"I Prefer Lemons." Was the mysterious cell-phone harassment of several people in Fircrest, WA a terrifying hack, or a teenage hoax?

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It began innocuously. 16-year-old Courtney Kuykendall received texts from her friends one night in 2007 asking why she had simply texted them the word “gay.” Courtney hadn’t texted “gay” at anyone, so was somewhat confused. Pretty forgettable, except for what came next.

Before long, Courtney and her friends and family were receiving relentless, threatening texts and phone calls from an unknown figure that they came to call “Restricted,” after the name that appeared on their Caller ID when these calls came through. Restricted said that he was going to kill them, rape them, kill their pets, attack their school. The messages came around the clock, to the family’s landline as well as their cell phones. Switching their phones, getting new accounts, and turning the phones off didn’t seem to help at all. Once, while Courtney and another victim were explaining the situation in the presence of a police officer, their phones turned themselves on and called each other.

When the police got involved, they traced the threatening messages back to Courtney’s own phone – which seemed to be able to send messages and make calls even when it was turned off. When the Kuykendalls got home from meeting with law enforcement, they had a voicemail that consisted of a recording of the conversation they had had only hours earlier. They took Courtney’s phone away, but the calls just kept coming.

Even more alarmingly, Restricted seemed to be able to see them, even inside their own home. When they got a new security system keypad for their home, they received a call moments later from Restricted, saying that he knew the passcode. Sometimes he would comment on their clothing. The quintessential quote from this case is from Andrea McKay, who was cutting limes on the counter when she received a message from Restricted: I prefer lemons.

One night, someone even banged on the side of the Kuykendall house and ran off. Blocking the camera lenses with tape and removing the phones’ batteries didn’t seem to help.

Courtney, her family, and the other victims of the harassment were terrified. The cops were baffled. There seemed to be no way to hide away from where their phones could hear and see… or to avoid what Restricted wanted to say.

Aaaaand that’s kind of where the whole story trails off, which is exasperating. I have found some resources that indicate that the FBI became involved and the calls stopped around that time, but very little follow-up on this story from any of the media outlets that were so eager to cover the initial mystery. (It was right around when the first iPhone came out, which I think didn’t hurt the popularity of the story.) If the case was officially solved, it was not discussed publicly by law enforcement or by the victims.

Having read many, many iterations of the same article from when this story peaked, I want to clarify one thing - many articles refer to the victims as “three families,” which can make it sound like this was three unrelated groups of people. It was Heather Kuykendall and family, her slightly older (married, living with her husband in a different house) sister and family, and Heather’s friend who lived across the street and family. At least one other friend of Heather’s also said that her phone’s ringtone changed without her involvement to a guttural voice saying “answer your phone,” but she tends not to get included in the count.

So what the hell happened here? Obviously, most people jump to a hoax, and Courtney tends to get the lion’s share of the blame – I mean, not only was it her phone, but she was a pretty blonde teenager who got to go on national TV with this exciting story. Courtney’s rebuttal was, “Why would I do that to people I care about? Why would I harass my own family?” For what it’s worth, her mother also was adamant that Courtney was not involved.

Some argue that Restricted was using some kind of hack or virus to control the phones, possibly with inside help from either a deliberate confederate (e.g., someone who could smuggle their family member’s phone out to Restricted for some hands-on fuckery) or a clueless accomplice (e.g., a theory that Courtney kept re-infecting her new phone by visiting her MySpace page). I am not a tech person, but discussions online seem to range from “turning on a phone and having it send messages/make calls without being in the room with it is very possible” to “in 2007, that would have been some military-grade technology and very hard to pull off without having physical access to it at some point.” But for what it’s worth, the family did live close to McChord Air Force Base, and Heather’s brother-in-law worked there. In fact, he received a Restricted text at one point that said, “McChord needs us.”

At least one skeptic online has also pointed out that you don’t have to either hang the entire story on “spooky phone can see you cutting up limes with its all-seeing lens” vs. “utter hoax.” There are some more low-tech approaches that enable you to make sinister statements about someone’s meal prep or how their shirt looks, such as looking through the damn window or texting with someone who is in the next room from your victim. One law enforcement officer suggested that they might have a “tech-savvy teenage boy” in their neighborhood who was doing this. Sure, or a kid who lives in the neighborhood – or even across the street – and can creep on people the old-fashioned way.

At this point I’m wondering, did any of it actually happen? Almost every one of the technological wonders ascribed to Restricted and the cell phones is based on the report of one of the victims. Even the “the phones turned themselves on while the police officer was sitting right there” and the “we had a voicemail recording of ourselves talking to the cops” stories are based purely on what the families say. If the police officer who saw the phones turn themselves on was around in 2007, he didn’t make any statements on the record. If you’ve ever gotten a pocket dial from someone or have accidentally opened your camera app when pulling your phone out of your pocket, you’re aware that we don’t exactly spend much of our lives in situations where our phones can record nice clean audio or have a good view of what we’re doing – all the less so in 2007, when watching Hulu on your screen while you fixed dinner wasn’t an option.

As far as I can tell, nobody’s ever confessed, and there was no big resolution – just the FBI getting involved and the calls stopping. The media got very excited about this story, which let them make excited noises about cyber-bullying as well as the mysterious sexy power of cell phones and how they’re just such a part of our lives all the time, much like the new iPhone, coming out now! And then they lost interest, and moved on.

My personal theory, just based on what I’ve read (of which basically everything pertinent is shared here) is that Heather or her friend sent threats to someone via phone, then got scared of getting in trouble and decided to cover their asses by turning it into a whole “I was totally hacked! Other people send threats from my phone all the time! They even threaten me and my family!” thing. (Like how people who fuck up on Twitter tend to allege that they were hacked, and that’s why they accidentally shared hardcore porn on their account or made racist statements or whatever.) Whether the person who did this actually went to the trouble of making the phone do mysterious things, or simply said that it was (possibly with some help from an accomplice), I can’t say.

The one explanation I find very unlikely is that someone with no physical access to the family or their phones decided to relentlessly harass them around the clock, but then abruptly stopped. There are simply much faster, lower-energy ways to be an asshole to somebody, and 99.9% of people will just use one of those – egg their house or put gum in their hair at school or whatever. There is a small proportion of people who would get into this kind of campaign (ala the Watcher who pesters that family in New Jersey), but I feel like they don’t just peace out forever (or at least for 12 years and counting) based on a little law enforcement involvement.


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Metafilter discussion on the case.

I originally shared this post on Reddit’s UnresolvedMysteries subreddit, and the ensuing discussion has many interesting insights and theories.