Palo Alto City Council member Lydia Kou is accustomed to speaking her mind on local policy issues, from housing to local retail protections. But it's taken her nearly a year to decide to come forward about a painful criminal case in which she was the target of sexual harassment and a death threat.
She's doing so now, she said, because hers is a story about how violent political rhetoric is inspiring people to act in ways that have long-lasting consequences. She said she hopes there will be a message for both the perpetrators and victims of harassment.
The phone calls started on Sept. 26, 2020, while Kou was campaigning for her second term on the council. At about 12:30 p.m., during a Zoom meeting, she received five calls in rapid succession. When Kou picked up the phone, a man, later identified by police as Alexander Breya, 29, of Menlo Park, was acting belligerent and made sexual and vulgar remarks.
"I said, 'I don't have anything to talk to you about,' and hung up," Kou recalled.
Breya proceeded to leave three voicemails, according to a police investigative report. The voicemails were "very disgusting and demeaning," Kou said during a recent phone interview. "I couldn't finish listening to them. It makes me feel like rubbish, like dirt, like meat."
She received a fourth call in which another unknown man asked for donations to a church. At the end of the message, Kou said she heard a laugh in the background. She recognized the laugh as belonging to the man who had left the previous harassing calls, she said.
For nearly two weeks, there was silence. Then, on Oct. 9 at 10:23 p.m., she received five phone calls and a voicemail message.
"I'm back. I'm going to call you until you change your number," he said. "You deserve to have your throat slit."
Kou contacted Palo Alto police. On Oct. 10, an investigator tracked the two phone numbers through a police database to two men. The first man denied any knowledge of making the phone calls, but Breya, who answered the second phone, admitted that he had made the calls, according to the police report. He agreed to meet with police the next day because he was intoxicated that night.
Breya was charged with two counts of making annoying and harassing phone calls using obscene language or threats to injure for his volatile words against Kou. On June 9, he pleaded no contest in Santa Clara County Superior Court to one count of the same charge, which is a misdemeanor. Although punishable with a jail sentence, the court ordered him to complete 10 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, 40 hours of community service and to pay $795 in fines and fees. He must also comply with a 100-yard stay away order and not have any contact with Kou, according to court records.
Breya told the police investigator that he had seen a Facebook ad for Kou on Sept. 26, which contained a campaign position he didn't like. He commented on Kou's Facebook post and became upset when he thought she had him blocked from further posting on her site. Kou doesn't recall blocking anyone, she said.
Intoxicated at the time, Breya located a phone number for Kou and made the calls, he told police. He said he asked his friend to leave a "funny message" — the church donations call — for Kou. Regarding the Oct. 9 phone calls, he told police he was too drunk to remember exactly what he'd said but that if he did threaten Kou, he "was just joking."
Breya told police he was sorry he made Kou feel scared and agreed to stop attempting to contact her, according to the police report.
Even though the harassment has ended, Kou said she remains deeply affected by it. At the time, she became concerned her harasser might find her because she was out in public campaigning for council at farmers' markets last fall. She stopped answering her phone and hesitated to listen to messages, she said. The harassment also affected her real estate business, which in part relies on taking calls from new or referred clients, she said.
When she goes to the grocery store, Kou said, sometimes she still reacts out of fear, looking to make sure no one is stalking her.
"For people making these calls, it's fun for them or they hope to intimidate," she said. But "it has a lasting effect on the person they are doing it to."
Kou is critical of what she considers the lenient sentence meted out for the harassment and death threat and the fact that Breya never apologized to her directly.
Breya was not present in the courtroom nor by video for his hearings. He didn't hear her victim-impact statement when the prosecutor read it into the court record.
"He didn't have enough courage to face me," she said.
According to Deputy District Attorney Leung Sheryl Leung, the case's prosecutor, many misdemeanors don't require the defendant to be present as long as the person's attorney is in court.
Leung also said these kinds of stranger-harassment cases typically don't receive jail time — particularly if the defendant doesn't have a criminal record. His conduct, while inexcusable, didn't rise to the level of "criminal threats," she said. To meet that standard, the victim must be in immediate fear of their lives. According to the police report, Kou said she was not in immediate fear since she was at home at the time and wasn't leaving her residence.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, however, said that his office would press for jail time in most misdemeanor harassment cases, particularly if threats are involved. Some judges don't choose to give a misdemeanor defendant a jail sentence but rather mete out community service, but it is up to the judge's discretion, he said.
Shelley Dwyer, Breya's attorney, said on Aug. 11 that she couldn't comment on the case, citing attorney-client privilege.
In an email to this news organization, Breya said he was sorry for his actions.
"First of all, I've felt awful about this from the moment I found out what I said to her. I know alcohol is not an excuse. I've been trying to make this mistake right for the last 10 months," he said.
"When the police contacted me I immediately and fully cooperated. I took full responsibility for my actions and recorded a statement with a full apology to Ms. Kou. I offered to apologize to her directly and was told by the police that I should not do this. I have respected that advice. But to be clear, I am very sorry and embarrassed about what I did. It was an awful voicemail, but I certainly never intended to hurt her or cause her any kind of distraught."
He said he attended AA meetings, performed his community service, and paid the court-imposed fines, all of which were completed in July.
Asked about Breya's claim of a recorded apology, Palo Alto police acting Lt. Brian Philip said the department doesn't comment on investigative material. The police report filed in the court notes the apology was part of the recording made of the police interview with Breya, and it was recorded on the officer's body-worn camera. There is no indication that a separate recording of an apology was made specifically to Kou.
Kou said she didn't receive anything from the police nor did the officers tell her that Breya had apologized.
Breya said his actions have had real consequences, including the inability to seek full-time work while he performed his community service. He is now concerned that news about this case will make it difficult or impossible for him to find work. He asked through this news organization for Kou to give him a chance to get his life back in order.
Listening to Breya's statement being read to her over the phone this week, Kou began to cry. She said that while she understands Breya's predicament, his actions have made a long-lasting impact.
Her intention in coming forward is to make it clear to anyone thinking about pranking or harassing another person that doing so has consequences for both the victim and the perpetrator. She hopes to prevent future incidents, she said.
She also wants other victims to know they aren't alone. As a community leader, she hopes she can inspire victims to take action and be empowered, she said.
"I don't think anybody can understand the level of threat each person feels. For women going through this, it's important to talk about it. It is healing."
The Palo Alto Police Department encourages harassment victims to document anything they can, Palo Alto police Acting Captain James Reifschneider said: Make screenshots of emails; save voicemail messages. Although in California, one party can't record a conversation without the agreement and knowledge of the other party, an exception is made when documenting a crime, he said.
The department doesn't receive many harassment cases, but they tend to pop up around election time, he said. Most victims just want relief from the harassment, so officers will contact the perpetrators and that usually stops the problem, he said. Just telling a harasser the communication is being documented can sometimes be enough to stop the person, he said.
Although victims might be hesitant to contact the police, Reifschneider said they should notify the department sooner rather than later.
"Don't be afraid of calling us," he said.
Help is available
Any person who is feeling troubled can call 800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 888-628-9454.
Anyone who is struggling with substance use can call the Santa Clara County Department of Behavioral Health Services at 800-488-9919.
For a list of local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, visit findrecovery.com.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
Read more: How to help those in crisis