In a case that sends a strong message about the possible consequences of cyber bullying, a federal grand jury on May 15 indicted a Missouri woman for her alleged role in perpetrating a hoax through the online social network MySpace against a 13-year-old neighbor who subsequently committed suicide.
Lori Drew of suburban St. Louis allegedly helped create a false-identity MySpace account to contact Megan Meier, who thought she was chatting with a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. Josh didn’t exist.
Megan hanged herself at home in October 2006 after receiving cruel messages, including one stating the world would be better off without her. (See "Studies suggest cyber bullying is on the rise.") Salvador Hernandez, assistant agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, called the case heart-rending.
"The internet is a world unto itself. People must know how far they can go before they must stop. They exploited a young girl’s weaknesses," Hernandez said. "Whether the defendant could have foreseen the results, she’s responsible for her actions."
Drew was charged with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress on the girl.
Drew has denied creating the account or sending messages to Megan.
U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien said this was the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case. It has been used in the past to address hacking.
"This was a tragedy that did not have to happen," O’Brien said.
Both the girl and MySpace are named as victims in the case, he said.
MySpace is a subsidiary of Beverly Hills-based Fox Interactive Media Inc., which is owned by News Corp. The indictment noted that MySpace computer servers are located in Los Angeles County.
FBI agents in St. Louis and Los Angeles investigated the case, Hernandez said. Each of the four counts carries a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison.
Drew will be arraigned in St. Louis and then moved to Los Angeles for trial.
The indictment says MySpace members agree to abide by terms of service that include, among other things, not promoting information they know to be false or misleading; not soliciting personal information from anyone under age 18; and not using information gathered from the web site to "harass, abuse, or harm other people."
Drew and others who were not named conspired to violate the service terms from about September 2006 to mid-October that year, according to the indictment. It alleges they registered as a MySpace member under a phony name and used the account to obtain information on the girl.
Drew and her co-conspirators "used the information obtained over the MySpace computer system to torment, harass, humiliate, and embarrass the juvenile MySpace member," the indictment charged.
After the girl killed herself, Drew and the others deleted the information for the account, the indictment said.
Last month, an employee of Drew, 19-year-old Ashley Grills, told ABC’s Good Morning America that she created the false MySpace profile, but Drew wrote some of the messages to Megan.
Grills said Drew suggested talking to Megan via the internet to find out what Megan was saying about Drew’s daughter, who was a former friend.
Grills also said she wrote the message to Megan about the world being a better place without her. The message was supposed to end the online relationship with "Josh," because Grills felt the joke had gone too far.
"I was trying to get her angry so she would leave him alone and I could get rid of the whole MySpace [hoax]," Grills told the morning show.
Megan’s death was investigated by Missouri authorities, but no state charges were filed because no laws appeared to apply to the case.