The Coast News Group
Former Encinitas mayoral candidate Jeff Morris. Courtesy photo/The Coast News graphic
Former Encinitas mayoral candidate Jeff Morris. Courtesy photo/The Coast News graphic
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Ex-mayoral candidate avoids criminal charges, now faces defamation case

ENCINITAS — The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has declined to bring criminal charges against former Encinitas mayoral candidate Jeff Morris in connection with a slew of anonymous threats made on a local blog.

Since then, a local woman who claims she has been the target of much of the online abuse has filed a civil defamation lawsuit against Morris, his wife, and other parties related to their alleged online conduct. 

In May, the Sheriff’s Department confirmed it was investigating threatening language posted anonymously on the Blogger forum Encinitas Undercover, with the matter eventually being passed on to the District Attorney’s Office.

During the investigation, law enforcement noted parallels between the anonymous Blogger posts beginning last fall and those made by Morris on his public-facing social media pages and said they had received several complaints from residents about posts that contained threatening language. 

However, as of early July, the DA’s Office has confirmed it won’t be filing any charges against Morris, and the Sheriff’s Department is no longer investigating the situation.

“We can only file charges when we believe we can prove them beyond a reasonable doubt,” said DA’s Office spokesperson Steve Walker. 

This marks the second time in the past eight months the county DA’s Office has failed to bring criminal charges against Morris due to a lack of evidence. Four months after he was arrested on Christmas day at his home following an alleged domestic violence incident, prosecutors ended up dismissing all misdemeanor charges, stating that law enforcement had been unable to locate witnesses to the incident.

Paul Neuharth, Morris’s longtime attorney, said Morris and his family moved out of the state weeks ago “because of all the harassment they received here in Encinitas.”

Natalie Settoon, the Encinitas woman behind the defamation lawsuit, said much of the vitriol has stemmed from her vocal opposition to Morris’s mayoral candidacy last year. Indeed, many of the posts from Morris’s main page and anonymous posts on the Blogger forum have been concentrated on the outcome of the 2022 election. 

Settoon has sought multiple protective orders against Morris related to his online posts, two of which resulted in temporary restraining orders that have since expired. On one of these occasions in December 2022, Morris was required to temporarily surrender his firearms, including several pistols, rifles and a shotgun. Each of Settoon’s attempts to obtain a permanent restraining order against Morris has been denied. 

Leslie Akins, the attorney representing Settoon, said the DA’s decision not to pursue criminal charges is unfortunate, but that they will move ahead with the matter as a defamation case in civil court.

“The level of harassment that was directed at Natalie and others was very significant and very, very threatening,” Akins said. “It’s hard to believe after reading everything that’s been posted that that would be the decision they came to.”

The Morrises have never been definitively linked to the anonymous posts on the Blogger forum. Blogger permits anyone to comment under the name “Anonymous,” and most of the comments on Encinitas Undercover are posted anonymously. 

However, Settoon’s defamation case argues there are clear signs the anonymous posts are authored by Morris, including the consistent use of terms like “skank” and “whore” and the tone of the posts. In addition, several anonymous posts that speak positively of Morris in the third person would also occasionally go into the first person, which Settoon said tipped his hand. 

Akins said they are prepared to not only subpoena the hosts of the websites where the posts were made to confirm that they came from Morris, but also include the expertise of a forensic linguist on the matter. 

Neuharth emphasized that Settoon has never presented solid evidence supporting the claim that Morris authored any anonymous postings.

“She had absolutely zero evidence that postings were being made by Mr. Morris anonymously,” Neuharth said. “She tried to make allegations because the anonymous post would have the same word as a Jeff Morris post, and if it was negative, that somehow it had to be from him.”

Defamation case

The defamation complaint filed July 12 alleges that Morris, his wife Kim, and other unnamed defendants impugned Settoon’s character by falsely accusing her of “moral turpitude,” committing criminal offenses, being mentally ill and having sexually transmitted diseases in various online posts. 

The complaint focuses mostly on anonymous posts on the Blogger forum that Settoon claims were posted by or on behalf of Morris, as well as posts under his name on the Encinitas Watchdog page on Facebook, of which Jeff and Kim Morris were administrators.

“[Settoon] is the victim of a vicious, ongoing, and libelous attack to her personal and professional reputation,” the complaint reads.

The complaint references several posts from social media — an April 29 Encinitas Undercover post by a user under the name Anonymous claiming to be Settoon and offering sexual favors in exchange for money, and another from September 2022 when Anonymous said she has the “biggest hot dog parking lot in North County.” 

Court filings also reference anonymous posts containing threatening language referencing Settoon and another woman, including statements like “payback is coming,” “you will pay,” and graphic descriptions of sexual violence. 

Along with the Morrises, the defamation complaint mentions 15 unnamed “does” that Settoon argues are liable for defamation. Ten of them are entities or persons that Settoon “is informed and believes” employed Jeff or Kim Morris and allowed them to make defamatory online posts using their servers or digital equipment. 

Akins said they will be bringing forward evidence to support these claims as the case moves forward. 

Sgt. Heather Bruton of the North Coastal Sheriff’s Station said law enforcement did not attempt to trace the IP address or addresses behind the anonymous posts during the course of their investigation because the District Attorney’s Office did not direct them to do so.

The District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on what investigative methods were and were not used. 

In a July 7 post in the Facebook group Encinitas Uncensored, Kim Morris noted that the sheriff’s investigation had been dropped and that she had deactivated the Encinitas Watchdog page. She did not respond to requests for comment regarding the defamation suit filed days later.

“Hopefully we can all move past this negative year and focus on more ways to be better people. I have stepped away from social media as it will get in your head and make you crazy,” Kim Morris said in her post.

Restraining orders, firearms

In addition to the defamation case, Settoon has reported another possible criminal violation that was assigned a case number by the sheriff’s department, alleging Morris had breached a temporary restraining order by failing to file a receipt for firearms and firearm parts. 

Persons served with a temporary restraining order are required to file this document, known as a CH-800, within 48 hours of being served to confirm that their firearms have been turned in to either law enforcement or an arms dealer. 

However, attorneys for Settoon said Morris has not filed this form or turned over his firearms since being served on June 26, constituting a violation of the restraining order — a potential felony — even though the order is no longer active as of July 14. 

Attorneys for Settoon said they know Morris has firearms because he turned them over to an arms dealer back in December when the initial restraining order was filed against him. In a May 3 post on the Encinitas Uncensored Facebook page, Morris confirmed that he had obtained his firearms again after that order expired. 

“Don’t worry, I got my guns back…beat the corrupt Sheriffs, now I’m coming for the Encinitas Illuminati. I don’t lose to SCUM…Fools shouldn’t be lying to the judge. I’m not done with her (Settoon) yet,” the post read.  

Despite this, Neuharth said he is not certain whether Morris ever retrieved his firearms, and that regardless, he would not be required to turn them over again because the temporary restraining order is now inactive.

Akins said her hope is that Morris ceases his alleged defamatory and threatening conduct going forward. 

“It remains to be seen if he’s going to continue the conduct that we’ve seen,” Akins said. “For Natalie’s sake and that of the other parties, I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” 

In the November 2022 mayoral race, Morris finished third with 24.52% (or 6,969 votes) behind Cindy Cremona (25.5%) and winner Tony Kranz (47%).

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include quotes from Jeff Morris’s longtime attorney Paul Neuharth.

4 comments

Lou Tappet July 19, 2023 at 3:16 pm

JB – multiple women and men were not “too afraid” to pursue legal remedies; they have done so and are in wait mode.

Bhavani, clearly you do not understand the basic format of a lawsuit and its language. Contact the sheriff yourself to verify the return of weapons and then make your points with accuracy rather than kneejerk your responses.

Bhavani Kirnak July 19, 2023 at 5:48 pm

Apologies, Lou, if I was unclear. I think my point was, I would hope the Coast News would be the one to verify the inferences, suggestions and insinuations that Settoon’s lawyer is quoted at length as making.

[email protected] July 19, 2023 at 1:03 pm

This article is very strange in a number of ways.

1. ” Settoon has filed criminal charges” – ??? A private citizen can file criminal charges in CA?

2. “The defamation complaint filed July 12 alleges that Morris, his wife Kim, and other unnamed defendants” – ??? unnamed defendants? who…???

3. “Attorneys for Settoon said they know Morris has firearms ” – ??? so on the one hand, Settoon claims Morris has accused her of things are not true, and then on the other, she claims anything Morris says must be true….? I thought to defame someone, you have not only say something damaging, but what you say must be false. So, on one hand, Morris is a liar, but on the other hand, if he says he has firearms, it “must be true”???

Did the Coast News here just do a lengthy interview with Natalie Settoon then print whatever she said without verifying its accuracy?

JB July 19, 2023 at 10:34 am

Finally! Maybe the cycle of bullying by Morris will come to en end. The DA is obviously too lazy to pursue this properly. Most of Morris’s victims are women and too afraid and harrassed by Morris to pursue legal remedies, so he’s gotten away with his bullying behavior for years.

Push back against his rhetoric and Morris ramps up the threats and harassment. He and his lawyer have been lucky so far to use the law in their favor to get Morris out of legal accountability.

Sadly, his wife has gone along with, often participated in or looked aside at his bullying. Even after he beat her up on Christmas, she stayed with him and defends him and his behavior.

It’s concerning that Morris is armed with not one, but multiple weapons. All the signs of impending disaster are there. Let’s hope we won’t one day say, we knew it, after it’s too late.

Running for mayor gave Morris a platform to act out on. It also created a split vote and a distraction away from important issues in our city. His candidacy was an embarrassment to our community. I hope those who voted for him realize the error of their ways and do their diligence on candidates before voting in future elections.

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