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By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

Alleged defamation case closed, no charges filed

 

October 15, 2020



SEELEY LAKE – Saturday morning, May 9 Clearwater Montana Properties CEO Kevin Wetherell was out showing vacant lots on Double Arrow Ranch.

“When I finished showing property that morning, I looked at my phone and it was blowing up with Facebook notifications,” said Wetherell. “Then I started to see what had happened. I couldn’t even believe what was happening and how quickly it was happening.”

Wetherell found himself in the crosshairs of a social media storm when his name and image appeared on a post in the “Justice For Gregory and Travis McMichael,” a private Facebook group. The post, accompanied with a photo of a tactical shotgun lying on a chair read, “Stay out of our Neighborhoods and this incident will not happen again.”

Wetherell quickly denied the post on his personal page posting, “I was hacked or someone created a fake Facebook page with my name and image! Racist posts being made under my name are not me.”

Wetherell reported the case to law enforcement immediately. According to a letter dated Sept. 16 from Missoula County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Kennedy, the originating post was created using a phone number with a San Diego, California area code. The service provider was a communication company in Mexico.

“Based on this information, I did not pursue the investigation any further,” wrote Kennedy in the letter. “No charges were filed and my investigation was closed.” Missoula County Sheriff’s Office declined further comment.

Wetherell said that Kennedy explained that he could not pursue a case sourced in Mexico because it would be overwhelming to pursue a suspect internationally.

“Complete resolution would be to identify the person that did this and for charges to be filed against them,” said Wetherell. “That hasn’t occurred and doesn’t appear that it will occur. However, I do believe that enough evidence was discovered that shows that it was not me.”

* * * * *

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the report made May 9 claimed a fraudulent Facebook account, assuming the identity of Kevin Wetherell, had been created and defamatory remarks posted within that account along with a photo of a gun. The report stated that while the statement was not necessarily offensive, the timing and group it was posted within, did make it offensive.

The original post to “Justice For Gregory and Travis McMichael” with Wetherell’s profile photo and name was noted as his first post in the group. He was also labeled a “New Member.” Wetherell denied any knowledge of the posting or the Facebook account.

“I was actually surprised that they were willing to pursue it on behalf of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office. I’m sure this case was not their priority,” said Wetherell. “But they did investigate it, which I was grateful for. I wanted to be vindicated. I wanted them to hopefully solve the case of who did that and prove that it was not me. That is important to me professionally and personally.”

Wetherell said the web address from the Facebook profile that made the original post was provided to him from someone he didn’t know. The person captured the address showing a second “Kevin Wetherell” Facebook account in their history when they clicked to view the profile from the original post. Wetherell believes without the address provided by an outside witness, the case would not have gotten as far as it did.

“When all of this occurred, people that don’t know me were searching all of my posts, were Googling my name trying to see if that was something that I would do and there was nothing that came up in my past – whether as a Facebook comment, or anything that was brought forth,” said Wetherell. “I don’t want to be associated [as a racist]. It is not what I believe and it is not something that I do.”

Wetherell’s post on his personal page denying the racially-charged post drew more than 1,600 comments in less than 24 hours. Most of the comments were calling him a liar and a racist while others made threats against Wetherell, his family and anyone who attempted to stand up for him.

The original post was deleted within minutes from the group. Within a week, the group with over 370,000 members was deleted from Facebook. However, screen shots linking several of Wetherell’s social media pages with his alleged post continued to go viral. The attacks spread across Clearwater Montana Properties Facebook pages as well as other trade pages such as the Montana Association of Realtors and onto review sites.

For several weeks Clearwater’s marketing team was dedicated to combating what was done to try and prevent additional damage to Clearwater. They appealed false reviews on review sites proving that the negative reviewers were not customers.

“[Those negative reviews] affect our 100 agents and 15 employees,’ said Wetherell. “That was a big concern to me and people perhaps deciding to not do business with Clearwater as a result.”

However, Wetherell said not all review sites are receptive to appeals from a business.

“Business has been lost now and in the future primarily on the review pages,” said Wetherell. “Those will be there until good reviews push them down.”

Wetherell also hired a crisis management team to help him focus on what to do.

“When all of that was occurring, things were happening fast. The post was going viral and Clearwater was getting damaged, I felt, substantially. I didn’t know what to do as far as handling it,” said Wetherell. “It was nice to have the clear mind from outside that is not directly in battle to provide that direction.”

For two months following the post, Wetherell said he received hundreds of voice mails on his office phone including more than 100 threats of harm and death threats. Some of the other Clearwater offices and agents received calls telling them that their CEO was a racist or making threats against them.

Wetherell locked down his personal Facebook page, which doubles as his professional page. He was receiving hundreds of comments and threats as well. All Clearwater Montana Property social media was locked down so no one could post, because what was being said was so damaging.

“From a business perspective you are seeking engagement. When you are showing a nice property, you want people to engage and talk about it,” said Wetherell. “To lock that down and not allow that is not productive.”

Wetherell’s home address was posted on social media as well as an address for one of his rental properties in Seeley Lake that was occupied. These were both reasons for concern and he took additional safety measures to protect himself and his property.

Wetherell said the worst part for him was the damage done so quickly to his name, reputation and life’s work.

“To have someone destroy everything you have worked 27 years to build both professionally and personally, even as far as your personal name and reputation,” said Wetherell. “Someone can take that away in five minutes.”

Wetherell said there were a few emails and an official complaint filed with the Board of Realty Regulations of which Wetherell serves as a board member. The complaint was made against him professionally as a real estate broker. The complaint will be heard at the October board meeting.

“That is the licensing authority with Montana. That really potentially puts my real estate license at risk. However, I feel like there is overwhelming evidence that I did not do it. Following the committee’s review, I hope they will dismiss it.”

Wetherell said there were also emails sent to the Montana Association of Realtors and to the Missoula County Association of Realtors.

Despite everything that has happened, Wetherell said he feels really fortunate to live in Seeley Lake and Montana. He had over 100 calls and messages from people that he knew who reached out to tell him they knew he didn’t do it and encouraged him.

“I think people that know me, know I didn’t do that,” said Wetherell. “Those were the redeeming comments that I got.”

Wetherell said if he was not in real estate, he would not have a Facebook page. However he has a lot of business resulting from Facebook, so he will continue.

This experience has forced him to learn a lot about the security features of social media.

“Many people, including myself, were not aware of them and I did not have them locked down sufficiently to prevent something like this from happening,” said Wetherell.

Wetherell recommends everyone research the security settings in their social media accounts.

“I feel like it emotionally took a lot out of me to manage what was occurring to me with the death threats and posts on social media about me,” said Wetherell. “It took a lot to continue to focus on my professional life and personal life. Now I feel focused on my personal and professional life and I’m able to go forward. Death threats are no longer occurring and terrible things are not being said about me personally or threats being made to my family. To have the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office dedicate their resources to take the case as far as they could to partial resolution, I’m grateful.”

 

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