A bunch of amateur internet “sleuths” have once again targeted the wrong individual with extremely serious allegations, this time related to a cold case from 2009. It’s another shining example of how mob mentality continues to thrive in the digital age.
A creepy video titled “Hi Walter! I got a new gf today!” was posted on YouTube back in 2011. The short video featured a man named “Patrick” talking to the camera and addressing his “friend” Walter, explaining that he had gotten a new girlfriend, took her to the mall, and had a great day. The video ends with Patrick pointing the camera toward his “new girlfriend,” who is locked in a room, bound and gagged on the floor, and struggling to free herself.
There’s no denying that the video is weird and disturbing, but there’s also no denying that the man is very clearly acting out the scene in an over-the-top manner. The only part of the video that seems slightly genuine is the blurry image of a woman struggling on the floor, as we can’t make out what she’s saying and the video abruptly ends.
The clip sat dormant on its YouTube channel for years, drawing a few clicks here and there, with comments mentioning how creepy it was but nothing more. That is, until it appeared on a Reddit thread, where commenters suggested that the video might actually show a girl who had been missing since 2009. (The subsequent chatter between Reddit and Imgur users erroneously suggested the video was published in 2009 as well, though it was later confirmed by authorities to have been published in 2011.)
Kayla Berg was 15 when she disappeared after being dropped off at an abandoned house in 2009 in Antigo, Wisconsin, and that’s the last time anyone saw her. The woman in the video bears only a superficial resemblance to Berg—dark hair, light skin—and the low resolution of the camera and the angle at which it is shot makes it impossible for amateur viewers to determine anything conclusively.
Of course, that didn’t stop determined Imgur and Reddit posters from dissecting every detail, and eventually convincing themselves and one another that the man in the video was somehow responsible for Berg’s 2009 kidnapping. The mob mentality grew, and soon the threads were filled with pure vitriol for the anonymous video creator. That rage spilled over into social media, and the angry mob eventually found its way to YouTube, where insults, slander, and death threats began to pile up.
As the story began to go viral, news organizations took notice, including local Wisconsin stations who tracked down Kayla Berg’s mother, Hope Sprenger, and played the video for her. Berg’s mother said the video was “disturbing” and that the girl in the video “sounded like [Kayla].”
Seemingly encouraged by Sprenger’s comments, the online “investigation” continued to gain momentum, culminating in the Antigo Police Department announcing via Facebook that it had opened an investigation into the video tape, as had the FBI.
Once the real investigators got on the case, it didn’t take long for them to find the video’s creator and confirm that the woman in the video was not only safe and sound, but not related to the Berg case in any way. In fact, there’s a whole other YouTube account full of weird improv videos featuring the same guy, along with several other aspiring actors.
Now, if you’re anyone but the man in the “Hi Walter” video, this is where you get to walk away with a smile on your face, knowing that you didn’t actually witness a tragic kidnapping victim struggling for their life. But if you’re “Patrick,” the story doesn’t end there.
Hateful, threatening comments continue to pile up on both the original YouTube account and the second channel. Users are accusing the actors of creating horrific content and intentionally trying to trick investigators. Not only that, but there are plenty of people who still think he did it, even though the police cleared him.
But things go beyond random YouTube death threats; Reddit users have also been passing around the real name and personal information of the actor in the clip, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s been wrongly accused since the beginning. The subreddit that hosted one of the original discussions has had to ban all further talk about the video and the Kayla Berg case due to the number of users who were sharing personal details of the actors who were featured.
The content of the video itself is weird, but no more disturbing or graphic than anything under the horror banner on Netflix, save the lack of context. Videos like this are only frightening or disturbing if you don’t know who made them, which is exactly what happened here.
That fear, combined with the instinct of people on social news sites like Reddit and communities like Imgur to want to be the first to discover something, leads to a race for new information. That mentality kindles huge leaps of logic and forces people to jump to the most absurd conclusions imaginable in order to gain the spotlight, even if the facts don’t support them.
A similar incident took place in 2013 when an innocent—and missing—college student named Sunil Tripathi was fingered by Reddit as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. A second student from Massachusetts was also sought after the shoddy detectives on the site highlighted his face in photos from the event—images that eventually found their way to the front page of the New York Post. Reddit itself was forced to apologize.
The “Hi Walter” video has been removed from YouTube, and Imgur user TheGeminiTIGER issued an apology for linking the innocent man to the kidnapping case but maintains it “came from genuine concern” and that the community “did the right thing.”