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In Delco, an alleged ‘fake news’ reporter heads to trial

Nikolaos Hatziefstathiou is accused of creating a phony, racist email from a parole officer in Delaware County.

Nikolaos Tzima Hatziefstathiou, a.k.a. "Nik the Hat," arrives Thursday for a preliminary hearing on charges that he manufactured a fake, race-fueled scandal in Delaware County using altered emails from the county's probation department.
Nikolaos Tzima Hatziefstathiou, a.k.a. "Nik the Hat," arrives Thursday for a preliminary hearing on charges that he manufactured a fake, race-fueled scandal in Delaware County using altered emails from the county's probation department.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

A Broomall man who operates a sensational-news website defended on Thursday a story that Delaware County officials have decried as “fake news.”

Nikolaos Hatziefstathiou, 25, has been charged with tampering with public records, forgery, identity theft, and related offenses. District Judge David H. Lang held Hatziefstathiou, known locally as “Nik the Hat,” on all charges, and set his arraignment in County Court for next month.

Investigators say Hatziefstathiou, creator and self-appointed “president of news” of the website YC News, doctored an email from his former parole officer to peddle a bogus conspiracy that a member of the Delaware County Adult Probation and Parole Department had accidentally CC’d him on an epithet-filled email.

But his attorney, A. Charles Peruto Jr., argued Thursday that the email mentioned in the YC News story was a legitimate document supplied to Hatziefstathiou, an “exuberant young guy” trying to “make a living with sensationalism.”

“The defense is, we don’t have to check out the source,” Peruto said. “If the source furnishes this thing, even if the source is poor, it’s not our obligation to check it out.

“However, if you want to stay in business and be credible, like the New York Times or The Philadelphia Inquirer, you better check it out, because you’ll have no readers the next day,” he added.

Hatziefstathiou also faces charges of unlawfully possessing a Taser that had been reported stolen from the Chester Police Department. An officer, prosecutors say, gave him the device earlier this year; Donald Jackson Jr. was charged last week with theft and criminal conspiracy, and dismissed from the department.

The allegedly phony story gained traction after it was posted in May, in part due to a news conference spearheaded by State Rep. Margo Davidson (D., Delaware), who admonished the county and called for an investigation.

Weeks before that story was posted, Hatziefstathiou had posed as a producer for Good Morning America and as Liam Stack, a reporter for the Times, sending emails to the District Attorney’s Office demanding information about a “decadelong scheme" that YC News was going to break a story on about various agencies within the county, according to the affidavit of probable cause for his arrest.

Those journalists, when contacted by county detectives, denied sending the emails.

“He will use any means to create a false narrative,” District Attorney Katayoun M. Copeland said of Hatziefstathiou at a news conference announcing his arrest. "He will go to any length to do so.”

After receiving multiple inquires about the YC News piece, county investigators determined that there was no record of the email in question on the county’s servers. Further, after weeks of digging into electronic records, detectives found that the email accounts that sent the fake reporter inquiries were created on devices owned by Hatziefstathiou.

During hours-long testimony Thursday, county detectives told Assistant District Attorney Christopher DiRosato, the lead prosecutor, that a MacBook and iPhone seized from Hatziefstathiou’s home contained overwhelming evidence that he created the purportedly racist email himself.

Inside the bedroom where the electronics were found, investigators discovered a legitimate email that Hatziefstathiou had received from a parole officer assigned to him after a 2015 conviction on harassment charges, one they believe he used as a template for the YC News story. (In that earlier incident, police said Hatziefstathiou used the website Backpage to call escorts for his unsuspecting neighbors, then called 911 to report “suspicious vehicles" when the women appeared, the affidavit said.)

In court Thursday, Peruto said prosecutors had failed to prove that Hatziefstathiou was the actual author of the emails found on his computer or smartphone, saying the home he shared with his family was like a “clubhouse” for YC News, and its reporters and others had access to the devices.