LOS ANGELES The groundbreaking move by federal authorities to indict a Missouri mother on charges connected to the suicide of a 13-year-old MySpace user has sent a strong message to the online world: Internet impostors may be prosecuted.
"The Internet is a world unto itself. People must know how far they can go before they must stop," FBI official Salvador Hernandez said Thursday as prosecutors unveiled a case that employs laws usually used against hackers to go after the alleged perpetrator of a false-identity hoax.
Lori Drew, 49, of suburban St. Louis, Mo., was charged with conspiracy and fraudulently gaining access to someone else's computer. She allegedly helped create a MySpace account in the name of someone who didn't exist to convince young neighbor Megan Meier she was chatting with a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans.
Megan hanged herself at home in October 2006, allegedly after receiving a dozen or more cruel messages, including one stating the world would be better off without her.
"They exploited a young girl's weaknesses," Hernandez charged. "Whether the defendant could have foreseen the results, she's responsible for her actions."
He called the case "heart-rending."
The indictment alleges 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.
Dean Steward, a lawyer representing Drew in the federal case, said a legal challenge to the charges was being planned. He characterized them as unusual and puzzling.
"We thought when prosecutors in St. Louis looked at the case and all the facts, it was clear no criminal acts occurred," Steward said.
A man who opened the door at the Drew family home in Dardenne Prairie, Mo., on Thursday said the family had no comment.
Megan's mother, Tina Meier, told The Associated Press she believed media reports and public outrage helped move the case forward for prosecution.
"I'm thrilled that this woman is going to face charges that she has needed to face since the day we found out what was going on, and since the day she decided to be a part of this entire ridiculous stunt," she said.
Megan's father, Ron Meier, 38, said he began to cry "tears of joy" when he heard of the indictment. The parents are now separated, which Tina Meier has said stemmed in part from the circumstances of their daughter's death.
Tina Meier has acknowledged Megan was too young to have a MySpace account under the Web site's guidelines, but she said she had been able to closely monitor the account. Meier's family has also acknowledged that Megan was also sending mean messages before her death.
Megan was being treated for attention deficit disorder and depression, her family has said. Meier has said Drew knew Megan was on medication.
MySpace issued a statement saying it "does not tolerate cyberbullying" and was cooperating fully with the U.S. attorney.
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 at a Los Angeles press conference.
Both the girl and MySpace are named as victims in the case, he said.
Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of Southern California, said use of the federal cyber crime statute may be open to challenge.
Lonergan, who used the statute in the past to file charges in computer hacking and trademark theft cases, said the crimes covered by the law involve obtaining information from a computer, not sending messages out to harass someone.
"Here it is the flow of information away from the computer," she said. "It's a very creative, aggressive use of the statute. But they may have a legally tough time meeting the elements."
She said, however, that because "a very bad harm was done," the courts may grant some latitude.
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.
Due to juvenile privacy rules, the U.S. attorney's office said, the indictment refers to the girl as M.T.M.
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.
Federal officials said Drew will be arraigned in St. Louis and moved to Los Angeles for trial. Her lawyer, however, said Drew did not have to surrender in Missouri but would be arraigned in early June in Los Angeles.
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; 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 coconspirators "used the information obtained over the MySpace computer system to torment, harass, humiliate, and embarrass the juvenile MySpace member," the indictment charged.
The indictment contends they committed or aided in a dozen "overt acts" that were illegal, including using a photograph of a boy that was posted without his knowledge or permission.
They used "Josh" to flirt with Megan, telling her she was "sexi," the indictment charged.
Around Oct. 7, 2006, Megan was told "Josh" was moving away, prompting the girl to write: "aww sexi josh ur so sweet if u moved back u could see me up close and personal lol."
Several days later, "Josh" urged the girl to call and added: "i love you so much."
But on or about Oct. 16, "Josh" wrote to the girl and told her "in substance, that the world would be a better place without M.T.M. in it," according to the indictment.
The girl hanged herself the same day, and Drew and the others deleted the information in the account, the indictment said.
Last month, an employee of Drew, 19-year-old Ashley Grills, told ABC's "Good Morning America" 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," 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.
Associated Press Writers Greg Risling in Los Angeles, Betsy Taylor in St. Louis and Lara Jakes Jordan in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.