A Navy captain has been arrested and charged with cyberstalking a former girlfriend after, as prosecutors allege, an 18-month campaign in which he created a false digital identity of the woman and then posted sexual images of her to Facebook.
Capt. Theodore E. Essenfeld, 51, who has 31 years of naval service, was arrested Friday and appeared before a judge Monday on a single charge of cyberstalking -- an offense that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.
U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman, who oversees the office that brought the charges, said in a released statement that "the indictment alleges a disturbing campaign of betrayed trust, harassment and intimidation."
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Gary Barthel, the lawyer who represents Essenfeld, said that the officer was still in custody Wednesday but that he was working to secure his release. "He's presumed innocent and, as soon as we get some discovery on the case, we'll have a better idea of what's what," the lawyer added in a call with Military.com on Wednesday.
The indictment says Essenfeld met the victim in the case when they started dating in 2018 while the pair lived in San Diego.
Essenfeld was just wrapping up a tour as the commanding officer of the amphibious assault ship USS Pearl Harbor and moving to the staff of the commander of Naval Surface Force Pacific, according to records provided to Military.com by the Navy.
By 2020, Essenfeld's tour in southern California had ended, and he was transferred to U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His indictment notes that the victim ended up moving to that state around May 2021, but the pair broke up that August.
However, according to the indictment, starting in November 2020 -- months before his girlfriend would even move to Colorado -- Essenfeld began to register email accounts, social media profiles and even a disposable cell phone in her name.
The false email and cell phone enabled him to start Facebook and LinkedIn accounts in his victim's name, which he then used "to harass and intimidate her," court documents allege.
The indictment alleges that he used the Facebook account to make it appear as if the woman was looking to meet dates via the site's online dating service. He also "posted erotic photos and videos" of her -- content which she shared with him while they were dating -- and created photo albums with names like "Bedroom Fun."
Essenfeld then drew attention to the Facebook profile by linking it to the profiles of his victim's job and alma mater, court documents allege.
In a fake LinkedIn profile that he created, Essenfeld listed her job as "pole dancer," prosecutors allege.
The alleged stalking by the Navy officer, who began his career in 1991 as an enlisted submarine sailor before earning his commission in 1998, ran until May 2022 -- nine months after the two broke off the relationship.
Navy and court documents say Essenfeld moved back to San Diego in January 2022 before being assigned to the staff of Expeditionary Strike Group 3 in August.
Barthel noted that Essenfeld became aware of an investigation against him at some point prior to charges being filed but added that his chain of command wouldn't offer him any details on its progress.
The Department of Justice, in its statement, said that the case was investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Joshua Flowers, a special agent in charge of the NCIS Southwest Field Office, called Essenfeld's alleged behavior "reprehensible" in the same statement.
The Navy, through a spokeswoman, confirmed Essenfeld's arrest but directed any other questions to the NCIS and Justice Department.
According to his service record, Essenfeld commanded two warships -- the USS Pearl Harbor and the mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian. His awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, three Meritorious Service Medals, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals.
He also earned his Enlisted Submarine Warfare Specialist pin while stationed aboard the USS Topeka prior to becoming an officer.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.