A mum-of-three has told of how her life was ruined by an online stalker.
Sabrina Cowley suffered daily harassment from Matthew Hardy after he became obsessed with her.
In a prolonged ‘catfishing’ campaign, Hardy posed as Sabrina’s friends and accused her of having a string of affairs – including with her late mum’s ex.
The stalker also pretended to be Sabrina to others.
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Now Hardy has been jailed for offenses against a number of women, and Sabrina, 42, of Mere, Cheshire, has described the shocking personal toll of his offending.
“I have absolutely ruined my life and dominated my thoughts for five years,” she said. “I have set up accounts pretending to be me and sent messages to my friends and family and even my children.
“He also set up accounts in my friends’ names and messaged me pretending to be them.
“The level of research he carried out to discover small details about me was mind-blowing and it made me so afraid that he would hurt me or my family.
“I hated letting my children out of the house, even to go to school. I barely slept and I was forever checking for him in the street. My life was completely controlled by him.”
Sabrina’s ordeal began in 2015 when she called briefly to see a family friend of her late mother, and bumped into Matthew Hardy at the house.
“I was only at the house to drop something off,” Sabrina said. “I said hello to Matthew and we left it at that – I didn’t think any more of it.”
“But, days later, he began messaging me on Facebook and accused me of having an affair with the family friend I had been to visit.
“I assured him he had got the wrong idea; the man was much older than me and married to my mum’s friend. I thought it was a bit odd and left it at that.”
But what followed was a barrage of messages – from both Hardy and from accounts that seemed to be from people Sabrina knew well.
In one message, she was accused of having an affair with an ex-boyfriend of her late mum.
In another, it was claimed she was sleeping with her best friend’s husband and also with a close male friend.
“The messages were from accounts of people I was friendly with and at first there was lots of detail and they seemed genuine,” Sabrina said.
“At first, I thought my friends were turning against me. It was really upsetting and confusing.”
One year on, fitness and pole dancing coach Sabrina learned that Hardy had previously been convicted of online harassment and became suspicious.
“I went to the police, but I didn’t feel they took me seriously. They suggested I try blocking him but of course he had so many fake accounts in different names, and I didn’t know which were my genuine friends and which were him.
“He was by this stage messaging my friends and work colleagues from a fake account he had set up in my name, so even if I closed my social media down he was still able to stalk me.
“I had no idea what he was saying to people about me and it was very embarrassing.
“The level of information he was able to gather about me was frightening.
“He was very clever and manipulative and messaged students from my fitness class, and even the studio owner. He delved into my past to find people I’d lost touch with. He seemed to know everything about me.
“I became scared for my safety and for my children, I was constantly checking the street before we went out. I was on high alert all the time.
“I was so desperate that I even contacted Hardy directly, and his mother, to ask to be left alone. I asked him why he was stalking me, but he couldn’t give me an answer.”
In February 2018, Sabrina had a daughter, Nancy, but her birth was ruined by the now daily harassment from Hardy. Her relationship with her broke down under the strain.
“I suffer with endometriosis and the stress caused by Hardy made it so much worse. He was affecting my health mentally and physically,” she said.
“I contacted the police on several occasions and finally last year the case was taken up by PC Kevin Anderson from Northwich Local Policing Unit who was absolutely wonderful.
“I was horrified to find out that Hardy had targeted many other women as well as me.”
Matthew Hardy, 30, of Northwich, appeared before Chester Crown Court earlier this month in relation to the harassment against Sabrina and other women, and was jailed for nine years.
He had earlier pleaded guilty to three counts of stalking with intent to cause alarm or distress, two counts of stalking without intent to cause alarm and breaching a restraining order since 2013, which banned him from using false details on social networking sites.
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He also admitted stalking a further four women, which was taken into consideration upon sentencing.
Following the sentencing, Police Constable Kevin Anderson of Northwich Local Policing Unit, said: “Having led on this case for more than 18 months I have seen the emotional distress and turmoil that Hardy has inflicted on his victims – he did all of this while hiding behind his computer screen.
“The impact on those affected by his actions has been immense, causing some of them to change some of their daily habits, and live in constant fear that they were being watched.
“On other occasions, it caused them to lose trust in their friends and family members, and even led to the breakdown of long-term relationships.
“Thankfully, Hardy has now been held accountable for his actions, and his online activity has finally been brought to a stop.
“I hope that the conclusion of this case will provide some closure for his victims and enable then to rebuild and move forward with their lives.”
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.