LUTZ, Fla. — Sheriff's deputies say a man who broke into a WWE star's home on Sunday had hoped to take her hostage and said he had been planning the crime for eight months.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said on early Sunday morning, the suspect, 24-year-old Phillip Thomas, entered a home at Promenade at Lake Park in Lutz.
Detectives learned Thomas parked his car at Idle Wild Church earlier that night, walked to the house, cut a hole in the patio screen and remained there for about three to four hours. He was watching and listening through the windows, officials said.
After the homeowner went to bed, Thomas came in through the back sliding door, which activated the home alarm. It prompted the homeowner to look out the window and spot Thomas.
The homeowner and a guest left the house in a car and called 911.
When deputies arrived, Thomas was still inside the house.
According to public records, the house is owned by WWE wrestler Sonya Deville.
Deputies discovered Thomas was carrying a knife, plastic zip ties, duct tape, mace and other items.
Through the investigation, detectives discovered Thomas lived in South Carolina and came to Lutz specifically targeting the Deville.
"We know the suspect was completely obsessed with the victim, and they had been trying to engage in a conversation for several years, but were unsuccessful. And then, Sunday night is when they tried to confront the victim," said Natalia Verdina, a public information officer with HCSO.
Thomas told deputies he was planning to take the homeowner hostage.
"Our deputies are unveiling the suspect's disturbing obsession with this homeowner who he had never met, but stalked on social media for years," Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said. "It's frightening to think of all the ways this incident could have played out had the home alarm not gone off and alerted the homeowner of an intruder. Our deputies arrived within minutes and arrested this man who was clearly on a mission to inflict harm."
Thomas was charged with aggravated stalking, armed burglary of a dwelling, attempted armed kidnapping and criminal mischief.
"I have spoken to her and I'm glad she's safe and I'm thankful and grateful that the sheriff's office took care of the situation immediately," fellow WWE star Titus O'Neil said in a statement. "Celebrity status aside this is sickening. I am a product of a sexual assault and have zero-tolerance or respect for any human being that would violate a person's privacy and or personal space."
According to cybersecurity experts, it's frighteningly easy to find personal information on private citizens.
"It is horribly easy. You would be surprised," said Stu Sjouwerman, the founder of KnowBe4. The organization trains businesses and individuals to be safer online.
Sjouwerman says there's no clear way to guarantee the protection of data in today's age — with one exception.
"Take a pair of scissors and snip that wire, go offline, and off-grid altogether. That's the only secure way otherwise you need to mitigate the risks," he said.
He says there are 12 healthy habits anyone can take — especially on social media — to reduce the risk against bad actors.
- Only friend people you have met in real life.
- Check your social network privacy settings regularly.
- Set your profile privacy to friends only.
- Don't check into locations because it makes it easier for someone to stalk you.
- Don't post that your house is empty when you go on vacation because it makes you a target for theft.
- Use a VPN when surfing social media on public WiFi.
- Don't post photos of items that may contain your personal information like your driver's license, check stubs and airline tickets.
- Don't give random apps and survey sites permission to access your profile.
- Share with care, the internet is forever.
- Don't post anything that would upset your grandmother or someone interviewing you 10 years from now.
- Don't post company information or publicly rant about your professional life.
- Don't post evidence of illegal activities or inappropriate content.
This story was originally published by Lisette Lopez and Isabel Rosales on WFTS in Tampa, Florida.