For months, dozens of female University of Miami medical students posted mundane photos of themselves to Facebook and social media: car selfies, pics with friends at bars and the beach, even images of them in their graduation gowns.
Little did they know, their photos were being copied and uploaded to creepy sex websites, some for foot-fetish fans, others for men who masturbate while viewing images of everyday women — while sometimes photographing themselves doing so. Often, the posts identified the UM women by name, and included lewd captions, some seemingly threatening rape.
The bizarre posts are believed to be the work of a UM medical student named Alex Zhang, 25, who has been suspended and is now the subject of an internal school investigation. The scandal came to light last week when at least two victims discovered their own photos on the websites and filed for restraining orders against Zhang.
Zhang did not respond to repeated calls and messages to his cell phone, or messages on Facebook and Instagram.
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The would-be doctor’s troubling behavior was known to the school and classmates.
In a court filing, one student said she complained to the university several times since December 2015 about his “repeated acts of stalking and harassment” and of him taking unauthorized photos of her at a Wynwood bar. A sexual harassment complaint was filed against Zhang in April 2016, and UM ordered Zhang to stay away from her, although he was allowed to remain in school, according to her request for a restraining order.
Miami-Dade courts last week issued temporary restraining orders mandating Zhang keep away from the two women. The Herald is not identifying them to protect their privacy.
The medical school, citing federal laws protecting student privacy, declined to address questions about Zhang. “It is also our commitment to thoroughly investigate and adjudicate any allegations of inappropriate behavior among our students, while at the same time providing a safe atmosphere as an inquiry moves forward,” according to a statement released by the school.
The university said it had retained a “nationally recognized [law] firm” to help “members of the university community affected by the unauthorized postings.”
One of the victims has notified the State Attorney’s Office, which is reviewing the matter.
But making the case that the postings constitute a crime under state or federal law could be difficult, legal experts say.
The photos were posted on bulletin-board-type websites that cater to foot fetishes and a niche sometimes known as “creep shots,” in which users fantasize or sexualize photos taken in public places. The wrinkle, in this case, is that photos of the UM students were first published on social media by the women themselves — then co-opted into sexual fantasies.
And it does not appear the links to the sites were sent to the women or their loved ones.
“As a legal matter, it’s unclear where this falls because so much of this behavior is not directed directly at the victim, and therefore may not qualify as stalking and harassment,” said Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law professor who helps run the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating online abuse.
Franks believes stalking and harassment laws should be strengthened to account for the modern digital age.
“The real energy should be focused on stopping the person with the bad motive,” Franks said.
Zhang, who previously lived in Southern Pines, N.C., has been at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine since 2015. It wasn’t clear what field of medicine he was pursuing. According to his online profiles, he completed his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis.
His Facebook page reveals various photos of Zhang sometimes wearing his white doctor’s coat, grinning alongside classmates and groups of apparent friends. His photos also announce support for gay and lesbian rights, immigrant causes and Canes school pride.
He first began harassing one of the female students during the fall of his freshman year — “via text message, Facebook message, and Snapchat,” according to her restraining-order petition. In one early episode, she uploaded a Snapchat post saying she was studying at the school’s library.
Zhang saw the post and “showed up at her exact location 45 minutes later trying to sit” with her, the petition said. Eventually, she blocked Zhang from all of her social media and the school’s administration warned him to leave her alone, the petition said.
But that didn’t stop him, according to the petition. In March 2016, he went to a bar and “offered to buy students drinks and offered money in exchange for viewing [her] Facebook photos.” The next month, Zhang showed up to a birthday party at a Wynwood bar and was seen taking photos of the young woman.
After he was confronted by her friends and the medical school administration, Zhang promised to delete the photos from his phone, according to the petition. The school then issued a “no contact order” against Zhang, and a stalking and sexual harassment complaint was filed with the university.
According to one woman’s petition, Zhang was still a student earlier this month when victims found at least eight websites featuring hundreds of photos of fellow UM students. The link was made to Zhang because the photos included the ones at the Wynwood bar that he had been asked to delete.
Some of the photos feature faces of the women superimposed on pornographic images. Scores of photos remain online on the websites.
Another victim, in her own petition, estimated “over 50 other women from their school are on these sites.” The woman believes Zhang still has his university ID that “grants him access to all facilities.”