A former Northeastern University track and field coach was arrested this week for a scheme in which he allegedly used sham social media accounts to solicit nude photographs from female student athletes. He is also accused of cyberstalking at least one female student athlete.
Steve Waithe, 28, was arrested in Chicago on Wednesday and charged with one count of cyberstalking and one count of wire fraud, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts said in a statement.
"The investigation has centered on allegations that Waithe used his position to steal compromising photos of women on the team from their cellphones and attempted to extort, stalk, and otherwise harass the victims, largely through dummy social media accounts," reads the criminal complaint.
Waithe, who previously coached at schools including The Pennsylvania State University, Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee, worked as a track and field coach at Northeastern University in Boston from October 2018 to February 2019, according to charging documents. It is not immediately clear whether he has a lawyer.
The complaint says Waithe was terminated in the wake of a university Title IX investigation prompted by conduct he engaged in during his first semester that "gave rise to multiple reports of sexual harassment."
Northeastern confirmed in a statement that the investigation had to do with inappropriate conduct toward female student athletes, and said the students involved were given "resources for counseling and holistic support for their well-being." The university's police department had also alerted federal law enforcement officials and cooperated with the investigation, it added.
"We appreciate the diligence of the FBI and the US Attorney's office and the actions that resulted today," it said.
During Waithe's time at the university, authorities allege, he often requested to use athletes' phones at practices and meets under the pretense of filming their form, and was seen at times "scrolling through'' them. At one meet, in January 2019, he was reportedly in possession of at least one student's phone for several hours.
Wire fraud scheme allegations
Starting in or around February 2020, Waithe allegedly began what the U.S. Attorney's Office described as "a scheme to dupe female Northeastern University track and field athletes into sending him nude or semi-nude photos of themselves."
Specifically, the complaint alleges Waithe would contact victims through fake Instagram accounts to say he had found compromising photos of them online and offer to help get them taken down. He would then reportedly request additional nude or semi-nude photos to be used for "reverse image searches."
Waithe allegedly also sent examples of the compromising photos to the victims, with authorities noting that the known victims have received more than 100 such Instagram messages and dozens of image files "depicting themselves and/or their friends or teammates" since February 2020.
"In perpetrating the scheme, Waithe repeatedly employed the same basic pattern of conduct: disclosure of compromising photos of the victim, a claim that the photos had been discovered online, and a request for additional photos," the complaint reads.
Investigators believe Waithe used several pseudonyms on social media, including variations of the phrase "Privacy Protector," "Katie Janovich" and "Anon" followed by various numbers. The complaint details his interactions with five unnamed victims, none of whom sent him additional photos.
One of the victims, for example, was contacted by an account with the username "privacyprotect1." The account sent four nude photos depicting the victim and said he was working with a website created for people whose photos had been leaked, in an effort to determine who had leaked them and get them removed from the internet.
That victim told investigators that those images had been saved on her phone in the fall of 2018, when Waithe was her coach. She said she had provided him with her phone to allow him to film her form at practice, and that he "had possession of her phone on multiple occasions for extended periods of time," according to the complaint.
Records related to his Google accounts show dozens of searches in 2020 that appear related to the alleged wire fraud scheme, the complaint said, like a search for "can an Instagram be traced" and a visit to a Web page titled "Can anyone trace my fake Instagram account back to me?"
The complaint also said that from at least June to October of 2020, Waithe allegedly cyberstalked at least one female Northeastern student athlete through messages sent via social media, an anonymized phone number and "intrusion" into her Snapchat account.
It alleges that Waithe first contacted the victim on Instagram with several nude or semi-nude photos, which she said had been stored on her phone during the time Waithe was her coach and that she gave him access to her unlocked phone on several occasions for approximately 20 minutes at a time.
It also describes an attempt to hack into the victim's Snapchat account, as well as messages sent from a "Privacy Protector" Instagram account to the victim's boyfriend warning that someone had hacked into her Snapchat and would leak it shortly, and sending nude photographs that had been stored in a private Snapchat folder.
The victim also received two text messages from an unknown number, including a photograph depicting her and the question, "Is this you?" According to the complaint, that phone number was registered through one of Waithe's Google accounts with a service called TextNow, which assigns phone numbers to users that can be changed on request.
"I believe that Waithe sent the photos and messages via Instagram to Victim 6 as described above, obtained or conspired to obtain unauthorized access to Victim 6's Snapchat account, sent the photos and messages to Victim 6's boyfriend as described above, and utilized an otherwise-anonymous TextNow phone number to send additional messages to Victim 6," the complaint concludes.
"Body development" study allegations
Additionally, the primary investigator wrote in the complaint that his research related to Waithe's Google accounts also yielded "evidence of a different criminal scheme and a separate and as-yet unknown number of additional victims."
In that scheme, Waithe allegedly emailed prospective victims — using the personas of "Katie Janovich" and "Kathryn Svodoba" — describing an "athlete research" or "body development" study and requesting information related to their height, weight and diet habits.
The emails also asked recipients to send photos of themselves in a "uniform or bathing suit to show as much skin as possible," the complaint alleges. They often included attachments of sample nude and semi-nude images of "Katie" as an example, it adds, as well as assurance that the photos would not be shared or saved. Investigators said they have not yet identified "Katie."
They did say they have so far identified more than 10 victims of the "body development study" scheme, and more than 300 nude and semi-nude images of victims in Waithe's email accounts.
The FBI is seeking information about additional victims, and is asking anyone who has been in contact with Waithe or one of his associated personas to fill out a confidential contact form.
Waithe's first court appearance was scheduled for the Northern District of Illinois on Wednesday, and authorities said he will appear in federal court in Boston at a later date. The cyberstalking charge is punishable by up to five years in prison, and the wire fraud charge could carry up to 20.