This Accused Murderer Has Superfans Bankrolling Her Defense

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

The prosecution of Karen Read for the murder of her Boston cop boyfriend has galvanized a group of volunteers—most of whom have never even met her—to proclaim her innocence and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for her legal defense.

Supporters of the “Free Karen Read” movement spend their free time attending Read’s ongoing trial, analyzing the smallest bits of evidence, and organizing events to raise money for her defense fund.

“I made great new friends,” Liz Erk, a single mother from Massachusetts who runs a PR consulting firm and went into court on Friday, told The Daily Beast. “It sounds so weird—this is a murder trial.”

A photo of Nick and Jen Rocco and Liz Erk

Nick and Jen Rocco, and Liz Erk

The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Liz Erk

The genesis of the group dates to a snowy early morning in January 2022, when police officer John O’Keefe was found unresponsive on a colleague’s front lawn after a boozy night—with signs of hypothermia and a severe head injury. Three days later, Read was arrested for his murder, kickstarting a true-crime saga riddled with conspiracy theories that have divided the small Massachusetts town of Canton.

Since Read’s arrest, a disparate group has come together to lead the “Free Karen Read” movement, which believes the 44-year-old former financial services professional and college lecturer is being “framed” for O’Keefe’s death in an elaborate cover-up by prosecutors and local police.

There have been protest marches, pink-themed merch, and even criminal charges against a blogger charged with harassing prosecution witnesses.

The phenomenon of superfans of accused defendants (see: Johnny Depp, Jonathan Majors, and OJ Simpson) is not new but has been turbocharged over the years by the boom in true-crime podcasts and live-streamed trials.

The nine-person admin team of the largest Facebook group of pro-Read supporters, “Justice For Officer John O’Keefe & Karen Read-Turtleboy Official,” come from different backgrounds, professions, and zip codes—and only one knew Read before she was arrested in February 2022. The organizers told The Daily Beast that the Facebook group is a “well-oiled machine” to moderate 36,500 subscribers and raise money for Read.

Karen Read walks amongst a crowd to enter a court house.

Karen Read arrives at Norfolk Superior Court for jury selection in her murder trial.

Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“I’ve never been a part of anything like this before,” Erk said. “But I just remember reading her story and thinking, ‘That could be me.’ Since then, I’ve been doing anything I can to help.”

So far, the group has raised over $300,000 for Read’s defense fund through popcorn funds, events, Venmo donations, and raffles. Last September, it spent $5,000 to erect a “Free Karen Read” billboard near Gillette Stadium ahead of the New England Patriots’s home opener.

This month, the group is hosting a silent auction for a signed Jrue Holiday Celtics jersey and separate raffles to stay at a three-bedroom Myrtle Beach condo for a week in August and a two-week vacation at an Italian villa.

“My goal is to raise as much money as possible,” Nick Rocco, who owns a local Massachusetts hair salon and created the Facebook group, told The Daily Beast. “People don’t realize, Karen is out of work. How is she supposed to pay for her mortgage? How does she pay her bills? How does she buy her toothpaste? We’re here to help her.”

Dr. Molly Buchanan, an associate criminology professor at Northeastern University, said that pro-Read followers “are largely drawn to the puzzle of it all; trying to piece details together or trying to fill in the blank spaces when the puzzle pieces simply aren’t fitting well or facts aren’t adding up.”

“Naturally, there is some level of fascination with (often) extreme or unbelievable case details, which draw and hold people’s attention,” Buchanan told The Daily Beast. “Other people may see aspects of themselves in the defendant or victim, while others more naturally want to root for the underdog—whoever that might be in the trial.”

The support can also be seen outside of the Norfolk Superior Court, where hundreds of supporters have shown up to most hearings in their “Free Karen Read” apparel and signs.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s raining, or snowing. They stand out there all day,” Jon Silveira, an administrator of the Facebook group, told The Daily Beast. “The courthouse parking lot is always packed—one group even has a small grill out there cooking hotdogs and hamburgers at lunchtime, like a tailgate.”

A selfie of Jon Silva and Karen Read

Jon Silveira and Karen Read

The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Jon Silva

The mood inside the courthouse is less jovial. Prosecutors allege that in the early hours of Jan. 26, 2022, Read drunkenly hit O’Keefe with her SUV after dropping him off at an after-party and left him for dead in a blizzard. When law enforcement officers responded to the scene, Read ran around with blood on her face after trying to give O’Keefe CPR and screaming that the situation was all her fault, witnesses testified at trial.

Defense attorneys and Read’s supporters insist O’Keefe was fatally beaten after she dropped him off at his fellow police officer’s home and then attacked by a dog left outside. They argue that the case is rife with inconsistencies stemming from a bungled investigation that aimed to cover up for police.

“The Karen Read case lit a match and started a wildfire, and that fire spread quickly,” Canton Rev. John Tamilio III told the Boston Globe in March. “I don’t know how much of that fuel existed before the death of John O’Keefe, but the ‘Free Karen Read’ people do feel that there is corruption at every level in town.”

Dr. Gregg Barak, a criminology and criminal justice professor at Eastern Michigan University, also noted that the movement is a rare type of “support group.” Usually, he said, support groups center around a victim or a wrongfully accused person—instead of an accused perpetrator.

“Karen’s phenomenon is still unique because she is so very charismatic and… her supporters are online and offline in the social and real worlds and both,” he added. “In this day and age of alienation and lack of community or feelings of belonging, communities pop up among strangers who get together to come to know each other as friends, and have a purpose or cause in common.”

Several Facebook group administrators said they learned about Read’s case months after she was arrested. Some found out from their local news, while others saw videos by controversial blogger Aiden Carney, known as Turtleboy. In his videos, Carney repeatedly proclaims Read’s innocence, tries to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, and calls into question some of the evidence.

Jon Silva and Leigh pose in front of a Free Karen Read billboard.

Jon Silva and his sister Leigh in front of a “Free Karen Read” billboard.

The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Jon Silva

Carney, who is also an admin of the Facebook page, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he allegedly harassed trial witnesses, including a Massachusetts State Police investigator, and obtained confidential information while covering the case. Defense attorneys argue that Kearney is protected under the First Amendment. His case is still pending.

The outrage and suspicion got so loud that Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey released a response video. “The harassment of witnesses in the murder prosecution of Karen Read is absolutely baseless,” Morrissey said. “It should be an outrage to any decent person, and it needs to stop. Innuendo is not evidence. False narratives are not evidence.”

The Facebook group is undeterred, and continues to dissect every piece of evidence, witness testimony, and document that emerges. The administrators even have a loose schedule to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

Amy DeAngelis, a Rhode Island mother of three, wakes up to start her morning shift at 5 a.m. and never puts down her phone as she walks her 10-year-old blind Samoyed mix, works out, drinks tea, and gets ready for her day job as a wholesale pet products company sales manager.

A head shot of Amy DeAngelis

Amy DeAngelis

The Daily Beast/Courtesy of DeAngelis

She is on duty for a few hours before Erk, who lives 100 miles away, signs on to review any missed pending posts. Massachusetts risk consultant Meghan Kirby has also published daily posts to organize discussions on updates in Read’s trial.

At least five other moderators chip in before Rocco and his wife, Jenna—who are the Read’s Legal Defense Fund’s main organizers—take the night shift. They go to bed around midnight, leaving the page unsupervised for only a few hours overnight.

“Think of us as old-school telephone operators,” DeAngelis said. “If we walk away from the desk, then someone else picks up the duty to review posts and the group.”

Silva is the only member who knew Read before the trial. Since the trial began on April 30, he has been flying up from Florida three days a week to be in the courthouse. Another friend, who now also lives in Florida, has booked a local hotel room to attend the anticipated five-week trial.

A headshot of Meghan Kirby

Meghan Kirby

The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Meghan Kirby

“It’s bigger than we ever imagined,” Silva said.

Kirby’s decision to devote time to Read’s defense and Facebook support page was personal in a different way.

“I felt like she could have been me. I know that wrongful arrests happen all the time, but I immediately felt drawn to Karen—because if roles were reversed, I would hope someone would help me,” Kirby, who is the wife of a Massachusetts cop, told The Daily Beast.

So despite her full-time job, running a successful school board re-election campaign, and being a mom of three, Kirby made a point to attend multiple pre-trial hearings.

As she started to delve into the world of Facebook groups, she saw the need for structure in discussions to promote accuracy and reduce bullying and harassment. So she offered to submit a daily post to organize the chat, as well as flag comments and other posts that go against the group’s guidelines.

“We were kind of strict because we don’t want anyone to start trouble,” Silva said. “It has brought out a handful of crazies, but they just go against the grain and try to start drama. We always tell people that we are representing Karen, and everyone has a good idea how she represents herself.”

And Read is watching.

“The support is keeping her going, keeping her pushing forward. She is overwhelmed and grateful for the outpour of support and attention,” Silveira said.

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