September 25, 2023


Unlimited Technology

Bucks cheerleading mom goes on trial for allegedly harassing her daughter’s rivals

Raffaela Spone made international news last year as news outlets around the globe reported that the suburban cheerleading mom had weaponized technology to create “deepfakes” of her daughter’s teenage rivals posing naked or wearing bikinis, drinking, and smoking vapes.

But as Spone, 51, went on trial Tuesday in Doylestown, prosecutors dropped their contention from last year they she had altered photos to create the embarrassing images she allegedly sent to the parents of three girls.

Still, they accused her of harassment and urged a jury to find her guilty of that crime.

The more serious charges of cyber harassment, filed as prosecutors accused Spone of creating false images of her daughter’s teammates on the Victory Vipers traveling cheerleading squad, were dropped at a pretrial hearing Monday.

In her opening statement to jurors Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Julia Wilkins said Spone’s behavior was “creepy, unsettling, and criminal.”

“The commonwealth isn’t alleging that there was a deepfake here. … That doesn’t matter,” Wilkins said. “But this defendant doesn’t get a pass for kids being kids. You don’t get to harass kids just because they made mistakes or do something wrong.”

Wilkins cautioned jurors not to pass judgment on the girls’ parents, who, in some cases, knew that their daughters were posting such photos online before Spone reached out to them.

“Regardless of your feelings about them, they don’t deserve this,” Wilkins said. “They don’t deserve this defendant, a grown woman, sending anonymous text messages about them.”

Spone’s attorney, Robert Birch, said the case against his client was the result of “a botched investigation, marred by mistake after mistake.” He alleged that the mother of one of the teens had a grudge against Spone, was looking for ways to embarrass her, and then withheld and deleted evidence so that investigators wouldn’t realize that the supposed deepfakes didn’t exist.

“Ask yourself, in all of this testimony, where is the direct communication with a minor? Where are the threats? Where are the fake nudes?” Birch said. “You won’t find them, because they didn’t exist then and they don’t exist today.”

Instead, Birch told jurors that the texts sent about the teenage girls “came from a concerned parent who wanted them to see what their daughters were doing.”

The investigation into Spone began in July 2020, when the parents of one of the girls contacted Hilltown Township police to report anonymous, threatening text messages, according to the affidavit of probable cause for Spone’s arrest.

The girl and her coaches at Victory Vipers were also sent photos that depicted her naked or drinking and smoking a vape, the affidavit said. Her parents were concerned, they told police, because the images could have caused their daughter to be removed from the team.

As police investigated, two more families came forward to say their daughters had received similar messages from an unknown number. Detectives eventually traced the phone numbers used to send the messages to Spone, who had used a smartphone application to hide her real phone number.

Prosecutors initially said they believed the photos and videos were digitally altered “deepfakes” created by manipulating legitimate images of the girls, but District Attorney Matt Weintraub withdrew those assertions after Spone’s preliminary hearing in May.

Weintraub said that while the initial evidence showed that a video of an underage girl had been doctored, “police at this point are unable to confirm the video evidence was falsified.”

Before Tuesday’s trial began, prosecutors offered to allow Spone to plead guilty to the harassment charges but enter into a program for first-time offenders that would erase her criminal record after six months. In the alternative, they said, she could plead guilty to one count of harassment as a summary offense, a lesser charge than the three misdemeanors she faces.

Spone declined, setting the stage for her criminal trial, which is set to last through Thursday before Bucks County Judge Brian McGuffin.

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