CalCoastNews has targeted countless families in San Luis Obispo County. When they’re not defaming their enemies, CalCoastNews staff have personally stalked and harassed them, their families, friends and supporters. For over three years, my family and I have been one of their targets. This is my story.
Growing up, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” was one of my favorite shows. On “The Daily Show,” Stewart lampooned the faux “fair and balanced” nature of FOX NEWS and regularly eviscerated them. I appreciated how Stewart used FOX NEWS as a foil: a clear contrast to common sense, fact-based broadcasting. Though he considers himself a comedian, Stewart was hailed by fans as a journalist who held conservative media accountable, and he did so in an infectiously entertaining way.
Early on, I recognized CalCoastNews.com as the Central Coast version of FOX NEWS. They produced stories that benefited people they were politically aligned with and marketed their content on conservative radio such as 920 KVEC’s “Dave Congalton Show.” Backed by former state senator Sam Blakeslee, a long-time advertiser (“Blakeslee & Blakeslee”), CalCoastNews often targets Democratic candidates and elected officials, and brands their partisan attacks as “investigative journalism.” In other words, “fair and balanced.”
I started criticizing the website in 2011 after they used a near-tragic car accident involving children of public officials to uncover an alleged (by them) “sex scandal.” CalCoastNews accused two officials of a conflict of interest for having a romantic relationship. When they were unable to prove a conflict existed, CalCoastNews published unsubstantiated allegations about the officials’ children that surfaced from contentious divorce proceedings. After their articles were published, the County government launched an investigation and determined that no conflict existed. While there was vindication, the families involved remained humiliated by a “news” site that failed to observe basic professional journalism standards.
In 2013, I followed CalCoastNews’ reporting on the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO). The website alleged that CAPSLO’s former Homeless Services Director mistreated the homeless and stole donated gift cards, according to mostly unnamed sources. However, it was revealed that one of CalCoastNews’ sources was a hostile ex-boyfriend of the director. At the time, the ex-boyfriend was involved in a child custody dispute with the director and had a restraining order filed against him. The director filed a lawsuit against CalCoastNews’ hired private investigator and former Atascadero mayor Mike Brennler, who revealed — in court documents — that he contacted the director’s former partners and inquired about her stealing gift cards.
One year later, I launched Cal Coast Fraud, a media watchdog Facebook page that fact-checked and analyzed CalCoastNews’ reporting.
Shortly after Cal Coast Fraud was launched, I covered one of their stories involving a young suicide victim. CalCoastNews co-founder Karen Velie reported that the girl committed suicide as a result of bullying and implicated her school as failing to protect her. Velie published the victim’s personal photos and videos without the family of the victim’s consent. The family repeatedly disputed the claim that the victim was bullied and Velie hastily removed their corrections. Ultimately, the family had to contact The Tribune, the school district and the county sheriff’s department to correct a story that the website refused to correct. I stood with the family and provided the corrections that CalCoastNews denied them on Cal Coast Fraud.
Because CalCoastNews was vindictive, I expected them to come after me. However, I didn’t anticipate the unrelenting and seemingly limitless extent of their vindictiveness.
I wrote for local publication Information Press from 2012 to 2014. My job was to write and share stories about national politics, edit copy, assist in designing each issue and engage readers with social media marketing.
Publisher Sandra Marshall and I talked about CalCoastNews and their lack of journalism standards. We agreed that they had issues when it came to reporting the facts. When I told her I occasionally fact-checked them, Marshall stated that Information Press can occasionally share links to my commentary and reporting.
In the March 2013 issue, Information Press ran a feature on my father, Ed Ochs, which included a mention of CalCoastNews.
Posted Marshall: “More and more people in SLO have recently discovered The ROCK because of its piercing articles about another local website, CalCoastNews, which has published a series of unsubstantiated allegations against Supervisor Adam Hill, [Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo] Homeless Services Director Dee Torres and CAPSLO itself that have stirred a backlash against CCN’s tactics.”
In the same issue, Marshall penned an editorial that commended my reporting on Velie’s various inaccuracies. Marshall touched on “screaming phone calls and name calling by so called news sources to another source.”
“Is this journalism?” she asked.
“Due to these so-called facts, when I read reports from Cal Coast News I have to wonder what the truth is,” wrote Marshall. “Our local reporter, Aaron Ochs, has been following the lead reporter Karen Velie, and has recently posted a story on her style of reporting. I have reviewed it and concur: the facts are correct.”
Eventually, Marshall and I decided to phase out coverage of CalCoastNews on Information Press. We understood their retaliatory nature and didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire.
But in May 2014, I received a call from Marshall while I was at home. “Karen Velie called me,” said Marshall. “She’s threatened to go after your family.”
Marshall spoke to a “psychotic” Velie for approximately three hours about me. Velie expressed anger over my criticism of CalCoastNews. She claimed that my fact-checking and commentary adversely impacted her website’s revenue and that I was “attempt[ing] to ruin the business.” What’s worse, she claimed, is that I personally attacked her on a local message board called Topix.com.
Marshall provided a long list of bizarre allegations by Velie:
- “He makes allegations about me on Topix.” Velie accused me of blogging anonymously on a news aggregator/message board service called Topix and claimed that I accused her of murdering her daughter, Autumn. According to CalCoastNews co-founder Dan Blackburn, Autumn passed away after having a seizure in 2013. Velie also accused me of diagnosing her with several mental conditions on Topix and claiming she was institutionalized. Velie claimed she had “proof” that I (a) posted these allegations; (b) posted them during work hours and (c) that I was intentionally trying to hurt her family by doing so.
- “He falsely claims I defame people. That is libel.” Velie objected to my reporting of a 2013 defamation lawsuit filed against her by Arroyo Grande businessman Charles Tenborg. The lawsuit challenged an article written by Velie and Blackburn in 2012 that claimed Tenborg was illegally transporting hazardous waste and that he reportedly bragged about skirting relevant laws. Last year, the pretrial hearing judge and the Second District Appellate court agreed that Tenborg had a strong probability of prevailing on his libel claim, given he provided evidence that demonstrably rebuked CalCoastNews’ claims.
- “He is working with others to shut down my website.” Velie accused me of working with two people to help launch Cal Coast Fraud and criticize CalCoastNews. One of the people she mentioned is Kenny McCarthy, a Santa Margarita resident who was accused by Velie of being a suspect in his wife’s sudden death. Local officials determined that McCarthy’s wife passed away from an undiagnosed heart condition, yet Velie did not retract her original claim. Velie also accused me of working with Scott Barnes, a local resident who gained national notoriety for falsely accusing President George H.W. Bush’s campaign operatives of trying to smear Ross Perot’s family. Velie also claimed that I was working with District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill to criticize her. Hill and his wife are frequent targets of her reporting.
- “You are paying him to do Cal Coast Fraud.” Velie claimed that Marshall was paying me to post content on Cal Coast Fraud because I was allegedly posting content while on company time. Therefore, Velie concluded, that Marshall was liable for any content I posted about CalCoastNews when I wasn’t on company time. Velie suggested to Marshall that she contact her “pro-bono” attorney James Duenow so he could explain how Marshall was liable.
- “His ‘evil’ father is after me.” Velie claimed that my father was personally going after her. She claimed that my father was “evil,” and that he threatened her. Marshall didn’t elaborate any further on that accusation.
Velie claimed she had “multiple screenshots” to prove my various, alleged misdeeds. Ultimately, she failed to deliver. I personally asked for proof, and she couldn’t provide it. It wasn’t there.
Velie enlisted CalCoastNews writer and “tech person” Josh Friedman to provide screenshots of comments I’ve made on Information Press and posts I’ve written on The ROCK, but nothing that proved any of her heinous allegations; nothing that justified any disciplinary action.
Velie wanted me to be disciplined, preferably fired, and she wanted the articles I shared on Information Press‘ website removed because they “talk[ed] of many untruths in stories.”
Should Marshall fail to comply with her demands, Velie stated that she would write an article targeting her personally (Marshall was running for Congresswoman Lois Capps’ seat at the time) and would file a lawsuit against her family because she “had money.” Velie also threatened to sue my family because they allegedly “had money.”
Why was she obsessed with our finances?
Velie told Marshall that she was a transient and her only source of viable income was CalCoastNews. She also claimed that she had to move several times because people like me were “after [her].”
For two weeks, Marshall was inundated with calls and emails from Velie. I overheard two conversations. One of them featured an irate Velie, screaming, “He’s after me! He won’t stop! Make him stop!” and my employer repeatedly asking her to calm down. In another conversation, Velie claimed to be a Democrat and said that she would vote for Marshall, assuming that she complied with Velie’s demands. I listened in disbelief as I heard the tone in Velie’s voice change suddenly — from calm to inaudible screeching to loud sobbing.
It was clear: We were dealing with a psychopath.
I was uncomfortable that Velie and Marshall continued communicating with each other, especially when Marshall told Velie in an email that she was “disturbed” that Information Press would link to any stories related to CalCoastNews when she had previously approved of such links. When Marshall asked Velie to monitor my online activity when I wasn’t on company time, I determined that was a bridge too far. I left Information Press in June 2014.
It’s one thing for someone to have a gripe with content that’s critical of them, but it’s another to viciously go after someone’s livelihood, make demonstrably false allegations about them and make threats. I knew that I was dealing with someone who was clearly unstable. Law enforcement officials suggested that I file a civil harassment protective order, but only if my employer cooperated and provided witness testimony. Though she supported me throughout most of the ordeal, Marshall refused.
CalCoastNews staff regularly blog anonymously under their own stories. In 2011, when I was on speaking terms with co-founder Dan Blackburn, he explained that reporters blogged anonymously in order to “gin up the conversation.” Karen Velie has used a number of anonymous accounts to promote her exclusive allegations, which exclusively came from the depths of her wild imagination.
Using pseudonyms JordanJ, MarkJames, IronHub, Nancy, PaulJones and pismo20, Velie invented and spread the allegation that I was working with Adam Hill, Tribune columnist Tom Fulks and PG&E Government Relations Director Tom Jones to criticize CalCoastNews with the stated intent of shutting down the website. These allegations would later reappear in my Sept. 2016 deposition by CalCoastNews, though their deposing attorney didn’t tell me where the allegations came from.
Velie used the same accounts to disparage the police officer who arrested her for suspicion of driving under the influence. Velie went on to claim on Congalton’s radio show that she was arrested because of who she was, and that her arresting officer lied on the police report. During her trial, Velie’s defense raised arguments and claims previously published by her anonymous pseudonyms on CalCoastNews.
Using the pseudonym “Nancy,” Velie alleged that on Topix.com, someone on there claimed that she murdered her daughter. In 2015, “Nancy” claimed that I was “rewarded for [my] misdeeds” by Morro Bay mayor Jamie Irons by allegedly getting me hired to “teach extended [City of San Luis Obispo] employee education classes for ‘canned’ computer programs.” A public records request with City Human Resources revealed that a person named “Andres Guzman” emailed the San Luis Obispo City Council about my “employment” with the city, even though I sought no employment with the city. The email appeared one week before Velie published an article about me that featured the same allegations presented by “Guzman.” The email was sent to every member of the city council.
Online harassment wasn’t limited to comments on CalCoastNews.com. Karen Velie’s daughter, Summer Awbrey, used an account named “Robert Mason” to influence public opinion throughout any local platform that encouraged social media engagement. Awbrey reiterated her mother’s assertions that I was paid by several people to “demean” CalCoastNews. In fact, Awbrey had introduced specific allegations that would be introduced in her mother’s article about me days later, including the claim that I “criminally impersonated” someone. In her article, Velie claimed I “impersonated reporters.”
Like her mother, Awbrey lashed out against anyone who “liked” or commented on my Facebook posts, stating they were “participators” of online harassment toward them. On CalCoastNews, Velie named individuals who she felt were “participating in the online harassment” of CalCoastNews because they “liked” my Facebook page and “giving ‘thumbs up’ to degrading and defamatory posts.” Anonymously, Awbrey and Velie have bragged about capturing screenshots to “prove” harassment. Over the past two years, Velie has contacted people who “liked” or commented on my content and asserted they were harassing her. Velie has amassed a collection of screenshots of my posts over the years, but none of my posts matched her overarching fictional narrative about me.
For a while, I ignored the various allegations. However, the allegations made by Velie were published so frequently throughout the local blogs and social media, I decided to methodically document them. The allegations would set the stage for their distracting, concocted narrative later on in the defamation lawsuit against them.
It’s surreal to be the object of a self-proclaimed reporter’s obsession. Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine being the target of grandiose contempt and relentless defamation, anonymously spewed throughout social media.
Given the extensive nature of her allegations toward someone who disagreed with her flawed reporting, I figured this wasn’t the first time someone crossed her.
FROM “REPORTER” TO STALKER
For two years, Velie has obsessed over my family, my employment prospects (she often refers to me as “unemployable”) and where I live. In Feb. 2015, one of Velie’s anonymous accounts posted my home address after one of their anonymous commenters joked about visiting me. In October this year, an anonymous account on CalCoastNews attempted to describe where I allegedly lived in my parents’ home.
In Feb. 2015, Velie falsely stated that my family “lives off an ill relative’s Social Security and the Morro Bay Food Bank.” In late 2015, Velie alluded to speaking with my parents’ neighbors. She claimed the neighbors told her that my mother is “addicted to painkillers” and “there was worry for the relative they are responsible for.” Velie claimed that my father once wrote that I was “depressed.”
In March that year, County Social Services received an anonymous tip from a person who claimed to have read a CalCoastNews article about me, and stated that I posed a danger to a relative because I was “depressed” and “dangerous.”
In an email from Los Osos resident and Velie confidante Peggy Pavek, Pavek claimed “word got around” that one of my parents’ neighbors called Social Services because they thought one of my relatives “was not being cared for.” My family did not make that information public. Only Pavek and Velie, through Pavek, knew this information and who made the anonymous call, but didn’t report the false tip to Social Services.
Los Osos resident and former family acquaintance Sandra Hedges revealed that Velie’s daughter, Summer Awbrey, contacted her to “help write something.” In April, Hedges allegedly penned an editorial on CalCoastNews, claiming in part that my family was reported to “multiple law enforcement agencies and adult protective services.” My family never told Hedges any of that information.
Hedges also told my family that Velie reached out to her “a couple of times,” and after speaking with her, Hedges discussed my various whereabouts throughout my hometown; where I’ve walked to, what businesses I’ve patronized and who I was with. The accuracy of her descriptions concerned me.
I was being followed.
Around the same time, I heard from two people who claimed Velie reached out to them. Both people used to comment and “like” some of my posts on Cal Coast Fraud. Both informed me that Velie bragged about trespassing on my family’s property and going through their garbage. Velie reportedly told one of the people she spoke with that I had “no money” after reviewing documents in the trash.
UNRAVELING HER STRANGE BEHAVIOR
I’ve observed Velie acting erratically on a couple of occasions.
In July 2015, I attended the Second Appellate District hearing in San Luis Obispo where the justices heard several cases. One of the cases was a defamation lawsuit filed against Velie and CalCoastNews. When the case was heard, Velie walked into the room and sat a couple of feet away from where I was. Throughout the hearing, Velie looked at me and appeared mortified. At least three times, she stumbled out of the room, coughing loudly. The first time she left, I could hear her outside the courtroom shouting, “He’s here! He’s after me!” According to a source who was also in attendance, Velie left to use the restroom. In the restroom, the source told me, Velie reportedly rambled incoherently to herself in the mirror.
In Sept. 2016, shortly before my deposition took place, I brought my father to the court reporter’s office where the deposition was held. Velie saw my father and angrily pointed at him. “I don’t want [his father] here,” she said. “He says mean things. He is not involved. He is evil. Get him out! Get him out!”
During my deposition, Velie moved uncomfortably in her chair and repeatedly muttered “liar” as I was providing my testimony. When I gave answers that were critical of her reporting, Velie appeared to hyperventilate and acted erratically.
Tensions peaked in the room when I was asked if I believed Karen Velie was mentally ill. I answered yes.
Their attorney asked if I had any of her counseling or medical records. I said no. Velie asserted in her article about my deposition that I stated my claims of her being mentally ill were “untrue or conjecture,” though she referred to herself in plural form (“reporters”).
I’m not a psychologist and I never pretended to be one. I understand that referring to someone as mentally ill can come across as demonizing the disabled, which is not my intention, but that’s the only logical explanation for Karen Velie’s behavior. Much of what she accused me of saying or doing was completely made up. I could understand someone exaggerating my words and actions or taking them out of context, but here was this person who conjured all these delusional fables about me and had the audacity to call herself an “investigative reporter.”
Last year, in an attempt to flush out Velie from behind her computer and hold her accountable, I reached out to the “Dr. Phil Show” and gave them the following pitch: There is a “reporter” who regularly makes false claims about residents, businesses, families and public officials on CalCoastNews without providing evidence; that she refuses to publicly acknowledge that people have issued her corrections; that she viciously retaliates against people who put her bad behavior under a microscope. Velie uses journalism as a tool for revenge instead of an objective source of information. What would compel a “reporter” to be that vindictive? I was hoping Dr. Phil and some medical professionals would help answer that question.
One day, I received an email from one of Dr. Phil’s producers. The producer was very interested in doing a show. On the show, I would face off against Velie and force her to face down her lies — not only about me but about others she’s reported on. The same producer reached out to Velie, who initially said yes to appearing on the show. I was excited that I would finally get to the bottom of all the lies, the accusations, the stalking and harassment. I wanted that debate, even if the scrutiny turned to me. I was fine with it. I don’t have a problem admitting to missteps and mistakes, but at least I make an effort to correct them. I had nothing to hide.
Two days before the pre-show interviews were scheduled, Velie backed out. The show was canceled.
AND SO IT GOES
Some have told me to stop writing about CalCoastNews because, well — maybe they’ll go away eventually. Maybe they’ll move onto something else, someone else, and it wouldn’t be my problem anymore. But when I see them viciously attack residents in the community and do whatever it takes to ruin their lives, I can’t accept that. As a community, we shouldn’t accept that. Sadly, some do.
Because I made the choice to criticize her “reporting,” Karen Velie has gone after employers, colleagues, neighbors, friends, family, and anyone who dares to agree with me, “like” my posts or express criticism of her website on social media. In her mind, Velie’s psychotic behavior is justified because she considers my criticism “cyber harassment.” But if she believes dissent is harassment, what business does she have serving on the local American Civil Liberties Union board as a “tireless advocate for Freedom of the Press”?
Karen Velie and CalCoastNews have claimed that I’ve tried to shut down her website. Meanwhile they’ve tried to shut down my free speech. She’s even used money she crowdfunded for her legal defense to harass and discredit me. What kind of reporter does that? What kind of person would be that diabolical?
Fortunately, they’ve failed to silence me, but their failures won’t stop them from trying again. They’re persistent if nothing else.
There are many others who were attacked by CalCoastNews. In all likelihood, unless Velie miraculously accepts the truth about her horrible behavior, there will be others that find themselves in their cross-hairs. To fight back, one by one, the community has to stand up and speak out; to challenge and resist them; to mock and ridicule them; to isolate and refute them. If we’re not proactive in fighting the smears against local residents and families, more innocent lives will be ruined for years to come.
I’m not saying it’s easy, but if I can survive their relentless assaults on me and my family and tell my story, you can too.