Michigan hair salon battles false social media accusations of ISIS ties

Liberty McKee has been dealing with public accusations from a relative via social media that McKee says have affected her business's reputation.

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Liberty McKee has been dealing with public accusations from a relative via social media that McKee says have affected her business's reputation.

GENOA TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Liberty McKee doesn't work for ISIS. She runs a hair salon in Michigan.

But a New Mexico woman with a longstanding grudge is on a relentless mission to "warn the honest citizens of Howell, Michigan” that McKee is not only an "Arab Muslim terrorist," as she calls it, but also part of a "drug dealing murderous crime family" and more.

In recent months, Albuquerque, N.M., resident Jennifer Otte has shared hundreds of photos of Michigan families and children to her own Facebook page, along with written accusations and YouTube videos about The Parlor hair salon, 4325 E. Grand River Ave., Howell, Mich., and its owners.

“It’s embarrassing,” said McKee, who opened The Parlor in October and says the claims are false and only the latest in a relentless history of online harassment related to a complicated family history. "People get a notification their photo has been shared, they click on it and find all these horrible things she's saying.

“My staff is stressed, and it’s affecting morale," McKee added. "Clients are asking questions, and the only thing I can really say is ‘it’s just my crazy stalker.’”

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Public records show Otte has been arrested more than 25 times since 2007, mostly on misdemeanor charges such as battery, disorderly conduct, shoplifting and resisting or obstructing an officer. On all but a few occasions, the charges were dismissed by prosecutors.

Beginning in 2015, charges from increasingly frequent arrests were dismissed when Otte was found incompetent to stand trial.

In September 2016, Otte appeared in Albuquerque area news reports after she was accused of defacing a fallen police officer’s memorial and threatening those who tried to intervene. She was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a felony, but was not prosecuted because witnesses could not be located.

A woman who answered a phone number registered to Jennifer Otte in Albuquerque claimed she did not know Otte.

Liberty McKee has no record of criminal history.

McKee, 34 and Otte, 41, are cousins by marriage, but only met in person once, when McKee was in elementary school. Her adoptive stepfather and Otte’s father were brothers.

Other than the occasional Facebook exchange, the step cousins had no contact over the years. But on Christmas Eve 2012, when McKee announced she and her boyfriend were engaged, everything changed.

“(Otte) went off on me in the engagement thread,” McKee said. “I had a ton of people liking the post and congratulating me, and in that same thread she started saying terrible things: ‘You’re just marrying Scott for his military benefits,’ and ‘you’re a drug dealer’s daughter’ ... ‘He should be with me, not you.’”

“She kept saying I was a Nazi,” McKee added. "Now I’m an ‘Islamic Muslim terrorist.’”

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Otte also began making false claims on the Facebook page of a local salon where McKee was working at the time, McKee said.

When McKee opened The Parlor, the online attacks intensified. The business' Facebook page was hit first, "85 comments in a matter of minutes," McKee said.

Otte has also set up fake Facebook pages for the Parlor and circulated rambling posts and YouTube videos accusing McKee and her family of murdering their grandparents for life insurance policies.

The McKees reported the harassment and the phony business page to Facebook on numerous occasions, but never received more than an automated reply indicating Otte's behavior did not violate Facebook standards.

Facebook replied to the Livingston Daily's request for comment with a request for additional information. Check back for updates.

Earlier this year, McKee filed a harassment report with Michigan State Police, who did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

Meanwhile, in March, the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office responded to a request from Children’s Protective Services after the agency received a report McKee had her young son locked in the closet at the salon while she was working.

“CPS called us and asked us to go check it out,” said Sheriff's Lt. Eric Sanborn. “It turned out to be unfounded. There was nothing going on. We now believe it was part of a larger stalking issue.”

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Sanborn said the Sherriff’s Office has had no other reports about the salon or its owners.

Howell Police Chief George Basar said his department has also heard from Otte.

“We received an email with the allegations … regarding some potential terrorism … but non-specific to the location,” Basar said. “Our detective looked into it, found it was in Genoa Township, and turned it over to the FBI because it is not in our jurisdiction. It was clear it needed to go to the feds because of the allegations.”

Turning reports of a potential terrorism threat over to the FBI is standard protocol for police.

McKee said she and her husband met with an FBI agent, who later requested they provide documentation of the cyberstalking and harassment.

An agent from the FBI field office in Ann Arbor told the Livingston Daily the bureau does not confirm or deny whether an investigation has been opened.

McKee also said she filed for a restraining order to stop the harassment, but was told she would have to file in New Mexico where Otte lives. Two different attorneys told her she could bring a civil suit for harassment but would only lose money on legal fees, because Otte has no assets.

Livingston County Prosecutor William Vailliencourt did not want to comment on McKee’s situation specifically, but noted cyberstalking has become prevalent in recent years.

“Police frequently take reports regarding this type of behavior,” Vailliencourt said, noting cyberstalking crimes fall under a Michigan law prohibiting stalking in general.

Essentially, the law defines stalking as willful, unconsented contact that causes a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress.

Victims seeking remedy can file a police report for potential investigation and prosecution; depending on the specifics, stalking can be classified as a misdemeanor or felony and is punishable by up to five years in prison and any length of probation.

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Related charges can include unlawful posting of a message – using the Internet to engage others in stalking or contacting the victim – and using a computer to commit a crime.

Victims can also collect evidence in hopes of obtaining a personal protection order prohibiting the stalking behavior.

Still, Vailliencourt added, most online slights cannot be construed as stalking.

"People have a first amendment right to voice their opinions, however distasteful one might think those opinions,” he said. “There needs to be a determination of whether the conduct crosses the line.”

“These are emotional cases, and there are some challenges,” Vailliencourt added. "A lot of people may be suffering this in silence or trying to deal with themselves. Most people, all they really want is for it to stop.”

And that, said Liberty McKee, is what she wants, as well: for the harassment to stop. While its been difficult, she is committed to seeing her business succeed and using any legal means necessary to put a stop to Otte's behavior.

"I don’t have anything to hide," she said. "I’m a normal person, a mom, and entrepreneur who opened this beautiful business with a staff of amazing women who have livelihoods on the line. I'm not about to let a cyberstalker ruin everything I worked hard for."

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