In an emotional hearing, the victim of LC threats confronts the suspect as he pleads guilty and avoids jail time

A year and a half since this nightmare all started — since she read the Instagram messages saying she was a slut and a whore, since she was told she would be raped and murdered and her school would be shot up — Emily Bendickson, a 17-year-old girl sniffling and clutching the podium, finally gets to speak directly to the former classmate accused of tormenting her.

"I didn't choose this," she says in a packed courtroom on Thursday, looking over at Ryan Lee 15 feet away. "You did."

"You've threatened to kill me, you've threatened to rape me," she says. "You took a certain innocence away from me that I can never get back."

Lee, the 19-year-old former Lewis and Clark High School student, keeps his head down during Emily's 15-minute statement. He'd been charged with felony harassment, communication with a minor for immoral purposes and cyberstalking. But all those charges were dismissed in a guilty plea to one misdemeanor charge of harassment, part of an Alford plea in which Lee maintains that he is innocent. Spokane County Superior Court Judge John Cooney sentenced Lee to 364 days in jail with 146 days credit for time served.

He won't have to serve jail time unless he violates his release conditions: regular counseling, no contact with Emily or her family, and no other criminal charges.

For Emily's family, who permitted the Inlander to use their full names for this article, it's an unsatisfying end to a tumultuous time. On Thursday, they read statements expressing their frustration with the court system, including how prosecutors handled the case, and explaining how this situation has devastated them.

"A potential school shooter and a potential rapist walks away with a slap on the wrist," says Emily's father, Ryan Bendickson.

Meanwhile, Lee's father is Lewis Lee, who co-founded a firm specializing in intellectual property and internet technology called Lee & Hayes. Ryan Lee initially confessed to threatening to shoot up Lewis and Clark High School and threatening Emily in May 2018, but that confession was tossed out weeks ago because his defense successfully argued that the confession came as the result of an unlawful arrest. The defense has argued that there's no other evidence tying Lee to the threats — dismissing how police tracked two of the threats back to Lee's home through IP addresses.

To Emily, the plea deal represents a failure to hold accountable the person who robbed her of her sense of safety and privacy. And they worry what it means for other schools.

"What are we showing the community? In the last two weeks there have been threats at Deer Park High School and Ferris High School," Emily says. "I hope the families at those schools aren't sitting on the edge of their seat thinking the perpetrator will escape discipline like the one from Lewis and Clark has."

Emily first saw the messages from an account called "steven_smith__4" in May 2018, on Memorial Day. She calls it possibly the worst day of her life.

At first, as detailed in an Inlander cover story this year, she thought the messages were from a boy at her school who was just being weird. But then the messages grew darker. The account called her names, sent her porn and graphically threatened to rape her.

"I'll shoot up the school with u to go first," the messages say, according to court records. "Can't wait till the day that I get to rape u when the least is expected."

Emily, a cheerleader at Lewis and Clark, went to school the next day, the day after Memorial Day, and sat a desk away from Lee in math class. But news of the threats had spread fast. Hundreds of kids missed school that week, worried about a school shooting.

Police tracked the IP address to Lee's home. On Wednesday, May 30, they pulled over Lee, who was in the car with his mother and sister. Lee's mother drove him to the Public Safety Building, where police say he confessed to making the threats. But Judge Cooney ruled that since Lee felt he had no choice but to go to the police station before probable cause was developed, it constituted an unlawful arrest. He tossed the confession out.

Lee spent weeks in a local hospital for mental health treatment before he was booked into jail on June 12 and quickly released after posting $100,000 bond. Police couldn't find anything connected to the steven_smith__4 Instagram account on his phone — but they did find searches of school shootings and of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, along with a question, "Can the FBI track Instagram Accounts."

"These are the signs we are taught to pay attention to. These are the signs we're supposed to report," Callie Bendickson, Emily's mom, says Thursday.

Lee was arrested again in August for violating the terms of his release for attending a church youth camp, where there are other Lewis and Clark students.

Then, in November 2018, an account with the same handle, steven_smith__4, posts more threats.

"Cant wait to carry out what I said last school year," the message says. It claims police arrested the wrong guy before. The threats target Emily and her friend, then a list of other girls. But this time, police can't connect the threats to Lee's IP address.

In January, a third round of threats appeared: A photo of Emily and her friend, with an X drawn over them saying "put a bullet between their heads," along with more graphic messages.

"I handed the phone to my mom and immediately broke into tears and desolation. All I could ask is: Why me?" Emily says. "Seeing the words 'you're going to be raped' was nothing new for me at this point."

Only this time, Emily's family was threatened, too.

Police tracked those threats back to Lee's home. Lee was arrested, and bailed out of jail.

On Thursday, Emily tried to make Lee understand how he'd feel if his own family was threatened.

"I hope you're listening to me, and thinking how lucky you are that your family is at your side to bail you out of your bad decisions," Emily says.

Carl Oreskovich, representing Ryan Lee, listened to the Bendicksons give their statements before taking the podium. He says he respects the statement given by Emily, but maintains that what she went through was "not caused by Ryan Lee."

"I find myself in a really difficult position, trying to be compassionate, trying to be understanding of what it is that people are saying, trying to represent my client, and not letting the record get distorted by virtue of what someone believes to be the case — not what is the case, not what is the evidence," he says.

He argues that Lee is "very susceptible" and "very vulnerable," casting doubt on the confession he gave to police. Lee was adopted from a Chinese orphanage at a young age, with his exact age at the time unknown.

He points out that Spokane police officers could not find any evidence on Lee's devices that any Instagram message had been sent from his phone to Emily or other students. He adds that it's "no surprise" that Lee would admit to something he didn't do, since he seeks to avoid conflict.

"This is a young man who had endorsed things that are not accurate in an effort to do what he thinks is requested of him," Oreskovich says.

As Oreskovich speaks, Emily buries her head in her hands just a few feet behind him.

He goes on to explain the threats in January: There are witnesses who would testify where Lee was when those messages were sent, Oreskovich says. He says it's possible the IP addresses connecting the threats to the Lee home may have been spoofed, though he doesn't present a theory on who would have done that.

The defense, he says, doesn't like the plea agreement any more than the victim's family.

"The Bendicksons have a daughter that received threats. The Lees have a son who is innocent who finds himself in a position that he has to plead guilty to avoid the threat and the risk of going to a trial," Oreskovich says.

When he's done, Judge Cooney addresses Emily and her family, apologizing for not being able to fix anything. He suspends jail time as long as Lee meets the conditions outlined in the plea agreement, including regular counseling. Lee has moved to California and is attending a junior college there, court records indicate.

"I don't think incarceration is going to help you," Cooney says to Lee. "I think it would make you a worse person."

Emily and her parents aren't the only ones to give impact statements on Thursday. Marybeth Smith, the principal at Lewis and Clark High School who has previously avoided speaking publicly about the individual students involved in the case, also speaks.

Notably, she says Lee wrote Smith an apology letter after being arrested in May 2018. In that letter, she says, Lee wrote that he said he was going to shoot up the school because he was seeking attention. (Lee's attorneys say police made him write the letter during his confession.)

Smith says feelings of isolation and alienation aren't rare for teens.

"What's unusual is the response that Ryan Lee had," Smith says. "We likely will never understand what drove him to such destructive actions but we can assuredly agree that such a response can never be tolerated."

Emily tells Ryan she will "not be your victim. I will not let you defeat my confidence."

"I want every girl out there who has been threatened, raped, abused, to hear that their persecutor has no control over the rest of their life," Emily says.

Still, Emily says the reminders of what was said to her still haunt her — in the dreams, in the school hallways, during her interactions with other boys.

Smith says it will haunt the rest of the Lewis and Clark community, too. The threats cost the school tens of thousands of dollars, she says. But more than that: Her students are still afraid.

"They will always remember that their high school years were clouded by this series of events," Smith says, pausing to gather herself. "They will remember how every unplanned, unannounced school event was run through the filter of, 'is this the shooting?' And they will remember that it was a classmate who targeted them all in this way."

Smith leaves the podium, and Emily is there when she turns, with tears trickling down her face. Yet for a moment, Emily makes eye contact with her principal. She manages a brief smile.

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.