similarity to the fake profile name VernonCumSlut triggered anger and resolve in Watt. She knew she couldn’t let up.
Watt began digging around online for help. She read up on Canada’s cyberbullying law, which had taken effect in 2015 after the high-profile deaths of two teens who were victims of online harassment. The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act made sharing nude photos of another person without their consent punishable by up to five years in prison. Criminal harassment and identity theft were already illegal acts in Canada, but the new law expanded their purviews to include what can be done with new technologies—texting, emails, online profiles. In her research, Watt also discovered that Spoor had been wrong. To get a production order, police didn’t need to prove that a crime had been committed. They needed only “reasonable grounds to believe that an offense has been committed.” Then they could compel a company to provide information that it would otherwise keep private.
Social media platforms and police departments face a similar challenge. There’s no reliable way to stop a crime before it happens—at least, not without violating someone’s right to privacy and free speech. The tools that platforms use to curtail harassment basically come down to removing a post, blocking a user, or muting some content from a user’s feed. In some cases, these steps may be effective, but when the initial post creates unpredictable ripple effects, as happened with Watt and many others, these measures offer only marginal help. Because companies won’t or can’t effectively monitor all activity on their platforms, victims are the ones who have to monitor for online harassment and report it.
A few governments have taken halting steps to protect those most frequently victimized by online harassment: children, women, and people who identify as LGBTQ. The UK’s Online Safety Bill has been cited as legislation that will make the country “the safest place in the world to be online.” When it was first proposed in a white paper in 2019, a key aspect of the plan was to force tech companies to alter their algorithms so that harmful and illegal content would be deprioritized and not end up going viral. The bill that finally passed in Parliament in September has replaced that systemic change in favor of a case-by-case approach to online harassment. Even though it identifies which types of content are illegal, it doesn’t alleviate the added burden victims carry when it comes to addressing those harms. Tech companies are, however, required to quickly remove the illegal content or face fines up to billions of dollars. Some experts warn against the hole left open for “legal but harmful” content. In Canada, the Online Crime Act also places its focus on identifying illegal content, and so it offers a preview for challenges the UK may face. Years after the Canadian law passed, Canadian police still often struggle to enforce it, even though it allows for the prosecution of individual users. According to a 2020 report by the Canadian government, many police officers and prosecutors say it took them considerable time to figure out how to wield their new investigative powers, and 10 to 15 percent of them were confused about how to make use of production orders.
Knowing that what had been happening to her was indeed a crime, Watt decided to write her own production order and submit it to the courts herself—a rare step a citizen can take if a judge grants it. In March 2021, she visited the Vernon courthouse. There, a judge told Watt that it would be easier if she went back to the police. Loath to waste any more time, Watt went directly to the squat brick police station. Inside, she stood in front of a plexiglass window as the receptionist explained that the watch commander wasn’t in. With stress boiling up in her, she yelled, “I’m not just going to sit here and wait to get raped.”
“Oh, look,” the receptionist said, “Corporal Schmidt just came in the back door.”
Fritz Schmidt sat her down in an empty room. “I need a production order,” Watt remembers telling him.
“Do you know what it takes to write a production order? You’ve written one?” he asked. Her hands trembled as the story came pouring out, and Schmidt decided to assign her case to a new RCMP officer, Richard Lausman.
Watt recalls that Lausman seemed like he wanted to help. Two weeks later, he followed up to tell Watt that no crime had been committed because she hadn’t been naked in any of the photos. (The Online Crime Act defines “intimate” images as ones that show a person nude, exposing their “genital organs, anal regions, or breasts,” or engaging in a sexual act.) Watt says he then offered her two options: He could call Dimov and intimidate him into stopping or she could just forget about it. But, as Watt knew, the threat had started with Dimov, but it didn’t end with him. An unknown number of men had come across the OkCupid profile, and unless something happened, it would continue to circulate online. Watt angrily called Schmidt, Lausman’s supervisor, who told her that police can’t just believe every woman who says their boyfriend is harassing them. Watt seethed. “Just to be clear, I could pretend to be anyone right now and it would be OK?” she said. “That’s not illegal?”
Shortly afterward, Watt recalls, Lausman called her back: He now thought that he could effectively pursue her complaint as a case of identity theft. To her, that was an extremely obvious course of action. She followed up with Lausman and suggested two other crimes her complaint could be pursued under: “defamatory libel” and “conveying false information to injure or alarm.” It seemed to Watt that the police had already wasted a foolish amount of time looking for ways that the criminal code didn’t apply. She was determined to make them help her.
On June 15, three months after Watt gave a statement to police, Lausman finally submitted a production order seeking approval from a judge in British Columbia to get the IP address, phone number, and name associated with the usernames “Trixie” and “Trixie, 25” from Match Group, OkCupid’s parent company. The order was signed two days later and sent to the company’s legal department. On June 21, a representative from the company interpreted the account as being fake. The user appeared to have created the account on an iPhone—and the phone number on the user file matched Dimov’s.
Since the user’s account was connected to an IP address across the country in Nova Scotia, the case was handed over to police in that province. It landed on the desk of Stephen Currie, who ran Dimov’s name through a national database of police records and found an earlier criminal harassment complaint.
Watt felt the first glimmers of validation. She started to feel that it was only a matter of time before Dimov was criminally charged. But her case languished on Currie’s desk over the summer, while he went on vacation and took time off for training, and the department dealt with staffing troubles. At one point Currie had the wrong email address for Watt, causing further delays.
All the while, Watt spent long hours scouring the internet for other victims. Her sleuthing had started as a way to provide the police and courts with the evidence needed to charge Dimov and put an end to his harassment. Now it was as though she was hooked on it; it gave her some validation and a therapeutic outlet. She had become obsessed.
Finally, eight months in, Currie was armed with enough evidence to charge Dimov for identity theft. On a cloudy winter day in February 2022, Currie served him with a notice to appear in front of a judge. It took six more months, but in August, Dimov finally made his first appearance by video in court to enter a plea.
That day, Watt was driving on a dusty road to a friend’s wedding in a remote beachside city south of Vancouver, on the opposite end of the country. Her cell phone’s reception was spotty. She anxiously glanced at the car clock. It was close to noon, the end of the court’s business day in Nova Scotia, back on the East Coast. As soon as she hit a stretch with cell service, she pulled over and dialed the provincial prosecutor. He picked up on the first ring and yelled into the phone, “He pled guilty!”
In October, Watt took the six-hour flight from British Columbia to Nova Scotia for Dimov’s sentencing hearing. The morning was damp and foggy when Watt arrived at the brick courthouse. She wore a plum suit and white sneakers, her shoulder-length platinum hair pulled back. Watt paced inside a small waiting room for victims, worried that Dimov wouldn’t show up. She pushed down a wave of nausea.
Then she saw him. He wore a dark sweater over a button-up shirt. He stared straight ahead as he walked through the heavy wooden doors of the courthouse and sat down on a bench in the atrium to wait for the hearing to begin. Watt strode down the hall toward him. When he spotted her, his eyes grew wide and his face flushed red. “Hiiii,” she said, and tootled a wave.
Inside the courtroom, Judge Ronda van der Hoek said she had considered Dimov’s presentence report, in which he claimed that he was inebriated by alcohol and cocaine when he committed the offenses. He said he was not acting on revenge and now feels disgusted with his “stupid decisions.” He also claimed to have impersonated Watt in order to converse with abusive men, believing it would assist him in understanding the sexual abuse he says he experienced as a child. The report included a spot for Dimov to supply contacts to corroborate his claim of abuse, but he declined to provide any, saying that he was a private individual. (His mother, Catherine MacKay, told WIRED that she had no knowledge of Dimov ever suffering abuse as a child.)
The judge seemed unimpressed with Dimov’s excuses and said he was lucky he wasn’t being thrown behind bars to teach him a lesson. “This is not something that happens in a moment,” van der Hoek told the court. “I do get the impression that this went on over some time, involved some planning, some preparation.” Dimov’s rationale, that he was seeking help with his abuse, she added, was implausible. “I can’t help but think that if you had chosen to do that without a real person connected to this story, that then there wouldn’t be a situation where we find ourselves sitting in court today with a real victim.”
Then Watt stood to recite her victim impact statement. “I felt like there was nothing I could do to make this behavior stop, and I contemplated whether it would be easier if I were to just die,” Watt said, her voice ringing with emotion. “I felt so humiliated, and at the time I didn’t know if I was strong enough to deal with the ramifications of what could happen because of these profiles that were being made of me.”
Dimov sat still, staring straight ahead.
In addition to discovering Shawn Jones, Watt’s internet investigations had turned up another woman who told the police that for years she’d been harassed by Dimov in much the same way. But on the paper where Watt had printed out her statement, her lawyer had crossed out any references to “victims,” compelling her to keep it singular. Watt understood the reason—this case was about her—but it didn’t seem fair. Watt had evidence to suggest that Dimov had gotten away with harassing at least two other women over the course of a decade, and she felt that she was speaking on their behalf too.
In the end, following sentencing guidelines from the Supreme Court, van der Hoek accepted the crown and prosecutor’s joint recommendation and sentenced him to 25 hours of community service, a ban on opening social media accounts under an alias and contacting Watt, an order to delete all photos of Watt and any social media accounts under an alias or assumed name, and an order to pay Watt $2,182 in restitution. If he violates any of the conditions or fails to complete them within a calendar year, he risks being resentenced.
Dimov waited for Watt to leave through the double doors. Then he walked rigidly through without looking back.
After the sentencing, Watt finally felt like she could breathe. But that relief quickly faded and her desire for vengeance crept back in. Soon she was spending even more of her free time scraping the internet in search of other potential victims.
She discovered Jessica Hutchings, who had dated Dimov for nine months and said that her relationship—and harassment—played out much like the others. On the phone with Hutchings one night, Watt thought she’d be able to handle the details, but she broke down sobbing when she learned the parallels between their experiences. “It kind of piles on,” she told me, adding that it’s “eerie” how similar she and Hutchings look. “He was doing this to her while he was around me.” Hutchings reported the harassment to police in Calgary in 2017, and cooperated by providing evidence for two years. Ultimately, no criminal charges were filed.
Watt then found another woman in a Facebook group for her region called “Are We Dating The Same Guy?” The woman wrote that a man was creating fake fetish profiles of her and planning dates to act out rape fantasies at her workplace. With an unruly thrill—never wishing for other victims but happy to discover more glimpses of evidence to pass on to police—Watt excitedly wrote to the woman,“You didn’t date a guy named Pete did you?” The woman never responded. Watt wrote again the following day. “I’m just asking because his whole thing is sending people to women’s work to try and get them raped so I was wondering if it’s the same person.” No answer.
I reached Dimov by phone in December 2022. I asked him about the allegations from the other women. “I’m not commenting on things that you’re saying right now that you’re stating as facts,” he said. He said he’d started counseling and had asked his probation officer whether he could pay Watt more than the court-ordered restitution. “I do regret what I’ve done,” he said. “She did not deserve that. I feel like if I can afford to pay a little extra to help her out that’s the least I should do.” Next week will mark a year from Dimov’s sentencing. According to Watt, he has yet to pay her anything.
Watt now lives alone with her dogs Hank and Rosie. Her life is quiet again, but the case doesn’t feel closed. There are people who think she has sex with her patients, and some of her students at the massage therapy college have seen the humiliating fake profiles. “How do you un-damage your reputation when it’s out there?” she asked me. Without something to fight for—or someone to fight against—she says her life can feel directionless. From time to time, she still searches for other victims, fueled by anger, paranoia, and shame. “I want someone else to charge him so bad,” she said.
On a recent day, while wildfires raged through the pine valleys of southern British Columbia, Watt pulled out her iPad. She started to draw a panda, even though she hasn’t been able to untie pandas from the flirty meaning they had between her and Dimov. She regrets many things about their fleeting relationship, but especially that he could still have images of her—screenshots taken from Snapchat conversations that she has seen pop up on fake profiles. He may also still have the watercolor painting of a melancholy panda she made him for his birthday. All of it still feels like such a violation. And so, in a small act of reclamation, on this bear she drew a smile. Above his head, she sketched a speech balloon into which she wrote the words, “Gotcha bitch.”
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