Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Dardenne Prairie MySpace Suicide: Act 2

In his best-selling non-fiction work In Cold Blood, Truman Capote travels to the small town of Holcomb, Kansas and pulls together the tiny threads of a quadruple murder into a vast tapestry that entangles an entire society.

In the end, it's the detail, not the larger story, that reels you in. The larger story of the Clutter family murder fades into the background.

Right now, I'm betting there's a lone reporter sitting in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, 75 miles northwest of St Louis, with similar ambitions, determined to pull together the story of the suicide of a teenage girl and the details of her tragic death following a fight, on MySpace, with her cyber-boyfriend.

The story started innocently enough a little over a year ago: 13 year old teenager Megan Meier meets 16 year old guy Josh Evans on MySpace.

According to several published news reports, including a story published today in the LA Times the chance meeting happened at a good time for Megan - she'd apparently become estranged from her previous BFF (Best Friend Forever), a girl that lived four doors down from Megan on Waterford Crystal Drive - and was struggling to overcome depression associated with the loss of her friend and bullying at school.

Lonely and depressed, Megan found a confidant in the "hot" young Josh Evans, and for several weeks, she poured out her heart to her new friend via the Internet.

Then one night, something changed in Josh. According to FBI transcripts quote in the LA Times, Josh sent Megan a nasty message, saying that he'd heard that she was a "terrible friend". The final message, not published, was, according to her father, along the lines of "Everybody in O'Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you."

Minutes later, Megan left her computer, took Josh's advice, and hung herself in her closet.

Upon hearing the news of 13 year old Megan's death the next day, the Drews and other neighbors in this town of 7,500 people rallied around and provided comfort to the Meiers. The Drews cried at the wake, and sent over cookies, and collectively, they tried to forget the terrible event of Megan's death.

And for weeks, this story ended right there - anonymous guy meets anonymous girl on MySpace and breaks her heart.

Then apparently one day, several weeks later, one of the Meier's neighbors came over to their house and told the Meiers a different version of events - one that they couldn't have imagined. The neighbor told them that Josh Evans was not a real person. That he was a fictional character created specifically for the purpose of targeting the emotionally unstable Megan.

He further informed them that this was no teenager-on-teenager fight: the character "Josh Evans" had been created by an adult - Lori Drew, the mother of Megan's former friend, and the Meier's friend and neighbor. The cooker of the cookies. The person who cried at the funeral.

Legan's mother reacted to this news as you might imagine anyone hearing of something so impossible - by screaming her lungs out and putting an axe through a foosball table that the Drews had asked her to store for them and depositing the pieces on the Drew's driveway.

The townspeople reacted as well - no one could believe it when they heard that Lori Drew had admitted that she had in fact invented the character, and created the messages - and monitored Megan's replies - with the help of her daughter and another friend.

Local blogs started up within hours, targeting the Drew's workplaces. The Drews found themselves shunned in the street. Death threats arrived.

But then, like any orderly citizens of a 21st century town, the good people of Dardenne Prairie calmed down, knowing better than to take justice into their own hands. They stepped back and waited for state, local, and federal law enforcement to step in, and make things right.

They waited. And waited.

But there was a problem. When law enforcement tried to step in, they discovered there was nothing they could do. There were no paths to justice for the Meiers. Cyberbullying, as this act is being called, is not defined under any law in any town, county or state jurisdiction applicable to the Meiers, or to Megan Meier's death.

Currently, Lori Drew has not been charged with any crime. She is still turning up for work and will likely continue to do so. Sure, some cars still speed pass the Drew house in the middle of the night, filled with people shouting "murderer!", and there has been some property damage to their house, but for the most part, the Drews are untouched, and unaffected.

Meanwhile, the Meiers family has been decimated by the tragedy. Ron and Tina Meier have split up and are now living apart, considering a divorce. Lawyers are attempting to move things forward. No one sleeps in the house on Waterford Crystal Drive anymore.

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Earlier this year, Alex Eckelberry and others, including myself, and Robert Sandilands at Authentium posted a number of blogs about the injustice faced when cybercrime charges were brought against a school teacher in Norwich Connecticut around an incident that was obviously caused by malicious javascript.

The Meier case is different. In this instance, we have a clear example of potentially the first case in which a false online identity is used by an adult to induce suffering in a real child, resulting in her death. That the incident involved a bullying fictional identity and not a bullying real person is apparently not covered by any applicable law. Not yet.

Here's my "small change." I'd like to suggest that the mayor, the state law enforcement officials, and the county law enforcement officials start lighting a new fire under this case by boning up on how MySpace works - because I suspect that if they can prove that the communications sent by "Josh Evans" to Megan Meiers went through the MySpace servers in Los Angeles, or some other out-of-state data center, then I think they have a case they can hand to the FBI.

Parry Aftab has suggested the federal Telecommunications Harassment Law may apply. I have no doubt that the FBI's federal cybercrime division will find an applicable statue they can use to enforce justice. And I have no doubt that there is a tremendously interesting story still to be played out in Dardenne Prairie. We're just at the start of Act Two.

5 comments:

A message from Tina Meier said...

This is Megan's mom, Tina Meier, and I wanted to update everyone on the details for the candlelight vigil for Saturday, November 24, 2007.

*We are meeting at 6:00 p.m. at the Fort Zumwalt West Middle school parking lot.

*Please bring a candle, cup to hold the candle and something to light the candle. (If you cut a small X in the bottom of the cup, you can slide the candle through it and then you won't have wax dripping on you)

*We will then light the candle's shortly after 6:00 p.m. and start walking from the school down Waterford crystal drive towards Megan's house and end up in front of the Drew's house.

*There is a common ground area across the street and we will have pa system and microphone. if anyone would like to speak, read a poem, etc., they are more than welcome.

*This wonderful idea came from students who wanted to see justice for Megan and for that we are so happy. Nothing we can do will bring Megan back, but we can all learn from Megan and take a part of her with us everyday for the rest of our lives to try to be a better person and think about things we say to people before we say them!

*****Remember this is a peaceful candlelight vigil******
We hope to see everyone there!

Danny Vice said...

On Wednesday, October 21st, city officials enacted an ordinance designed to address the public outcry for justice in the Megan Meier tragedy. The six member Board of Aldermen made Internet harassment a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.

Does this new law provide any justice for Megan? Does this law provide equitable relief for a future victim or actually weaken the current law?

I reject the premise of this new law and believe it completely misses the mark. The reasoning behind this opinion is that city officials have consistently treated this case as an Internet harassment case instead of a child welfare/exploitation case.

Classifying this case a harassment issue completely fails to address the most serious aspects of the methods Lori Drew employed to lead this youth to her demise. The Vice disagrees that harassment was even a factor in this case until just a couple of days before Megan's death.

Considering this case a harassment issue is incorrect because during the 5 weeks Lori Drew baited and groomed her victim, the attention was NOT unwanted attention. It was not harassment at all. It was invited attention. Megan participated in the conversations willingly because she was lured, manipulated and exploited without her knowledge.

This law willfully sets a precedent that future child exploiters and predators can use to reclassify their cases to harassment issues. In effect, the law enacted to give Megan justice, may make her even more vulnerable. So long as the child victim doesn't tell the predator to stop, even a harassment charge may not stick with the right circumstances and a good defender.

Every aspect of this case follows the same procedural requirement used to convict a Child Predator. A child was manipulated by an adult. A child was engaged in sexually explicit conversation (as acknowledged by Lori Drew herself). An adult imposed her will on a child by misleading her, using a profile designed to sexually or intimately attract the 13 year old Megan.

Lori then utilized the power she had gained over this child to cause significant distress and endangerment to that child. She even stipulated to many of these activities in the police report she filed shortly after Megan's death.

We can go on and on here, but the parallels between this case and many other child predator cases that are successfully prosecuted bear striking similarities.

Child Predator laws do not require much more than simply proving that an adult has engaged a minor in sexually explicit conversation. Lori Drew has already stipulated that her conversations with Megan were sometimes sexual for a child Megan's age.

City officials who continue to ignore this viable, documented admission and continue to address this issue as harassment are intentionally burying their heads in the sand, when the solution is staring them right in the face. Why?

On June 5th, 2006, Governor Matt Blunt signed into law stiff penalties for convicted sex offenders. The Vice believes that officials continually reject a child predator classification of this case in order to keep the penalty of this offense out of this harsher realm.

Opponents of this law are active in defeating this law not by changing it, but by disqualifying cases like Megan's from ever being heard.

There are several other child exploitation laws on the books. To date, none of them have even been considered by City, State and Federal officials in this case. I'm outraged that a motion was never even filed, so that the case could at least be argued before a judge or jury.

Those satisfied with this response out of Missouri officials need to think through the effect this law will truly have. It quite honestly has the potential to directly undermine Jessica's law. It quiet easily gives prosecutors a way out of prosecuting child endangerment and child predator cases in the future.

Beware the wolf in sheep's clothing here.

Danny Vice
http://weeklyvice.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Ms. Meier,
You and your loved ones are in our hearts and our prayers. I am sorry for your loss, and I do not agree with the choice not to press charges.

Debi Jordan - Tallahassee

dsbpb said...

What kind of a person takes messages from some "stranger" on the internet all that seriously anyway??? Whoever raised and monitored the activities of this child should be scrutinized too.

Anonymous said...

No way should another parent have been involved simple as that. Sure there were other issues and who knows the whole story. So sad for her and her family.