Show caption Illustration: Marco Melgrati at Illo Zoo/The Guardian Women 11 years, 10 arrests, at least 62 women: how did Britain’s worst cyberstalker evade justice for so long? Matthew Hardy so frightened some of his victims that they slept with weapons. Although he was known to the police – and even prosecuted – it was more than a decade before he was jailed Sirin Kale Wed 30 Mar 2022 06.00 BST Share on Facebook
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The conversations always started the same way. A woman would get a message from a social media user. It would say: “Can I tell you a secret?” The messenger often, but not always, appeared to be a friendly young woman, peppering the conversation with words such as “hun” and signing off with a kiss.
But the messenger would also claim to have information about the woman’s life. The victim’s partner was cheating on her; a friend was talking behind her back. If the woman blocked the anonymous messenger, another appeared. If the woman stopped responding, she would get incessant calls from someone breathing down the phone.
This stalking could go on for years. Sometimes, the stalker spread lies about the victims to her friends, family and colleagues: that she was having an affair with her boss, or even her stepdad. The stalker would hack into the victim’s social media accounts, or create fake accounts in her name. He would pose as the victim to have sexually explicit conversations. He would even send stolen intimate photographs of her.
Victims lost friends, family members, relationships and professional opportunities. One terrified victim slept with a baseball bat in her hand. Another kept a samurai sword beside her bed. Some were diagnosed with depression and anxiety and needed medication.
Nine-year sentence … Matthew Hardy. Photograph: Cheshire Police/SWNS
Nobody, except the stalker, knows how many victims there were. The Guardian has spoken to 10 survivors directly and each knew of another half a dozen or dozen women who had been targeted. “We’re going to have hundreds of victims,” says PC Kevin Anderson of Cheshire constabulary.
The person responsible for all this suffering? A 30-year-old unemployed man from Northwich, Cheshire, called Matthew Hardy. For more than a decade, Hardy behaved with near impunity. “Every time his name comes up, I hear other names,” says Zoe Jade Hallam, 31, a model and mechanical operative from Lincolnshire who survived Hardy’s stalking. One force alone, Cheshire constabulary, was contacted about Hardy more than 100 times by 62 victims over an 11-year period. During Hardy’s years of stalking, he was arrested 10 times. But the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) appeared unable to put a stop to his offending.
Until January 2022, that is, when Hardy was sentenced to nine years in prison for five counts of stalking. The average custodial sentence for stalking is under 17 months. “It’s the longest sentence we’ve ever heard of,” says Violet Alvarez of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, an anti-stalking charity.
For survivors, the sentence was the news they had been waiting for. But why was Britain’s worst‑ever cyberstalker allowed to evade justice for so long?
Hardy did not have a good time at school in Northwich. Melanie (not her real name), a 30-year-old HR worker who lives in Cornwall and was in his class in the mid‑00s, says: “He was bullied. People thought he was strange.” Gina Martin, 30, a women’s rights campaigner in London, was another schoolmate. She recalls feeling sorry for Hardy and trying to be kind. “He was isolated,” she says. “I used to make an effort to say hi.”
Social media was in its infancy. In 2006, Facebook opened membership to anyone aged 13 or older – and British teenagers rushed to sign up to the platform. It was around this time that Hardy began to stalk his female classmates and girls from neighbouring schools. Melanie was one of his first victims. It started in 2009, when they were students at nearby sixth-form colleges.
“A random person would add me on Facebook and start messaging me,” she says. “They’d say my boyfriend was cheating on me and they just wanted to let me know.” Melanie’s classmates were also getting messages. “We all banded together and found out it was Hardy. Every time he messaged us, we’d say: ‘You’re Matthew Hardy, go away.’” Melanie says that Hardy harassed about 25 girls from her school.
‘Being a victim of Matthew Hardy fed heavily into the reason I do this work’ … Gina Martin, a women’s rights campaigner. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Guardian
In 2010, Hardy messaged Melanie again, after the death of her mother: “Need word about your mum asap x.” Hardy told Melanie that her mother had been cheating on her father and he was going to tell him. She reported him to the police. “I couldn’t handle it any more,” she says. “He was coming for my deceased mother.” The police, she recalls, “said: ‘We can’t do anything. It’s online. We don’t know who it is.’”
Amy Bailey, another pupil from Northwich, was 16 when Hardy began stalking her, in 2011. “He’d call 50 times a day,” says Bailey, an admin worker who now lives a few miles outside the town. At the time, she worked in a garage in Northwich. Hardy would text her, telling her what she was doing. “One time, he said he saw me washing a car,” Bailey says. “Another time, he commented on the colour of my top. I went in and started crying.” She reported him to Cheshire constabulary, who at first told her to delete her Facebook account and block his number.
But Cheshire constabulary did appear to take at least one victim seriously. In October 2011, Hardy pleaded guilty to hacking and harassing a former classmate, Samantha Boniface; he had hacked her Facebook account and impersonated her online. On one occasion, Boniface had been approached by a member of the public, who had asked if she was the girl who had been “talking dirty” to him. Hardy received a restraining order, a suspended prison sentence and 250 hours of community service.
The conviction scarcely seemed to dent Hardy’s resolve. In 2013, he acquired a new victim: Gina Martin, his former schoolmate. “He’d set up profiles pretending to be me,” she says. “Every single day, I would wake up to messages from people saying: ‘Is this you? This person just added me.’” She realised that Hardy was responsible after speaking with former classmates and comparing messages.
Martin grew to dread visiting her parents’ house in Northwich. “I knew he lived five minutes away,” she says. “When I’d walk places on my own, I’d put on a hat and put my hood up. I was always scared of him.” Bailey, too, was unravelling. “I was going insane,” she says. “I lost the plot. I went crazy. I accused someone at work of being him.”
Every single day, I would wake up to messages from people saying: ‘Is this you? This person just added me’
In 2013, Bailey contacted Cheshire constabulary again and provided officers with screenshots of the accounts that had been harassing her. One included Hardy’s real name. Hardy pleaded guilty to harassment and hacking and was given a suspended sentence and a restraining order. By 2014, Hardy had breached the restraining order and started stalking Bailey again. “I’d ring the police up and say: ‘He’s breaching the restraining order,’” she says. “They’d look into it, but nothing would happen.” She reported him for breaches of his restraining order in 2014, 2015 and 2017.
Martin reported Hardy to Cheshire constabulary in 2016. In September, Hardy was arrested and interviewed under caution. Officers submitted Martin’s case to the CPS, but, in April 2017, it declined to bring it forward. “It was implied to me that, until someone got hurt or he stalked someone in person, there was nothing they could do about it,” Martin says.
In June 2017, a man took a photograph up Martin’s skirt at a music festival in London. Police told her the incident wasn’t illegal. Martin campaigned to change the law and “upskirting” was made a criminal offence in 2019. “People say that upskirting was the first thing I ever did,” Martin says. “But that’s not true. I took that incident so hard because three months previously the CPS dropped the case I had against Matthew Hardy. Being a victim of Matthew Hardy fed heavily into the reason I do this work.”
Hardy stalked these three Northwich pupils periodically for a combined 25 years. Melanie escaped first, in 2016, when she married and changed her name and he wasn’t able to find her. With Bailey and Martin, he continued until 2021. “I feel like I missed my 20s because of it,” Bailey says. “I was constantly scared and paranoid. I ended up going on antidepressants. My anxiety was through the roof. I was too scared to go out. I thought that everywhere I went he would be watching.”
Stalking was Hardy’s life’s work and there were three phases to his offending. First, he stalked girls he went to school with. Then, he stalked women in his surrounding area. Finally, he stalked women to whom he had no connection at all. Usually, they were vibrant young women, with thriving personal and professional lives. Often, they had large social media followings. Zoe Jade Hallam was in the third tranche of women caught up in Hardy’s net.
It started in 2018. The first message was on Snapchat, she recalls. “He said: ‘Can I tell you a secret?’” It progressed to silent phone calls. When Hallam cried on these calls from stress and fear, he would message her afterwards, chiding her for “crying like a baby”. He would taunt her. “He’d say: ‘Guess who I managed to speak to. About 50 people. Even some of your family’s fellas. Bet you’re arsed now.’”
Hardy pretended to be Hallam’s partner’s father online and initiated inappropriate conversations with teenage girls from a fake account. “My boyfriend’s dad was a doctor,” Hallam said. “It was really damaging to his professional reputation. And I felt to blame. It was me that drew Matthew Hardy to him.” This was a common sentiment among Hardy’s victims, who were sometimes blamed for his harassment. “He ruined so many relationships,” says Abby Furness, a 22-year-old dancer from Brighton. “Because people would associate me with drama. They thought I was causing it. It wasn’t me. But my name was on everything.”
‘All I do now is worry. It doesn’t leave you’ … Abby Furness. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Hardy began stalking Furness in 2019. He impersonated her online and tried to initiate a sexual conversation with a colleague. He obtained intimate photos of Furness and sent them to her boss. Worst of all, he sabotaged her relationship with her boyfriend. “My boyfriend got a message from a fake Instagram account saying that they knew I’d been cheating on him,” Furness says. “It gave our relationship trust issues. We ended up breaking up a month later.” Hardy also harassed her family so badly that she remains blocked on social media by some of them.
“I kept thinking it would stop,” Furness says. “But it kept getting worse and worse. He’d contacted more people. I’d lost more friends over it. More work.” Paranoid, Furness began to suspect the people in her life were responsible. “Could it be my closest friend?” she says. “My boyfriend?” She developed anxiety and depression.
Hallam reported the harassment to Lincolnshire police in April 2019. She was petrified and at breaking point. She slept with a samurai sword by her bed, because she lived alone and thought whoever was harassing her would break in. She gave the police Hardy’s phone number, but they said they couldn’t trace it. “They said they only do that in high-profile cases, like a rape or a murder,” says Hallam. “I said: ‘So we have to wait for that to happen before you do anything?’”
He ruined so many relationships. People would associate me with drama … It wasn’t me. But my name was on everything
Her experience is not unusual, says Alvarez. “Online stalking behaviours are usually not addressed as seriously by police and prosecutors,” she says. “Police officers often tell victims to simply block their stalker, or come offline. This advice is not appropriate, nor does it stop the stalker.”
In desperation, one of Hallam’s family members hired a private investigator, who identified Hardy as her stalker in July 2019. She supplied his name to Lincolnshire police, who told her that an officer would visit Hardy and tell him to stop. “He lasted two months before he did it again,” says Hallam.
In July 2020, Furness was packing for a holiday to Ibiza. Hardy messaged. “You need to be very careful,” he said. “Beware.” Terrified, Furness called Kent police. “They said: ‘Do you really think you are in danger? Because we’re 20 minutes away from you and something might happen over here.’ I said: ‘OK, I guess it’s fine then.’ I felt really silly.’”
While she was in Ibiza, Furness was on Instagram Live when an account by the name of Matthew Hardy started asking her questions. Afterwards, Hardy messaged her on Facebook and confessed that he had been the person stalking her. When she checked the messages again later, Hardy had deleted his Facebook account.
She felt as though there was no point getting back in touch with Kent police. “When I phoned them, they made me feel like I was wasting police time,” she says. “[They thought] I was this blond, naive girl who had loads of followers on Instagram, posted where she was all the time and wanted attention.” Even after his confession, Hardy continued to stalk Furness until September 2021. “Nearly every day, I’d get a message from someone I hadn’t spoken to in years saying: ‘Abby, I got your WhatsApp message, has your account been hacked?’” she says.
The women’s ordeal may have continued were it not for PC Kevin Anderson, a 22-year veteran of Cheshire constabulary. In December 2019, Anderson was assigned to a stalking case involving Hardy. Digging around in Cheshire constabulary’s internal systems, he found something shocking. There were more than 100 logs on the system about Hardy, from 62 victims. (Some of these logs may have been duplicate reports of the same incident.) Hardy had been arrested 10 times and voluntarily interviewed a further three times. One detail stood out: Hardy had almost ruined a marriage, by telling a woman that her fiance was cheating on her – on her wedding day. “I thought: this guy needs to be brought to book,” says Anderson.
The reports, which went back to 2011, made for uncomfortable reading for the police. “I can’t speak for the officers that were speaking to the victims at that time … people maybe didn’t understand what was happening to the victims, or understand the legislation,” Anderson says. He contacted officers with active cases on Hardy and arranged for them to be transferred to him.
One case concerned a 23-year-old boutique owner, Lia Marie Hambly, from Maidstone, Kent. Hardy began stalking her in 2019. He contacted Hambly or her family and friends hundreds of times. “He would say that he hates me, that I’m a bitch,” she says. “Or he’d pretend to be me and talk to them.” He would call 10 times an hour, from unknown numbers, in the middle of the night.
‘I thought he would only get a few months’ … Lia Marie Hambly. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
She went to Kent police in November 2019. “They’d only ever email me and say: ‘Don’t worry, we’re looking into it,’” says Hambly. She made a complaint about their handling of the case.
In February 2020, Anderson phoned Hambly and told her that he was taking on her case. “The relief that someone cared,” she says. “Someone wanted to do something about it. He said: ‘We’ll get there. I’m here to listen and help you.’ That was all I wanted to hear.”
“What struck me with Lia’s case was the way she handled herself,” says Anderson. Hambly, a former paralegal, had used her expertise to compile a dossier of every contact she had had with Hardy. “Hardy had told me that screenshotting his messages was pointless,” she says. “Talking to the police was pointless. He said I’d never find out who he was, or what he knew.” But she felt differently. Her indexed dossier was a staggering 700 pages long and numbered by Hardy’s social media accounts.
By now, the Hardy case had taken over Anderson’s life. He would lie awake at night, asking himself if he had read a report correctly, or obtained all the phone numbers Hardy was using. “I had to make sure that I got a conviction for these people,” he says. “They’d put their faith and trust in me.”
Hardy had told me that talking to the police was pointless. He said I’d never find out who he was, or what he knew
Anderson had five victims on indictment and a further four on schedule, meaning that the judge would take the additional cases into consideration when sentencing Hardy, if he were found guilty of the charges on the indictment. “I had to take a pragmatic approach,” he says. “With so many victims, it was difficult to portray what was happening. It could dilute the case if there were too many. So the strongest things were what we had on the indictment.”
Nonetheless, he contacted other victims to ask if they would like to support the case by providing evidence for the court to consider. In all, Anderson collated more than 100 incidents from 62 victims, which he used to show Hardy’s bad character in court.
When Hardy was arrested in February 2020, he denied everything. Even after he was charged in March 2021, he carried on stalking. Martin’s grandmother died of Covid in 2020. The following year, she received a message from a profile pretending to be her dead grandmother. “It said: ‘Hello, Gina,’” she remembers. “I was crying. I knew it was him.”
Hardy even found time to acquire new victims. He began stalking Jill, 42, a probation officer from Manchester, in June 2021. Hardy impersonated a young female relative of Jill online and attempted to initiate a sexual relationship with Jill’s husband. Jill contacted Greater Manchester police, but she says they did nothing to help her. The stalking left her so paranoid that she slept with a baseball bat in one hand and a phone in the other.
Eventually, one of Jill’s relatives put the phone number that had been harassing her into a prank-caller website. The number had been looked up 349 times and six users had left comments. “Messaged family members trying to ruin relationships/start incestuous relationships,” one user wrote. “His name is Matthew Hardy and he has done this for years.” Jill spoke with Cheshire constabulary, who used her case as supporting evidence.
In October 2021, Hardy pleaded guilty to stalking involving fear of violence and harassment at Chester crown court. In January 2022, he was sentenced to nine years in jail, which is believed to be the longest sentence handed out in a British court for a stalking offence. Anderson thinks it was necessary. “He would never have stopped,” he says. “Even on bail, he was still doing it.”
Hambly was in court that day. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I thought he would only get a few months.” At home, Hallam got the news from a friend. “I was so emotional,” she says. Her voice breaks and she chokes back sobs. “I thought I would have to live with this for ever.”
Hardy’s crimes have cast a long shadow. His victims are triggered by unknown numbers – which meant contacting survivors for this piece was challenging. When we spoke, many expressed fears that I was a stalker pretending to be a journalist. Hardy has completely shattered their sense of safety. “All I do now is worry,” says Furness. “It doesn’t leave you. It’s like a cut that keeps getting deeper and deeper over the years. It never heals.”
In mitigation, Hardy’s defence barrister, Sara Haque, said that Hardy was autistic and had learning difficulties and mental health problems. “The defendant wishes to have a full, happy life,” she told the court. “He sees these people living their happy lives online and tries to make a connection with them … there is then a rejection that the defendant feels, which then triggers a lashing out.”
‘I thought I would have to live with this for ever’ … Zoe Jade Hallam. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
Melanie believes his offending is connected to his school days. “He was always ignored by women,” says Melanie. “He never had a girlfriend. He never hung out with girls. I’m not a psychologist. But it seems to me that he was trying to get back at the girls who rejected him.” Alvarez says that cases like Hardy’s are mercifully unusual. “It’s rare for us to see a case where the perpetrator has multiple concurrent victims,” she says. “However, this does happen with particular typologies of stalker, such as an ‘incompetent suitor’, or intimacy-seeking stalker.” Such stalkers are typically motivated by loneliness and unknown to their victims, or have met them only briefly.
All the victims are grateful to Anderson for working tirelessly to secure Hardy’s conviction. “Kev was amazing,” says Hambly. “I cannot fault him.” Despite finally being the officer to end Hardy’s campaign of terror, Anderson wishes he could have done more. “I still have a pang of guilt about not being able to bring the other victim accounts to court via a charge,” he says.
But there is anger at how long it took to stop Hardy’s stalking and harassment. Martin says: “What worries me is that it’s not a sustainable solution – to hope that these cases happen to pass across the desk of a police officer who makes it their job to convict this guy. That is not how we are supposed to get justice.”
Unfortunately, this is too often the case. Across England and Wales, police consistently fail to bring charges against stalkers. “Only 11% of reports of stalking result in a charge,” says Alvarez. Even when the stalker is charged, conviction rates are abysmal. “Just 0.1% of cases result in a conviction,” says Alvarez. This is despite the fact that many stalkers go on to commit further crimes. The criminologist Dr Jane Monckton-Smith places stalking at stage five of her eight-stage homicide timeline. A 2017 study of 358 femicides from the University of Gloucestershire found that stalking took place in nine of the 10 murders surveyed. “It’s therefore incredibly important for the safety of the victim that this risk is recognised as early as possible by police officers when they respond to a call,” says Alvarez. “Sadly, victims state that often police don’t believe them, or refuse to put the right protections in place.”
Cyberstalking is on the rise. Calls to the National Stalking Helpline about it have increased 20% since the start of the pandemic. Stalkers are taking advantage of our increasingly digitised lives to target victims through spyware, drones and even smart kettles and CCTV. Alvarez is particularly concerned by the rise in stalking using Apple AirTags as tracking devices. To address this, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust has called for the creation of a national taskforce to examine low conviction rates, as well as multi-agency stalking intervention programmes to identify and monitor high-risk stalkers.
For now, Hardy won’t be able to ruin his victims’ lives. But the chaos he wreaked may take a lifetime to unpick. “I used to say to my friends that this would be a good book one day,” says Melanie. “Because none of it makes sense. But it’s also like: why did we all have to suffer for so long? Why did it take so long to put him away?”