Note: This story contains a description of an alleged sexual assault.
Three years after it happened, after her life was upended, Aaliyah Palmer is still looking for something that feels like justice.
She’s spoken out about that night, January 21, 2017, and the party in an apartment near Fort Bragg, about the young men who handed her shots, about how she flirted and then made out with an army combat medic, about how he pulled her into a bathroom to have sex.
She’s been open, too, about what she says happened next, about how the man—whom she identifies in court documents as Nicholas Savoy—became aggressive, how he wedged her against the sink so that she couldn’t move, how he pulled her hair so hard that clumps came out of her scalp, how he tried but failed to have anal sex with her, how she pleaded with him to stop but he wouldn’t stop.
Pieces of the night are a blur, but some things she says she remembers clearly: Savoy’s friends guarding the bathroom door, sneaking their phones underneath the door to take pictures; seeing their cameras flashing in the darkness; finally escaping almost three hours later when Savoy stopped to get water.
The next day, Palmer went to the Fayetteville police and told them she’d been raped. Months later, four of Savoy’s friends faced charges related to the images they’d taken and shared. But Savoy was never arrested.
Palmer learned from a reporter about a 40-year-old state Supreme Court decision that said consent could not be withdrawn once it was given. North Carolina was the last state with such an anachronistic law on its books. (In 1993, it had been the last state to outlaw marital rape.)
Palmer was angry. She told her story to anyone who would listen—The Guardian, Vice, The Fayetteville Observer, NBC News. Her advocacy paid off. Her story, and similar stories from other women, forced state lawmakers to act. Last Halloween, the General Assembly closed the so-called right-to-finish loophole.
But for Palmer, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t justice. Savoy would never face a jury.
Palmer was a freshman at N.C. State in 2017, an 18-year-old on a full ride, the first member of her immediate family to go to college. She’d graduated first in her class at Olympic High School in Charlotte. She was studying animal sciences. She had her whole life in front of her. But all of that changed. She became withdrawn and depressed. She began using drugs and drinking more. She couldn’t focus. Within months, she dropped out. Her scholarship gone, she had no hope of going back.
Instead of graduating last month as she’d planned, she saw her former classmates post their graduation pictures on Facebook. She has a good job, working full-time in a vet clinic, she says. But this isn’t where she imagined herself five years ago.
Last week, Palmer set out to get the only justice available to her. She filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court, suing Savoy and his four army buddies for assault and battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy (or, in legal terms, “intrusion upon seclusion”), and conspiracy.
But she didn’t stop there. In something of a novel legal twist, Palmer also sued the parent companies of the hugely popular apps Tinder and Snapchat.
The complaint alleges that Snapchat invaded her privacy and exploited pornographic images of her without her consent, and says that both Tinder and Snapchat have fundamental defects in their design and “acted in a willful, wanton, malicious, oppressive, and grossly negligent manner, in conscious disregard of the rights and safety of [Palmer] and others.”
The crux of the argument is that Snapchat provides a platform in which users can share illicit and degrading images with impunity, while Tinder allegedly allows bad actors to erase messages and other potentially incriminating information.
As they’ve become bigger and more powerful, internet giants have faced calls for government regulation. Facebook, for instance, has come under fire for violating users’ privacy and for its hands-off approach to political advertising. Google mines almost every facet of your online presence with little or no regulation, and then sells that information to advertisers.
Tinder and Snapchat are ephemeral by design—and that’s helped them gain millions of users and earn billions of dollars. With that success, Palmer argues, should come responsibility. At the very least, she says, these companies should maintain and make available records that allow law enforcement to help victims of harassment, sexual assault, and revenge porn.
Right now, the complaint alleges, they don’t.
“When people use those platforms, they’re not thinking about, well, what happens if I get assaulted or this happens to me, will there be evidence?” Palmer says. “We’re not thinking about that. There’s a bunch of college-age, even high-school-age people using that stuff, and that’s just not what our first thought is. People who are young have the mentality that everyone is good. Maybe it’s naive. But I feel like young people should be allowed to feel like that because it doesn’t feel good having to feel like everyone is bad.”
Palmer wasn’t into the pulsing, sweaty, hundred-person-and-a-keg-stand frat-house parties she found around N.C. State. She liked more low-key hangs, which is what sometimes drew her and her friends to Fayetteville on weekends. Get-togethers around Fort Bragg tended to be more laid-back. And the drive wasn’t that far, just an hour or so.
She’d downloaded Tinder in 2016, toward the end of her senior year in high school. That April, Tinder launched Tinder Social, which, instead of matching individuals, matched groups of people for meet-ups. (Tinder discontinued Social in August 2017.) Palmer and her friends used it. That was how they paired with Savoy and his friends. The army guys invited them to the party. Palmer’s friend Kennedy had a prior commitment—another party, on the base itself, a few minutes away—but Palmer agreed to go. Savoy met her outside. They hit it off.
Palmer didn’t know much about them: just their pictures, the names they’d given on their Tinder account, that they said they were soldiers. But other than their insistence that she drink—she had two shots and no more—nothing seemed off. Savoy didn’t give off weird vibes. If he had, Palmer says, she wouldn’t have kissed him, let alone consented to sex.
Nothing was wrong until the sex turned violent, she says.
(Palmer’s lawsuit says Savoy was a medic with the 82nd Airborne. It’s not clear whether Savoy is still in the army. When the INDY called a Wisconsin number listed for Savoy, a woman who identified herself as his mother answered and said: “I’m not giving you any information. My son was not charged with anything. And if his name shows anywhere being published, we will go after you. This girl has been trying to go after him, but he couldn’t be charged. I spoke with a police officer who was investigating, and he told me there was nothing—her story was not corroborated.” She then hung up.)
When she left the bathroom nearly three hours later, Palmer says her first thought was to get Savoy’s friends to delete the photos she knew they’d taken.
“I didn’t want that stuff out there,” she says. “You know, anyone can guess that a college-age dude with pictures and videos like that is not going to keep it to themself. So I knew they were going to spread them. And obviously, I’m in college. It could easily get back to campus. I knew other people that were on base. So it just wasn’t something that I wanted to happen.”
They denied that the photos existed.
By this point, nearly 2:00 a.m., there were no women left at the apartment.
She called Kennedy, who was at a party a few minutes away, and told her what happened. While she was on the phone, she says, the men in the apartment yelled and swore at her and told her she was lying. They refused to let her get her shoes. They told her to get out of the apartment. She left; Kennedy came to pick her up.
(A few days later, Kennedy went back for her shoes. She was told they’d been thrown over the balcony. She found them—and found that someone had defecated in them.)
The next morning, Kennedy sent her a text message asking if she’d seen what the guys had posted in the Tinder Social group chat. Palmer says she opened it and saw messages boasting about the photos and videos they’d taken. She says she was about to take a screenshot of the messages, but they vanished. The men unmatched from the group, and when they did, their messages went with them.
When she went to the police, they seemed sympathetic, Palmer says. By March, she says, they told her they were planning to arrest Savoy for rape. But months passed, and nothing happened. In May, she called to see what was going on and was told the district attorney wasn’t going to pursue rape charges.
But the detectives said they had interviewed Savoy’s friends, and one of them confessed to sharing the images they’d taken with the others on Snapchat and through text messages. According to the lawsuit, the police also told Palmer that they searched the men’s phones and found evidence that several of them had taken photos or video or had shared them on Snapchat.
Like Tinder, Palmer’s lawsuit says, Snapchat does not keep a record or copy of photos and videos sent between users. Most snaps are erased after 10 seconds. Unopened snaps disappear after 30 days. And once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.
“This operational feature makes it exceedingly difficult for law enforcement to verify when and by whom illicit Snapchat content is sent,” the lawsuit says, “because establishing probable cause and obtaining a lawful warrant almost always require more time.”
It’s not clear what the police’s evidence entailed, though it’s possible the men saved screenshots of the snaps.
In June 2017, according to Palmer’s lawsuit, the police arrested Savoy’s four friends—Jeffrey Creech, John Christopher Nagy II, Samuel Mazariegos, and Anthony Johnson—for possession of a photographic image from peeping. Nagy and Mazariegos were also charged with felony secret peeping, while Creech was charged with obstruction of justice for deleting images that Nagy sent him.
The charges against Johnson were dismissed “in the interests of justice” in November 2018, Cumberland County records show. The charges against Nagy and Maraziegos were dismissed after they completed the terms of a plea deal: for Nagy, 12 months of unsupervised probation and 48 hours of community service; for Maraziegos, 12 months of unsupervised probation and $60 in restitution. No records of the charges against Creech exist.
Tinder and Snapchat did not respond to the INDY’s requests for comment.
this might be the first case of its kind against the social media giants, almost certainly in North Carolina. Palmer’s lawyer—who’s also brought lawsuits related to alleged sexual abuse against the Montessori School of Raleigh and Duke University over its now-shuttered Camp Kaleidoscope—admits that he’s treading new ground, but he thinks it’s important ground to tread.
Disappearing evidence is a symptom of a larger problem, he says. Snapchat and Tinder became profitable by embracing a Wild West mentality that puts people at risk.
Media reports are often hyperbolic when discussing Snapchat, especially when it comes to concerns about teenage sexting and child predators and revenge porn. The reality is, most people don’t use Snapchat to sext, and certainly not for more odious purposes. But many researchers believe Snapchat has fueled a rise in sexting, thanks to the perceived inconsequentiality of sending the images and videos; after all, if they disappear—even from Snapchat’s servers—in 10 seconds, wouldn’t that assure users that they won’t end up all over the internet?
Of course, technology being what it is, there are workarounds—screenshots, obviously, but more sophisticated tools for saving videos, too. And the record of what was sent vanishes.
“I think that Snapchat element—how it’s designed—is something that needs to be addressed,” Jessup says. “They’re doing something different than other social media platforms, something more nefarious to get eyeballs.”
Tinder, meanwhile, is owned by Match, the company behind Match.com, one of the early internet dating sites. Match.com screens its paying users to ensure that they are not registered sex offenders. But it does not screen users on Tinder, Plenty of Fish, or OkCupid, which Match also owns.
An investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations and ProPublica published in December analyzed 157 sexual assaults in which the victim met the assailant through a dating app, usually one owned by Match. Match.com had no cases in which a person was assaulted by a sex offender; Match’s other sites did.
Match told Columbia Journalism Investigations that running background checks would be cost-prohibitive and counterproductive. Sex offenders could simply give a false name. For that reason, announcing background checks might give users a false sense of security. Match urged CJI to look at the numbers in context: “A relatively small amount of the tens of millions of people using one of our dating services have fallen victim to criminal activity by predators.”
But Match.com takes a step that can assist police if something goes wrong: It saves messages between users. It’s unclear whether Match does the same for Tinder. In the CJI/ProPublica report, when a sexual assault victim sought Tinder messages to help prove her case, the company never responded, authorities declined to press charges, and she soon saw her assailant back on the app.
“Match has never modified Tinder’s design to save copies of a user’s messages in a way that makes them more easily accessible to victims of sexual assault and/or to law enforcement,” the complaint alleges.
Jessup says Match views Tinder as a “secretive hookup platform where they don’t want to have evidence of what people are saying to each other.”
This is especially problematic, he continues, because so many of Tinder’s users are young: Almost 40 percent are between the ages of 16 and 24.
To prevail in court, Jessup needs to get around what’s known as CDA 230.
In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which contains a provision—Section 230—that grants immunity to online hosts for user-generated content. It was crafted to protect the nascent internet from overregulation, and companies including Match and Snapchat have used it as a defense against state and federal lawsuits, including from victims of sexual assault.
In the lawsuit, Jessup is employing a different legal strategy: He’s not going after the content; he’s arguing that the products themselves are defective. In addition, the lawsuit says Tinder and Snapchat inflicted emotional distress not when the content was posted, but when they allowed it to be deleted.
Whether it will work remains to be seen.
Aaliyah Palmer doesn’t expect to turn the corner and suddenly find a happy ending.
“I’ve always been the person in life that tries to stay strong through a lot of things,” she says, her voice breaking. “But today, the reality is that I lost school. School’s out of the question. I had a full ride, and I can’t go back without it. I can’t afford to. I’ve had to support myself since I was 17 years old.”
She has a good job now, but this wasn’t where she thought she’d end up. She’s hard on herself—she feels like she failed, though she acknowledges that the world failed her. She’s contemplated suicide. She’s lost friends and become distant from her family. She feels alone.
And yes, her lawsuit will seek damages, but she makes a point of saying that it’s not about money. It’s just the only avenue she has left.
“I never went into this about money,” Palmer says. “I didn’t make any of these things up for money. Did I have money? No. Do I still have money? Absolutely not. But at the end of the day, my life got destroyed. It got destroyed. And if the only way that they can actually be held responsible for this is financially, then so be it. Because I think it’s extremely unfair for my life to go into complete turmoil and for them to keep living their lives.”
Additional reporting by Leigh Tauss.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that, in 2017, Snapchat introduced a feature that enables users to allow friends to view photos for as long as they want.
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