What to Know
- An eastern Pennsylvania mother is accused of using an app on her smartphone to manipulate images and videos of underage cheerleaders, an act know as deepfaking.
- Raffaela Marie Spone is also accused of threatening the girls in phone calls from a blocked number.
- Spone's daughter, who was on the same cheerleading squad as the victims, had no knowledge of her mother's actions, Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub said.
A Pennsylvania mom is accused of creating deepfake videos and photos of underage girls on her daughter’s cheer squad in a prolonged effort to harass them and get them kicked off the team.
Raffaela Marie Spone, 50, also made phone calls in which she told one of the girls that “you should kill yourself” in the harassment campaign that lasted over two months last year, according to a criminal complaint.
Prosecutors say all three underage victims were part of the Victory Vipers, the same Doylestown-based traveling cheer squad that Spone's daughter belonged to.
The incidents began in July 2020 with a call from a blocked number saying one of the girls should kill herself, Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub said at a Monday news conference. The incidents would continue into August.
Police first learned about the case when the mom of one of the girls came forward and said her daughter had been receiving harassing texts and calls from a blocked number. The messages included pictures from the girl’s social media accounts that had been doctored to make her look as if she was naked, drinking alcohol or vaping.
Spone then sent an altered video to the owner of the girl’s cheerleading gym making it look as if she was vaping, which could have gotten her kicked off the team, according to an affidavit of probable cause.
More messages were later sent to the gym from two separate phone numbers, and police determined the messages matched up word for word. Text messages also continued coming, this time from different numbers, according to the affidavit.
"I couldn't really comprehend what was going on," a shocked Victory Vipers teammate, Madi Hime, told the TODAY Show.
"I didn't know how to protect her from that," Madi's mother said.
In December, two more moms came forward. They told police that in August, someone had sent them images of their daughters in bikinis, saying they were drinking and smoking.
Police were eventually able to trace an IP address and the numbers back to Spone’s Chalfont home and discovered she used her smartphone to send the messages via an app, the affidavit indicates. She was issued a summons for three misdemeanor counts each of cyber harassment of a child and harassment.
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"What we've always taken for granted -- that a photo is a photo, a video is a video -- we can't take that for granted any longer," Weintraub told TODAY.
"This is also another way for an adult to prey on children," Weintraub added at his Monday news conference.
In a statement obtained by TODAY, the Victory Vipers said, in part, the group "has always promoted a family environment and we are very sorry for all individuals involved."
The father of one of the girls told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she and the two other girls used to be friends with Spone’s daughter. He told the Inquirer he thinks the harassment began because he and his wife told his daughter to stop hanging out with Spone’s daughter due to the girl’s behavior.
There was no indication Spone's daughter knew of her mom's alleged actions.
"The daughter is completely blameless in this," Weintraub said.
Spone, who has no criminal history, is unlikely to face the maximum penalty of six years in prison if found guilty, Weintraub said.
Spone's attorney, Robert Birch, told TODAY that his client denies the allegations against her and they they plan to "aggressively fight this."
Weintraub worried about the ease at which something authentic can be turned into a deepfake using just a smartphone. When deepfakes become criminal, these cases can divert law enforcement resources as they look to see how the images and videos were manipulated.
“Sometimes these deepfakes are so good we can’t even discern them with the naked eye,” he said.
Suicide prevention help: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.