n the morning of Dec. 9, 2022, a young woman named Zoë awoke and found herself to be in avenger mode. Strictly speaking, a disguise may not have been necessary for the doling out of justice Zoë had planned for that day. But it had been a year and a half since she had seen the man who, she says, raped her, and at the thought of potentially coming face-to-face with him, her whole body tingled with fear. At the very least, she didn’t want him to recognize her.
Standing in front of her mirror, she gathered her strawberry-blond bob and secured it under a short wig, which she topped with a black baseball cap. Her boyfriend, Tom, helped trim some of the hairs from the back of her neck, and she affixed them to her upper lip with eyelash glue. She put on a heavy plaid shirt, green cargo pants, and brown men’s boots. When all was said and done, she realized that the disguise was ridiculous, but Zoë was comforted by the fact that she looked ridiculously unlike herself.
By 11:55 a.m., she was in the passenger seat of her Mini Cooper with Tom at the wheel, barreling toward the Bronx. “All right. We are going. We’re doing the thing,” Zoë recorded herself saying in an iPhone video. She panned the camera over a stack of flyers that bore a black-and-white drawing of the man’s face and the words “Have you seen this man?… Accused of Rape/Assault by over a dozen women.” At the bottom was a physical description and a website where people could learn more. The URL was the man’s name.
As they neared the man’s neighborhood, where they would post the flyers everywhere — even on his own front door — Zoë’s breath went shallow. She checked her disguise in the mirror. Tom gripped the wheel and stared at the road, sensing her unease. For the past year and a half, Zoë had been consumed with trying to bring her alleged rapist to account. Maybe, Tom ventured, it was starting to be unhealthy. Maybe she had done enough.
Zoë shook her head. “I don’t want him to be able to hide anymore,” she replied, gazing out the window at block after anonymous city block. “Like, we did this the right way. We turned every fucking stone, I reached out to every fucking DA, I went down to the precinct, I did everything by the book, the way it should have been done, and still: nothing. They always tell you, ‘Oh, trust the process, trust the process.… It’s a due process. In the end, he’ll get what’s his.’ But if I don’t take it into my own fucking hands, no, he’s never going to get what’s his, because he just keeps getting away, and all these girls keep getting hurt.… It just fucking keeps me up at night.”
Plus, she wasn’t the only one kept up at night thinking about the deeds of Johnathan Michael Holmes. There was Dylan, who alleges that she was raped and beaten in 2015; May (a derivative of her first name), who claims she was raped in 2017; Addy, who says she was physically assaulted in both 2017 and 2018; and Jane (a name she chose to go by in this article), who states that she was raped and strangled in 2021. Holmes has denied all of their allegations, calling them “false, defamatory, and terrible” in an email to Rolling Stone, and claiming that the five women, and others, have conspired to tell lies about him. But the women remain resolute. For a year and a half now — ever since they’d found one another, compared notes, and begun to see what they believe to be a clear pattern of dangerous behavior — they’d banded together to try to get the New York Police Department to recognize that pattern and act on the assumption that it would continue playing out if nothing was done. Now, the women had reached a breaking point. It was time to seek some justice on their own.
IT IS A MATHEMATICAL reality that the vast majority of rape victims never see legal justice. Roughly two out of three rapes never even get reported. Of the ones that are, most will never be solved. Where the legal system offers a clearer path to justice for the so-called perfect victim — someone raped by a stranger, who fights back and reports their rape immediately — more than 70 percent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, often intimately, and has an ongoing relationship with. Such entanglements are not only more difficult to prosecute from a practical standpoint (a rape kit is of no use if two people have also had consensual sex), they also require emotional messiness to be parsed by a system that mirrors a societal inclination to victim blame. As a result, the system often refuses to take on those cases at all. The NYPD’s Special Victims Division, in particular, has a high rate of prematurely closed cases, and an extremely high rate of ones left in limbo: One study of 150 cases found a closure rate of only seven percent. Last June, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the SVD, citing a failure “to conduct basic investigative steps and instead shaming and abusing survivors and retraumatizing them.”
Yet when it comes to allegations of partner rape, the victim blaming is very often done by the victims themselves, as Zoë came to know all too well. Of course she thinks she should have seen the red flags in Johnathan Holmes’ behavior after they’d connected on OkCupid, his profile showing a dark-haired guy with full lips and high cheekbones alongside a description of himself that was “a little out there” but also “really emotionally intelligent.” Of course she should have been skeptical when, on their first date on June 8, 2021, he had stared into her eyes and dreamily said things like “It must be really hard being that beautiful every day.” Of course she was taken aback when, after he’d asked her to spit in his mouth, he pulled back from kissing her and suddenly spat on her face. It didn’t occur to Zoë that maybe Holmes was testing her boundaries, seeing what she might permit.
Two days later, on June 10, she invited him over to make dinner. After they’d started kissing, Zoë says, she playfully pulled out pink handcuffs and Holmes snapped, pushing her off of him and “having a total meltdown.” But, she adds, when she suggested that maybe he just go home, his energy shifted. Soon, he was “touching my legs and saying, ‘I think we should have sex. Let’s fuck.…’ He was relentless.”
Eventually, she gave in. When they moved to the bedroom later that night, the sex had been consensual until, according to Zoë, Holmes began calling her his “dirty little whore,” his “dirty little slut,” and slapping her repeatedly across the face so hard that an earring came out. When she told him to “stop, please stop, John, it hurts, please stop,” she says he instead flipped her over, pressed her face into a pillow, and continued to have sex with her until he ejaculated, as she struggled beneath him all the while.
In correspondence with Rolling Stone, Holmes, who is 28, denies these allegations, countering that he was actually victimized by Zoë: “She tried to surprise-handcuff me against my will, and just kind of laughs about how scared I was.… I tried leaving as soon as she did this and she apologized profusely and asked me to please stay.” But he didn’t offer details of what happened later, details, Zoë says, she went over and over in the shower as Holmes slept in her bed and she scrubbed her skin raw. “I was still trying to process: ‘Did I just get assaulted? Did this really just happen?’” she says. When Holmes emerged from her bedroom in the morning, he seemed to corroborate her recollections of their sexual encounter. “Can I ask you a question?” she says she ventured. “When I was telling you last night, ‘Please stop, it hurts,’ why did you not stop?” “Because it felt good,” she says he answered. Then, he got up and started making breakfast.
Throughout the rest of that day, according to Zoë’s account, Holmes lingered at her home, acting so much like nothing untoward had happened that when he finally left that evening, she didn’t feel angry or hurt — just numb. “I was emotionless. I was just ready for him to be gone. The second he left, I called my friend and said, ‘I think I was just raped?’ Like, ‘Am I overdramatizing this?’” Her friend didn’t think so. “He was like, ‘Please never see him ever again.’ He was like, ‘You were absolutely raped.’”
Still, that didn’t seem to track with how Holmes acted over the course of that evening and the next day, texting Zoë repeatedly and in a breezily sweet way. When she responded that she was “having an emotional day…” Holmes let her know, “I’m here to listen.” When she replied that she was “sexually exhausted and like wrecked…” he wrote back, “I’m so sorry .. Ahhh :/ my bad.” When she told him, “I’m not used to degradation play and being in that sub space. I’m trying to mentally just get right again,” he doubled down: “Ohh shucks I’m sorry honey bun.. your emotions before during and after sex matter a lot to me. Even without sex they matter to me. I dead-ass appreciate you and will be more courteous and caring towards your wants and needs.”
Zoë was lonely. It had been four years since she’d been in a serious relationship. She craved the sort of emotional attention that Holmes seemed so effortlessly to provide, the barrage of texts, the declarations of affection, the sharing of confidences — all things that she thinks might have been warning signs had she not been in a vulnerable place at the time. Having broken free of her conservative, Midwestern upbringing — homeschool, a church steeped in misogyny — she was drawn to how he could seem both transgressive and earnest. When she revealed that she was bisexual, exploring her gender identity, and made her living, in part, as a dominatrix, she was touched that he took it all in stride.
We did this the right way, reached out to every fucking DA, went to the precinct, and still: nothing. If I don’t take this into my own hands, he keeps getting away.
Outside of this context, there were things she did over the course of the next few days that she knows make no sense. She should never have sent Holmes a topless picture. She should have never invited him back to her apartment on June 14. She should never have let him make an OnlyFans video with her the next night, an experience that she says was entirely consensual, if degrading when he called her his “little dyke.” Afterward, Holmes passed out in her bed again and Zoë sat in the living room, her stomach churning. “I was like, ‘What the fuck did I just do? Why is that guy here?’”
That was when she noticed his phone on her ottoman. Almost instinctively, she picked it up. She went to his photos first, finding not only sexual pictures and videos of herself that he had taken without her consent, but also those of other women, who, like her, seemed unaware that their image was being captured. His texts, she says, showed countless exchanges in which she could clearly recognize the profound level of emotional manipulation being employed, how Holmes preyed on insecurities and then quickly offered sweet-talking balm, how he boomeranged between verbal abuse and adulation. What shocked her most, however, was a recent exchange in which one woman told Holmes that it would “not be possible” for her to be with him because of how he had hurt her. “I told you to stop snd [sic] told you not to do what you were doing but you decided to disregard me entirely and do what you want,” the woman wrote. (Rolling Stone has reviewed screenshots of all texts and other messages quoted throughout this story.) When Holmes pushed back — “I literally stopped once I realized it was hurting you which is why you need to chill…. You’re being extra about this” — she stood her ground: “I’m not being extra you just don’t realize how messed up this situation was and you won’t because I guess this is the type of person you are.” “LMFAO,” he responded, “what the fuck are you talking about? Stop tryna make me out to be a rapist you sick perverted fuck.”
Zoë drew in her breath. “It was at that exact moment that everything kind of clicked. All the puzzle pieces came together, and I was like, ‘I’ve been gaslit. I’ve been manipulated,’” she says. “It took seeing that it happened to someone else, and in the same way it happened to me, to acknowledge.” The clincher? The messages were from June 8 — the day of Zoë and Holmes’ first date, just one week before.
By now, it was well after midnight. Not wanting to be alone with Holmes, Zoë went outside and around to the back of the building to hide. She took down 14 numbers — all women Holmes had been conversing with in the past week or so — and created a group text in her phone before smashing his. She sent a picture of Holmes to the group along with this message: “Hey ladies, sorry we have to meet this way. But uh does this belong to any of you?… Johnathan Holmes, this guy who said I love You on the second date then sexually assaulted you and gaslight [sic] you?” Within minutes, responses were coming in: “Can you delete my number off his phone pls” and “if he has photos of me he took them without permission” and “Please be safe kicking him out he has a crazy temper.… He got locked up for assault.” Within a few hours, all 14 women had responded, all expressing alarm. One woman kept writing about Holmes’ propensity for violence. Five more would go on to indicate that they believed they had been sexually assaulted or raped.
Later, after Zoë had called 911 and watched Holmes being led from her house, handcuffed and shirtless, she met with two detectives at the hospital where paramedics escorted her to get anti-STI drugs in the early morning hours of June 16, 2021. When she owned up to the gray areas of her interactions with Holmes, how they had made an OnlyFans together and interacted after the alleged rape, she knew her case might be over. “As soon as I told them I was a sex worker, the whole energy in the room changed,” she says. “They basically were washing their hands of this.” Still, she felt hopeful that there would be strength in numbers. “I was like, ‘Hey, I have multiple other people now. Can I give them your information?’” One officer said no, “This is your case only.” Zoë was stunned. “I was just like, ‘You’ve got a rapist on the street hurting people. Why don’t you care?’”
IN THE TEXT exchanges and WhatsApp discussions and, eventually, face-to-face meetings among the women who connected in those early hours of June 16, 2021, the picture of Holmes that emerged was of a self-styled Byronic figure — charming yet tortured. Surely, not all the women he reached out to over OkCupid, Tinder, or Hinge were susceptible to his advances, which involved love bombing, future faking, and a sort of anachronistic courtliness. But the ones who had been now realized that if Holmes didn’t have a physical type, he certainly had an emotional one: spiritual, artistic, and often marginalized (the children of immigrants, bisexual, biracial, or some combination thereof). Most if not all were feeling somewhat lost when they encountered Holmes, and were easily swept up by his charisma and need for control, they say. Several described being pulled into a cultlike arrangement, knowing that they were one of many women Holmes was with, and often knowing where they stood in the hierarchy. A number described a pattern in which sexual situations would begin consensually, then get darker and darker until they were in pain and begging Holmes to stop. Afterward, they say, the gaslighting would begin. The women’s susceptibility to it was a great irony: Exactly what made them imperfect victims for the NYPD made them perfect ones for Holmes. Far from being proof that abuse didn’t happen, their continued interaction with Holmes, they argue, was further evidence of it.
The group functioned as an antidote to that manipulation. “There was a general feeling of ‘Something fucked up happened to me,’” says Zoë. “But we were all making excuses for him. We were all like, ‘Maybe we’re overhyping this. Maybe we’re being dramatic.’ Once we all started talking, it was easier to see, ‘Holy crap. I’ve actually been through an amazing amount of trauma.’”
Of course, this wasn’t true for everyone. A few of the women had only just met Holmes online and bowed out of the group, grateful for the warning. Another was so angry about her alleged rape she kept talking about putting a hit on Holmes; she and the group parted ways. The woman Holmes had called a “sick perverted fuck” claimed to the others that she had already reported him for rape, had done multiple interviews with detectives as well as a controlled call — in which police had listened in while she’d tried to get Holmes to incriminate himself — and that her case had still gone nowhere; she wasn’t sure she had the emotional bandwidth to participate further (she did not respond to Rolling Stone’s inquiries). And some, it appears, turned out to be moles.
The evening of June 16, one woman sent the group a screenshot of a message she’d just received from Holmes: “can you please tell me honestly if youre [sic] part of a conspiracy to put me in jail?.. I just got home from jail.” The tenor of the chat soon became panicked. Many of the women had shared where they lived and other personal details. Zoë was particularly taken aback: Holmes’ message, rather than any information from the NYPD, was how she found out that he had been released from the precinct.
But she didn’t feel hopeless, not quite. Already she could sense that, far from being the “conspiracy” Holmes claimed it was, the chat was allowing women to support one another as they confronted experiences that didn’t seem invented so much as suppressed. “To the girl who made this group, I’m so appreciative of you and proud of what you did,” wrote May, a personal trainer whose messages reflected a sort of New Age wisdom. She had stayed in intermittent contact with Holmes for years, even after the July night in 2017 when, she alleges, he forced her to watch a video of him having violent sex with another woman before ripping off her underwear, pinning her wrists down, and entering her against her will. For her, the chat’s collective reckoning had a profound effect. “I didn’t want to face the shame that comes along with being a sexual-assault victim,” she says. “It wasn’t until Zoë reached out after her assault that it dug up a lot of stuff that needed to be healed.”
Within days of connecting, the group had made that sort of deprogramming their mission, alongside the goal of locating other alleged victims and trying to warn potential ones. On June 17, 2021, Zoë registered the domain name www.johnathanmichaelholmes.com and began building out the website with individual stories of women’s encounters with Holmes. She spent hours on hold with the Queens district attorney, hoping to alert the office to the existence of other victims (the Queens DA did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comment). “Then I went to the precinct,” she says, “like ‘I need to talk to someone.’ They stopped me at the door and were like, ‘You can write an email.’ I left no stone unturned, and these people did not want to help me.”
Forging ahead was how she coped. “I wasn’t working. I wasn’t eating. I was not OK,” Zoë says of those days and weeks after Holmes’ arrest. Every morning, she would walk to the coffee shop on the corner to work on the website and research criminal law, trying to turn her trauma into something productive. She also started a new chat with the women who felt that this was a way for them to do the same. She cast about for a name that would feel empowering. The one she landed on was the Avengers.
At the same time, May and Jane started identifying additional women they knew or believed to have been in Holmes’ orbit, using screenshots of call and text logs that Zoë had taken from his phone. Jane was able to track down Sin’Kira, who Holmes had lived with in 2020 and who shared pictures of her face after the beatings, she says, he had given her (“He forced me to have sex when I didn’t want to, and then when he couldn’t perform, he would start hitting me”). May found contact information for Gigi (a nickname), who had dental records from the time she said Holmes had punched her so hard that he’d knocked out a tooth (“I hope this motherfucker goes away for his whole fucking life”). May also helped the group get in touch with Addy, with whom she’d texted somewhat contentiously when they were both dating Holmes back in 2018. Upon seeing the group’s initial message, “I literally wanted to throw up,” says Addy, a muralist whose chill sophistication gives off Zoë Kravitz vibes. “I thought I was done with him. I thought I was never going to have to deal with that shit ever again.” But she was galvanized, too. She shared a photo of the black eye she says he’d given her and stated he’d once kicked her in the head with a Timberland boot so hard that she’d lost consciousness. When Addy told her family that she’d been in contact with other Holmes victims, her mother introduced the group to a lawyer friend, Noreen Travers, who agreed to meet them and gauge whether they might have legal recourse. They created a new chat with her: Karma is a Gemini.
On the afternoon of Aug. 4, 2021, Zoë, Addy, May, and Jane gathered in the lobby of an imposing stone building in Manhattan and nervously rode the elevator to the sixth floor, where, over the course of an hour or two, each woman shared her story with Travers. Zoë’s case had gone nowhere, and it had been a few years since May’s and Addy’s assaults. But Jane’s was recent. Travers listened as the soft-spoken Jane, now a grad student studying art therapy, shared her account of how Holmes had strangled her into unconsciousness — leaving bruises on her neck so dark that she wasn’t able to fully cover them with concealer. On another occasion, he had grabbed her and pulled her back under him as she tried to crawl away, crying and saying, “No, please stop.” She explained how she had been trying to figure out how to get away from him when she got the first text from Zoë, how it had solidified her resolve.
Travers thought that Jane’s case might have a chance, especially with the other women agreeing to testify to Holmes’ pattern of behavior. She agreed to take it on pro bono. “What motivated me was I was truly worried he was going to really hurt someone,” Travers says. “What he had been doing all of these years, just the amount of stories, really frightened me. This is a dangerous person. And he’s young. He needs help. It’s about stopping a predator.”
After the meeting, the women went to a nearby Mexican restaurant, taking advantage of the first time they had all met in person. “We had margaritas,” says Zoë. “We sat on the patio outside and got to know each other a little bit.” They marveled at how different they all were, but how oddly similar, too: “It was a sisterhood in the making.”
DYLAN HAS WIDE, searching eyes, a dry wit, and the slightly guarded cool of someone who works in an art gallery — which she does. In the fall of 2021, as the website rippled through social networks, she was on her bed studying for grad school when her phone lit up with the link to the site about Holmes. “I was like, ‘What the fuck?’” she says. “The weirdest thing was reading the stories and all the similarities to what I experienced.” Immediately, she wrote in, sharing her account of being raped and repeatedly beaten by Holmes while she was studying abroad in Europe in 2015. At one point, she alleged, he had kept her captive in her own apartment, holding her head out over the seventh-floor balcony as it flashed through her mind that she was probably about to die. “Afterwards, he told me that he has a really difficult time cumming unless the girl’s actually in physical duress,” Dylan told the group. “He was like, ‘It’s a problem I’m really working on.’”
As Dylan was welcomed into the Avengers, Zoë sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org (subject line: “Serial Rapist needs justice served”) imploring the office to have her “case reopened and revisited because this is a dangerous man,” and explaining that Holmes “has held women hostage, he has threatened death, he has harassed, verbally assaulted, sexually assaulted, raped, and brutalized women since at least 2014. Please take me into consideration before he goes too far and some poor woman loses her life.” She says she never got a response.
Then something almost miraculous happened: Travers reached out to say that she’d been in touch with the Special Victims Division and there was a detective who was interested in the case. In January 2022, Zoë, Dylan, Jane, and Addy all went to the Manhattan Special Victims facility at 137 Centre St. for individual interviews (May’s was over the phone). It was nerve-racking, talking to a total stranger about such intimate details. But, says Addy, “He really sold me. He’s like, ‘I can’t imagine this happening to one of my daughters.’ He really made me feel like he was going to help me — help us. I remember being so happy when I left that place. So fucking happy.”
That happiness was premature. On April 4, Jane heard from the detective that he had brought Holmes into the precinct that day for questioning and that Holmes had denied everything. “I was like, ‘Of course he did,’” Jane says. “Then [the detective] was like, ‘We told him to leave you alone, and he said OK’ — as if that settled the matter. I just remember being so frazzled, standing on some random street corner in Queens, calling myself an Uber to go home, crying in the back of this Uber, like, ‘OK, so this man who is so violent now knows everything? And I’m supposed to believe I’m fine?’” (When approached for comment, the detective said he could not speak to particulars of ongoing investigations.)
I was shocked that a prosecutor never spoke with her. Rape is a serious enough charge that a lawyer who is going to have to try the case should speak to the victim. At some level, that’s unconscionable.
Right after the detective’s call, and after years of no contact, Addy says Holmes started liking her pictures on Instagram, which felt like a threat; she told Travers she was seeking a restraining order. Then, on May 26, the website received a new message: “Johnathan Michael Holmes raped me as of recent [sic] on May 18 and I need someone to talk to about it. I’m only 18 and am scared of this man wanting to hurt me again. Please help.”
When the Avengers reached out to the young woman, whom I’ll call Sara, she told them that she had met Holmes for their second date outside of 137 Centre St., where he had been for his interview with the Special Victims Division. He had declined to give her his last name, but, the Avengers say, after she’d tracked it down from a food-delivery bill, she had found their website. When Sara confronted Holmes about it, he’d told her that he was the victim of a group of jealous exes, prodding one another to spread lies. “They’re mad cause I said I love you to more than one of them,” he texted. “I’m mad that I meant it.” He went on to assure her that he had “never hurt anyone,” adding, “Babe I’m pretty traumatized from what these girls have done to me” and “please don’t believe the crazy stuff about me.”
On June 6, a couple of days after Sara gave her statement to the NYPD, Holmes was arrested and charged with rape, forcible touching, sexual misconduct, sexual abuse, and harassment. For the Avengers, the moment was bittersweet: There was finally a case making its way through the judicial system that had the potential to break Holmes’ dangerous pattern, but it was built on one more woman’s report of abuse. And then even that avenue closed: By August, Sara (who declined to be interviewed for this story) stopped cooperating with prosecutors or speaking with Travers, and she let the Avengers know that her mother just wanted her to put the experience behind her. Without a witness, there would be no case. The Avengers did the only thing they could think of to do. They reached out to me.
AS A PERSON, let me go on record saying that I believe women. As a journalist, my job is to question everything. In reporting this story, I have tried to navigate both. Over the course of the past four months, I have formally interviewed eight women who say that Holmes either raped them or assaulted them, and I have seen electronic communication pertaining to the rape or assault of at least five more. I have also obtained court documentation that Holmes pleaded guilty to obstruction of breathing in 2016 (pleading down from charges of unlawful imprisonment, strangulation, and third-degree assault) and to second-degree harassment in 2017 (pleading down from multiple charges of assault and harassment). I have learned that he grew up in Manhattan, and that he spoke to many of the women about being subjected to childhood abuse. I have reached out to Holmes’ family by phone and by mail, and have received no response. I have also interviewed at least six people who know or knew him well and say that the allegations track with his disposition and certain behaviors they witnessed or experienced.
Throughout my reporting, I have visited county clerks’ offices in multiple boroughs of New York and have spoken to government agencies and members of law enforcement. On three separate occasions along the way, I have dealt with women in administrative roles who were initially disinclined to help me until they pulled up Holmes’ record and, upon seeing it, became very helpful indeed. On other occasions, I have encountered instances of victim blaming and an inclination to downplay the severity of acquaintance rape, to view it as straddling a line rather than crossing it. I have combed through hundreds if not thousands of messages between Holmes and various women spanning at least five years. I have also read hundreds if not thousands of messages among the Avengers.
I have emailed the NYPD asking for an interview, only to get back a formulaic response that the department “takes sexual assault and rape cases extremely seriously.” I have emailed the detective on Zoë’s case, and the DA’s office in Queens, but have not gotten a response. I have spoken with the arresting officer and confirmed Zoë’s account of that night. I have spoken with the detective on Jane’s case who told me, pointedly, “Some of these cases are unprovable. I wish I could prove them and put him away, but I can’t.” I have come to see how systemic failures are built in, to understand that there is no threshold at which the preponderance of she-saids constitutes proof.
On Jan. 9, after weeks of trying to contact Holmes, I received an email from him. He wrote, “I implore you to seek the group chat messages that Zoë started the day she had me falsely accused and arrested.” He went on to say that it “contains messages in which Zoë asks women I was intimate with as well as women I had never met to lie, claim I had raped them, and to be sure not to say that she (Zoë) had asked them to make these reports.… If they are willing to be transparent and show you the group chats, I’m sure you will understand that I do not feel comfortable speaking further on or answering specifically to these presented false, defamatory and terrible allegations.” When I informed Holmes that I reviewed the chat in what appeared to be its entirety and saw no indication of peer pressure or coercion to blame him for events that didn’t happen — or to share any allegations at all — he wrote back, “I have messages from [Sara] in which she states I’ve never harmed her.” When I asked to see them, or any other evidence he had that might disprove the allegations, he did not respond. He did share a message from Sara stating she’d seen “red flags” in the group and had come to believe the women were “plotting” against him. But, as I told Holmes, I believed the message to be consistent with the conflicted feelings of someone who was harmed by a person they loved. In late December, Sara signed Zoë’s online petition to “prosecute accused serial rapist Johnathan Holmes.”
Let me say, on the record, that I believe these women. I am also well aware of how perception can be manipulated, which is an argument both for and against the women’s accounts, depending on how you look at it. Romantically and otherwise, I would never assume that I am immune to that. None of us are. Not even Johnathan Michael Holmes.
ON NOV. 20, 2022, Holmes sent an Instagram follow request to a 21-year-old woman named Carmen, shown in her pictures to have sultry eyes, pouty lips, and cascades of brown waves that fall down to her narrow waist. Her profile labeled her an “artist” and “soul searcher,” and broadcast a sort of effervescent naivety. On Nov. 29, Carmen reached out to Holmes via DM, starting up a casual conversation that Holmes turned flirty and sexual. Soon, they were talking almost every day. Holmes wanted to meet up, but Carmen wasn’t sure: He’d admitted to being polyamorous, and she doubted she was “mature” enough for that type of arrangement. Still, they kept talking. Finally, on Dec. 9, he shared enough details that she was able to determine his routine: that he worked at a bakery in Westchester, New York, and lived at a particular address in the Bronx.
That day, not coincidentally, Zoë put on her disguise and grabbed the flyers, along with a summons related to the restraining order Addy was trying to obtain. She and Tom headed to Holmes’ address — which court representatives had been unable to confirm — where she filmed from the car as Tom served Holmes the papers. (“Zoë you are my hero,” texted Addy when Zoë shared the video; “OMGGG,” wrote May.) Afterward, they posted her flyers about Holmes all over his neighborhood, sending updates to the other Avengers along the way. When she checked Instagram later that night, she learned that Holmes had invited Carmen over. He had no idea that “Carmen” didn’t exist, that the person he was messaging was actually Zoë.
In the days that followed, with Jane’s case inactive in Manhattan and Sara’s case dismissed in the Bronx, Zoë tried to round up the paperwork to have her case reopened in Queens. But even getting the arrest number proved Byzantine: The 109th Precinct sent her to the 112th, which sent her back to the 109th; no one seemed to think it was their responsibility to provide her with information. Meanwhile, the DA’s office said they had no record of the arrest, which made Zoë wonder if the cops had just made the call that she was lying, voiding the arrest without even talking to the DA. If they had, that seemed like an egregious error, especially in light of the fact that, while Holmes was in custody after Zoë’s 911 call, three detectives had come over from Manhattan to interview him about another case. “I was shocked that a prosecutor never spoke with her,” says Travers. “Rape is a serious enough charge that a lawyer who is going to have to try the case should speak to the victim. At some level, that’s unconscionable.”
Meanwhile, Carmen was staying in contact with Holmes, tracking his whereabouts. As holiday decorations went up around New York, so did the Avengers’ flyers: Holmes’ image affixed to every post for half a mile down Park Avenue, subway stations plastered from Union Square to Times Square, parts of Brooklyn blanketed in black-and-white warnings. There were discussions about how best to affix the flyers (tape, plastic wrap, wheat paste?) and what sort of placement would make them less likely to be immediately removed (the outside of subway cars?). There were meetups to flyer the areas around where Holmes had grown up; one was handed to the doorman of his parents’ building. When Holmes started growing a beard — which showed up in images he sent Carmen — the beard was added to the flyers.
On Dec. 20, Zoë posted a video to TikTok that showed clips of the Avengers putting up flyers, between shots of Zoë explaining that they were “turning to the public to help us put pressure on the district attorney to prosecute our abuser.” The video was picked up by a popular TikTok account related to social-justice issues, as well as by an Instagram influencer. On Christmas Day, 5,799 people visited the website, the most in its history. Zoë added a GoFundMe, to back their efforts to get the word out, and a petition to “Prosecute accused serial rapist, Johnathan Holmes.” Soon, hundreds had signed.
Still, Holmes kept communicating with Carmen, which the Avengers realized might be a way to get him to incriminate himself. On Jan. 3, he invited her over for takeout Chinese and a movie at 7 p.m., and she accepted. At 6:45 p.m., as the Avengers had discussed, she — i.e., Zoë — sent Holmes a message asking what his last name was. “Is this about the postersss,” he wrote back. She sent him a photo of one taped to a pole outside. Over the next few hours, Holmes attempted to defend himself. He said that the pictures of battered women on the website were all actually just one woman (false) and that she had been doing some sort of makeup challenge on TikTok (also false). He said that a bitter ex had persuaded multiple women to lie about him, that Carmen’s doubts were “exactly what they wanted for me with this nonsense.” He asked if Carmen could call him, which she — or rather, Zoë’s friend — did later that night.
“I really want you to just get this straight with me because I’m, like, really fucking concerned right now,” she said when he picked up. “I don’t even feel like I should be fucking calling you right now. Like, I feel like I should fucking block you. But, like, I have to know. This is really serious shit.”
Holmes’ silence was long and palpable.
“I’m not out here fucking hurting people,” he finally said. “I don’t do that.”
If Carmen were real, who knows if she would have believed him.
JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS, the Avengers met for sushi and a reunion of sorts, gathering over edamame and peanut-avocado rolls as spa-like guitar music wafted from the restaurant’s speakers and bundled-up shoppers bustled by outside. Jane was back in town from school. Zoë had started studying to be an esthetician. There was talk of art projects and friends’ engagements and whether I was using a wall of my apartment to map out all of the women and alleged crimes in this story (I said a flowchart sufficed). There was laughter, even lightness, a sense that the women’s lives, and their collective mission, were moving forward.
“It closed me off for a while,” Jane had said of her experiences with Holmes. “I didn’t trust myself or my intuition or anything, anyone. Now I’m trying to get back to this place of, like, I don’t want to lose myself and my ability to love.”
On balance, the group had been instrumental in that regard. On the one hand, it had kept Holmes in their minds, had let him take up their time and dictate their actions. But it had also given them a way to navigate the moments when he might have done that anyway. There wasn’t just strength in numbers, there was camaraderie and a sense of clarity as well. As Dylan put it, looking around the table, “You guys made me so much braver.”
“That’s why I never gave up,” said Zoë. “There’s got to be a lot more of us out there that we don’t know about.”
In December alone, almost 25,000 people visited www.johnathanmichaelholmes.com. As of this writing, more women are still coming forward: the woman who says she cried as Holmes took her virginity; the woman who tells me, “I don’t know if I like birds anymore,” because, she says, as he assaulted her, she heard them chirping. So far, these allegations are past the statute of limitations, but some of the women have asked to be part of the efforts to bring Holmes to justice — if not for what he did to them, maybe, for what he may yet do. And so as their numbers grow, the women wait. And they plan. And they hope — and dread — that the case files will grow, that the scales will be tipped, that one day soon, there will be enough perfectly imperfect victims — enough Avengers — that there never have to be any more.