Students at Berkeley High School (BHS) began noticing suspicious activity on social media at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Many class of 2021 seniors, including Charlotte (name has been changed to preserve privacy), were receiving Instagram Direct Messages containing explicit photographs and asking for personal information and images. Several other students were hacked by the anonymous account.
According to Charlotte, the hacking and messaging was consistent on Instagram and Snapchat throughout the school year, affecting her and a number of her classmates. She recalled people she followed posting on their stories, urging others to ignore the messages — which sometimes offered money in return for sexually explicit photos — and to block the account that sent them. At one point, the hacker posted photos on OnlyFans, attaching classmates’ names to photos that did not belong to them, Charlotte said. The person behind the deed remained unknown.
“I thought it would be some creepy middle-aged man somewhere in a basement in some odd part of the US,” Charlotte said.
It wasn’t until nearly a year later that the Berkeley Police Department (BPD) caught Charlotte’s former classmate, Liam Burgmann, for the crimes.
At 19 years old, Burgmann was a recent BHS graduate from the class of 2021. He was arrested on August 23 for possession of over 600 images of child pornography, fraudulent possession of personal information from at least 10 victims, and distribution of images with the intent to cause distress, alleged to have occurred between August 2020 and May of this year, according to a BPD press release.
“I felt very violated because he had access to everything,” said former BHS student Emma, a class of 2021 graduate whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. As a victim of the hacking, she said, “It was also just really embarrassing.”
Emma, after speaking with another victim who had reported to BPD, reached out to the police.
For the next several months, she occasionally messaged with the School Resource Officer, Geoffery Mitchell, to get updates and ask questions. Emma was also put in touch with the District Attorney’s office, which offered frequent emotional support and check-ins. While they also extended legal advice, she said that the check-ins were most valuable during times where she felt emotionally overwhelmed.
“The hardest part for me was when it became public, and everyone started to find out,” said Emma, as she had been alerted by the police prior to the public being notified. She added that the news brought back profuse feelings that she had experienced, even a year later.
Rosie Bultman, a senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), was attending a college meeting when she received a text from her friend, notifying her about the Berkeleyside article that was widely read among the BHS community when the news came to light. She read it in fragments but had stopped paying attention to participate in the conference.
“I’m not somebody who’s often quiet or still or frozen and I was completely all of those things,” Bultman said.
Bultman had known Burgmann since kindergarten when they both attended Prospect Sierra. She described their relationship as akin to that of an “annoying younger sister” and older sibling. Burgmann was on the BHS debate team when she joined her sophomore year. He had welcomed her to the team and taught her the ins and outs of debate.
The next year, Burgmann became the team’s president. Bultman remembered having taken time out of her day to vote for him, confident that he would be a good leader.
Now the president of the team herself, Bultman experienced several emotions from reading the article.
“I felt like I was an insider to this situation and that everybody else commenting about it was an outsider, and it was bothering me,” Bultman said. “That was an emotional response because I just didn’t want to confront the issue.”
Eventually, Bultman had to determine how to conduct the team on the issue. She and the co-president grappled with determining how to tell the school that the team did not associate with its previous president. Bultman also talked with a few club members about the news.
“Everybody was so dumbfounded and confused as to why he would do this and how he did it, and how the person that we read about in the article was the same person that we knew,” Bultman said.
Melissa Jimenez, a twelfth grade English teacher at BIHS, came across the story while watching the local news.
“I saw his face come up on the screen for a story of a man that looked an awful lot like a student I taught, but … with the bad Zoom lighting and everything I didn’t think anything of it until I saw the follow-up email the next day,” Jimenez said.
BHS administrators had sent an email to Jimenez and her colleagues at BIHS the night she saw the story, confirming that Burgmann had attended BHS.
Later, Jimenez and Rebecca Villagran, who also taught Burgmann, collaboratively jogged their memories in search of red flags that might have hinted at his abnormal behavior, but were unsuccessful.
Villagran reached out to the graduated students who knew him to lend her support. She said that students had contacted each other following the event, expressing several emotions. Jimenez offered a safe space for her students to talk with her about the news.
“I’m just sick about these students who were exploited and I want to know that they’re OK,” Jimenez said.
Charlotte, who had briefly been friends with Burgmann, said that she was shocked and disgusted when she found out. They had been in the same friend group, and she “got to know him pretty well. … There was nothing that led me to believe that he was crazy,” Charlotte said.
Emma reflected on knowing Burgmann briefly as well. She expressed feeling “grossed out” that the hacker had been someone regarded so well in the community.
“It was kind of nice to not know who it was,” Emma said. “I’m really glad they caught him, it’s just really hard to now have a face to put with all of that.”
While Emma wasn’t as relieved as she felt like she should’ve been when the news came out, she expressed extreme gratitude that Burgmann was caught. While she felt confident in the legal evidence against him, she expressed worry and fear that Burgmann wouldn’t face adequate legal consequences.
“He was just gonna keep doing it, and that’s the worst part,” Emma said. “I really hope that there is justice for all of the people who were involved, and I am thankful for everyone working so hard to figure it out.”