Fairfax Co. message board at center of investigation after firefighter’s death

WASHINGTON — Fairfax County officials are investigating a local online message board with a reputation for cyberbullying after the death of a firefighter-paramedic last week.

On Friday, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department announced an internal administrative investigation into posts on Fairfax Underground, a public message board for Fairfax County residents.

The site, which has no affiliation with the Fairfax County government, was home to several hateful threads aimed at firefighter-paramedic Nicole Mittendorff, whose body was found April 21 in Shenandoah National Park after a dayslong search. Commenters, who don’t use their real names, criticized the 31-year-old’s body, her sex life, even her death, while also shaming other women. Some of the commenters claimed to be her colleagues.

“I have initiated a very aggressive internal investigation into who made the lewd and horrible comments on the Fairfax Underground blog about my county employee,” Fire Chief Richard Bowers said at a Friday news conference.

The Fairfax Underground posts didn’t appear to be a factor in Mittendorff’s death, Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.

A preliminary investigation found there was no departmental knowledge of any bullying or harassment aimed at Mittendorff before her disappearance. Also, no county computer was used to access or post on Fairfax Underground, according to information from the county’s Department of Information and Technology.

The department says it does not yet know if the posts were authored by any employees of the county or the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. The comments are still being investigated, and Fire Chief Richard Bowers said he is hopeful he will figure out who is behind them.

“I will use any local, any state, any regional or any federal resource to look under every rock, peel back that onion, to find out who made these comments about my firefighter/paramedic,” Bowers said.

Bowers said his department has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullying and harassment. The chief says he will hold any county employee or volunteer accountable for the hostile Fairfax Underground postings, which could include termination.

“When you have anonymous posts, where people can say anything, and it’s not factual, it’s not true, it’s wrong,” Bowers said.

Bowers is working to get the posts about Mittendorff removed from the website. He has a message for the people who made the comments and continue to post on Fairfax Underground:

“Please come forward and stop the ridiculous posts.”

The department is working to establish a task force to address any instances of harassment or bullying in the workplace.

Virginia State Police continue to lead the investigation into Mittendorff’s death.

Mittendorff’s sister, Jennifer Clardy Mittendorff, said the family “takes Chief Bowers at his word that Fairfax County will work to make any changes that are needed within the department.”

WTOP’s Mike Murillo contributed to this report from Fairfax, Virginia.

Sarah Beth Hensley

Sarah Beth Hensley is the Digital News Director at WTOP. She has worked several different roles since she began with WTOP in 2013 and has contributed to award-winning stories and coverage on the website.

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