NEWTOWN — The editor-in-chief of online news site YC News has been held over for trial on record tampering and related charges stemming from an allegedly bogus racist email that was attributed to a Delaware County Adult Probation and Parole officer in a news story.
Nikolaos Tzima Hatziefstathiou, also known as “Nik the Hat,” 25, of the 700 block of Cedar Grove Road in Broomall, is charged with three counts of tampering with public records, felonies of the third degree. He is also charged with three counts of tampering with records or identification and two counts of identity theft, forgery, attempted theft by deception, theft of property, receiving stolen property and prohibited offensive weapons, all first-degree misdemeanors, and four counts of unsworn falsification to authorities, misdemeanors of the second degree.
Assistant District Attorney Chris DiRosato also added one charge of conspiracy to possess a prohibited weapon Thursday in the wake of charges brought against longtime Chester City Police Officer Donald Jackson earlier this month for allegedly giving Hatziefstathiou a police-issued Taser stolen from the city’s police department.
Much of Thursday’s hearing before Magisterial District Judge David Lang rehashed a lengthy affidavit of probable cause written by Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division Detective Edmond Pisani Jr. that served as the basis for Hatziefstathiou’s arrest last month.
Pisani, a digital forensic investigator, testified that the police Taser, an iPhone and a MacBook Pro were recovered from Hatziefstathiou during a search of his home June 24, along with several other electronics.
Information recovered from those devices revealed that Hatziefstathiou falsely claimed to be a reporter from the New York Times and a "Good Morning America" producer in emails to the Delaware County District Attorney’s Public Relations Office in April; that he forged a signature to obtain special news media license plates for his vehicle; and that he doctored an email from his probation officer to appear as though a supervisor in that office used racial slurs when giving advice to an applicant, according to Pisani.
According to charging documents for Jackson – who is scheduled for his own preliminary hearing on theft and related charges Sept. 3 – Hatziefstathiou allegedly sent him a text in January asking, “Know anyone I can borrow a taser from? I’m going to be in some bad areas while I’m down there this weekend.” Jackson allegedly replied, “I have one. You can’t tell anyone where you got it though.” Hatziefstathiou allegedly came to Jackson’s home to collect the Taser later that night.
Defense attorney Chuck Peruto argued Thursday that nothing in the evidence shows Hatziefstathiou knew Jackson had allegedly stolen the Taser, however, or that he did not intend to give it back after he was done using it as a prop in a documentary.
Peruto also argued that his client is employed full time for American Media Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer, and he is therefore entitled to have the special press plates on his vehicle. DiRosato countered that the form used to obtain the plates did not mention AMI and Pisani testified that the signature on an “employer” line for the application appeared to have been forged using the name of a YC News employee.
Peruto said Hatziefstathiou’s Cedar Grove Road home served as the hub for YC News, with numerous people coming and going, and argued it would be impossible for the prosecution to prove his client was the one who used the laptop to doctor the email from his former probation officer, as the affidavit alleges.
“Just because a computer may have been used to commit a crime doesn’t mean this particular defendant is the one that typed these things into the computer,” Peruto said after the hearing. “There were several people that work out of that house. YC News is a pretty substantially large organization for the amount of reporters it has and he is also employed full time with other agencies. That doesn’t mean that he is the only one that has access to it (the computer).”
DiRosato spent an inordinate amount of time going through a forensic report with CID Detective and computer forensics expert Christopher Tankelewicz to demonstrate that email addresses and other identifying information on the computer matched Hatziefstathiou's.
Tankelewicz also testified that an email received by one of the defendant’s multiple email addresses was opened on the laptop while the allegedly phony email was being created.
Thursday’s hearing did not go into the actual creation of the email, but Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland previously said Tankelewicz was able to deconstruct its creation over the afternoon of May 25 – the same day the YC News story broke – including the use of “black lines” superimposed over address boxes and the insertion of new text in the email’s body using online tools.
“Good morning,” the redacted email begins, “you don’t have to worry about job security … ROFL … so long as there’s a n---- in our county, you will have a full slate. Just make sure he registers as a (redacted) before applying, they’re extremely strict about that. Can’t have a bunch of ganbangs loving (redacted) in here … ha. (sic)”
Pisani said he spoke with Probation and Parole Supervisor Jeff Roney in June, who confirmed Hatziefstathiou had been on probation for harassing his neighbors and making false reports in 2015.
Roney indicated he would communicate with Hatziefstathiou’s attorneys via email and Hatziefstathiou would be CC’d in replies, Pisani said. Tankelewicz said a printout appearing to be one of those emails was found on Hatziefstathiou’s bedroom floor during the execution of the search warrant.
The YC News story claims the 2015 email was “between several county officials and a current department supervisor, where they accidentally carbon copied a probationer.”
The story did not include a byline indicating who had written the piece, which remains up on the YC News website. Hatziefstathiou previously provided a statement from Anthony Loro, Senior Executive Editor of YC News’ parent company, Original Media Group Corporation, indicating YC News stands by its reporting.
County council spokeswoman Adriene Marofsky issued a statement in May indicating the county and courts were made aware of “an alleged email attributed to its employees by someone identifying himself as a journalist,” but were unable to find a record of the email existing.
Pisani testified Thursday that a search of all emails in the county, including deleted emails, did not return any hits for the language used in the allegedly fraudulent email.
DiRosato did not comment after the hearing, but Peruto said he has been told his client does have a source for the email and that it was not fabricated.
“The defendant in this case did not create the email and they can’t prove that he created the email; however, his organization did publish the email,” Peruto said. “My personal thoughts on the legitimacy are irrelevant. I can say that nobody in the Delaware County Probation Office probably wrote it.”
Peruto described his client as “a young kid who is exuberant in his field” and is trying to make a living with sensationalism.
“Our defense is, we don’t have to check out the source,” he said. “If the source furnishes this thing, even if the source is poor, we don’t have to check it out.”