John Damskey’s nightmare began with his wife getting emails from strangers telling her she should be ashamed of her husband, a retired police officer. Their phones wouldn’t stop ringing with calls from unfamiliar numbers. Some even called his 74-year-old mother.
Baffled by the barrage of hate last Thursday, Damskey plugged his name into the internet and made a horrifying discovery: Mobs of Twitter users were falsely accusing him of being the bicyclist on a Maryland trail who accosted three young adults posting flyers protesting the death of George Floyd.
Millions of users have viewed a video of last Monday’s encounter on the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. One of them was Damskey, who knew he wasn’t the culprit and did nothing to provoke the death threats and angry messages directed at him.
Damskey, 53, was one of at least two men who were falsely accused by internet vigilantes who posted their photos and personal information on Twitter before police on Friday arrested and charged another man, 60-year-old Anthony Brennan III, with assaulting the three protest supporters.
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Damskey, who served as a Montgomery County police officer for nearly 30 years before retiring in 2016, described the experience as surreal and terrifying.
“I’ve got a wife who is in tears. My mom is scared to death,” he told The Associated Press on Monday in his first interview about his ordeal. “It’s sad. It’s scary. It’s something that I don’t ever want to go through again.”
Brennan, a Kensington, Maryland, resident, issued a statement through his lawyers in which he said he was “sick with remorse for the pain and fear I caused the victims on the trail.”
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The Maryland-National Capital Park Police said it received hundreds of tips from the public before detectives arrested Brennan on three counts of second-degree assault. Brennan grabbed the flyers from one of the young women and pushed his bicycle towards a man, knocking him to the ground, the department said in a news release.
The three victims, who ranged from 18 and 19 years old, said they were posting flyers promoting justice for George Floyd, the black man who died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on the neck for nearly nine minutes, ignoring his cries of “I can’t breathe.”
After Brennan’s arrest, the company that apparently employed him tweeted a statement that it had fired an employee who had “engaged in disturbing, wrongful, and completely unacceptable behavior directed towards peaceful demonstrators.”
Before Brennan’s arrest, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh tweeted that another Twitter user, Peter Weinberg, wasn’t a suspect in the assault investigation. A day earlier, Frosh had tweeted a link to the viral video and asked the public to contact him or a county prosecutor if they recognized the cyclist.
Weinberg posted a police report to prove that detectives had cleared him of any involvement.
“We must align in the fight for justice and equality -- but not at the cost of due process and the right to privacy and safety. Let’s use Twitter to amplify the positive wave,” Weinberg later tweeted.
Rene Sandler, an attorney and longtime friend of Damskey, offered to help him. She contacted Twitter’s legal department Friday and reported as many “dangerous, harassing, targeted” tweets as she could find. She said Twitter has removed many if not all of those tweets.
“They responded swiftly and took it incredibly seriously,” she said.
However, Sandler said she has talked with Damskey about possibly pursuing slander, libel or defamation claims against Twitter users and others who harassed him and his family.
“We continue to monitor social media and we will not hesitate to take action against any person who is publishing false information about John and his family,” she said.
Damskey said he saw tweets that endangered his son, Michael, a police officer, and other relatives who have served as police officers and firefighters.
Damskey didn’t have a Twitter account, but he and his wife deleted their Facebook accounts after the abuse started last week.
“I don’t know who has seen it and who hasn’t, but my reputation is shot. Once they see something like this, there’s always going to be that question,” he said.
Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said the social media platform takes enforcement action when tweets violate its private information or abusive behavior policies. The company also has rules against creating accounts to target and harass other users, she said.