A former University of Miami medical student took the witness stand Wednesday to finally face accusations that he uploaded hundreds of social-media photos of female classmates onto fetish porn websites, along with lewd captions and the names of the women.
But Alex Zhang refused to answer any questions.
Instead, through his lawyer, Zhang repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent as a Miami-Dade civil judge weighed whether to issue a permanent restraining order barring him from ever contacting two female victims.
“Do you have a condition that obstructs your impulse control and makes you unable to resist posting pictures on pornographic websites,” asked lawyer Sam Rabin, representing one of the women in the case.
“Objection,” replied Zhang’s lawyer, John Sutton. “Instruction: Fifth.”
In all, through his lawyer, Zhang invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination 88 times, his eyes frequently gazing upward as attorneys read graphic captions on websites devoted to foot fetishes and masturbation. “This is getting to be harassment,” Sutton said.
The young woman’s father, sitting in the gallery, grew incredulous at the irony. “You can’t take harassment?” he blurted out, sternly.
Miami-Dade County Judge William Altfield will issue a ruling on Monday.
The scandal, first reported by the Miami Herald in November, rocked the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine — where multiple female classmates had accused Zhang of stalking, behavior that had earned him warnings from school officials.
That Zhang would clam up was no surprise. He has not been charged with any crimes but the case remains under investigation by University of Miami police and prosecutors. And at a civil deposition earlier this month, Zhang invoked the fifth more than 100 times.
He has since been expelled from the school and moved back home to Southern Pines, N.C. His lawyers insisted there is no proof he himself uploaded the photos, and say he long ago stopped communicating with the women. They also pointed out the photos were originally posted by the women themselves – and the subsequent posts on the fetish sites were never directed toward the two female medical students.
“Though Mr. Zhang expressly denies any of these postings, for arguments sake, the posting of these Facebook pictures on these blogs were not in violation of any law,” said lawyer Michelle Urbistondo. “Again, no direct contact was made towards the petitioners and thus cannot be characterized as harassment or stalking.”
Two UM students accuse him of stealing hundreds of selfies and others photos of female classmates, professors and school staff members from social-media accounts. They were then uploaded to websites for foot-fetish fans and for men who masturbate while viewing images of everyday women — while also sometimes photographing themselves doing so. Often, the posts identified the UM women by name, and included vulgar captions, some seemingly threatening rape.
“I felt violated. I felt harassed. I felt targeted,” one of the tearful victims seeking a restraining order testified. “There were pictures of me with my full name on my white coat where I go to school every day.”
A slew of UM medical students took the stand Wednesday, painting Zhang as a pitiful and persistent figure, flooding women with jealous and possessive text messages while showing up to social events uninvited. The Herald is not identifying them to protect their privacy.
The posts came to light in November when a student, searching her own name on Google, discovered her own images on a slew of websites. A group of female students banded together to research the images, documenting the websites and contacting other victims.
One medical student testified that she attended school with Zhang at Washington University in St. Louis, worked with him at a medical job in Missouri and also attended UM alongside him.
While sleuthing online, she discovered the same user posted photos of women from each school and the medical firm — and the victims all had him as a Facebook friend. “Alex Zhang was the common denominator,” the woman testified.
If Zhang posted the photos, he was prolific. A University of Miami technical expert testified that Zhang’s student ID number was used to log into electronic devices to access three fetish websites nearly 5,000 times in only four months. No other student ID — and there over 60,000 at UM — accessed those exact sites.
Zhang’s troubling behavior was known to university officials, and several students testified that they told the school’s assistant dean over student services in 2015 and 2016. “She said that concerns had already been brought to her attention about Alex, that the situation was being handled,” said one of the students who is seeking a restraining order.
The other woman seeking a restraining order complained to the university several times about his “repeated acts of stalking and harassment,” including text messages, hounding her to help him jump-start his car and showing up at the school library immediately after she posted her location on Snapchat.
In December 2015, after complaints, UM warned Zhang to stop communicating with her — but allowed him to remain in school. But he continued to try, hovering around a bar in Key West after a school health fair, and even begging his roommate to allow him to see her Facebook page.
Zhang also showed up at a bar in Wynwood, surreptitiously taking photos of her and her feet, only to be caught by one of her friends and told to stop. The woman again called the assistant dean to complain and in May 2016, the school ordered him to stay away from her.
Things got quiet until November, when the photos were discovered online — including images from the Wynwood bar. The discovery, along with the years of stalking, shattered her medical-school experience, affected her grades and caused her mental breakdowns, she told the judge.
“It's disgusting. The fact that someone took this picture of me and put it on a pornographic website, the fact that it's been viewed so many times, it's degrading to my reputation as a woman,” she said.
“Is there anything you want to say to Alex Zhang,” her lawyer, Carl Kafka, asked Wednesday night as she wrapped up her testimony.
She glared at him: “I wish I never f***ing met you.”