ATLANTA (AP) — A former U.S. State Department employee was sentenced Monday to serve nearly five years in federal prison for accessing young women's online accounts from his computer at the American embassy in London and threatening to expose their sexually explicit photos.
Michael C. Ford, 36, sent "phishing" emails to women, specifically targeting members of sororities and aspiring models. He claimed to be a member of Google's account deletion team, which doesn't exist, to get them to hand over their passwords, prosecutors said.
U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross sentenced him to four years and nine months in prison followed by three years on supervised release. Ross granted a request to delay the start of his prison term until after Aug. 1 so that he can be present when his wife is due to give birth to their second child in late July.
Ford told the judge he was feeling small and looked down upon in his personal and professional lives and retreated into an online world where the people he was interacting with didn't seem real, he said. He's truly sorry to his victims, he said.
"What I did was a low and cowardly act by a person who was desperate," he said.
He wanted to get caught so he'd be fired and could leave an unbearable work situation without having to say he was a quitter, he said, adding that he suffered from severe depression and suicidal thoughts. He cried as he addressed the judge.
More than 30 of Ford's friends and family members, including some who'd traveled from England, packed the courtroom to show support. A dozen people, including his wife, addressed the court either in person or by video, describing Ford as a doting husband and loving father to his 2-year-old son.
The judge told Ford she was "utterly disgusted" by what he'd done, especially given the support and love that was clearly available to him from his friends and family.
Ford was arrested at an Atlanta airport in May and pleaded guilty in December to nine counts of cyberstalking, seven counts of computer hacking to extort and one count of wire fraud.
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of eight years. Defense attorneys suggested less than four years.
Ford used the women's passwords to access their email and social media accounts and searched for sexually explicit photographs and personal information. He sent messages threatening to put the images online or send them to the women's families and friends if they didn't do what he wanted, a practice known as sextortion, prosecutors said. In several instances, he followed through on those threats.
A victim, identified only as B.M., told the judge she was afraid when he pressured her to take videos of women in a gym locker room, sending her an email that included her home address and the address of the preschool where she worked.
"Overall, it was really scary," B.M. told the judge. "I felt like someone was going to show up anytime, anywhere."
Prosecutors said one victim said she considered carrying a gun because she was afraid he'd physically attack her, while another slept with a knife under her pillow.
In a single day last April, he sent 800 phishing emails, and 180 follow-up messages to potential victims who hadn't responded to his initial email, prosecutors said. Another day in April, he sent initial harassing emails with photos attached to 98 new victims.