Lawsuit Cracks Open Online Anonymity

"My wife said she's lost her joy," Lesher said. "She held her head up high, but it's hard. When things get repeated over and over and over again, people say it's got to be true."

Targeting the 178 Posters

In their 365-page lawsuit, the Leshers name the 178 pseudonyms that posted the most defamatory messages. But because of the way Topix is set up, they believe it's entirely possible that far fewer than 178 people were actually responsible for the posts.

Anyone can post on Topix without giving up any personal information. That makes it very easy for commenters to impersonate one another or for one to adopt several names.

Commenter's named "lou," "Hellcat," "ilbedipt" and "Awareness" appear to be among the most prolific and vicious. But the same person could potentially be behind all the pseudonyms, or several people could be behind each.

The Leshers and others familiar with their initial trial say several of the Topix posters seemed privy to information that could only have been known by the accuser, her husband and law enforcement in Red River County. Before the Leshers were even arrested and before they were formally charged, the Leshers said people on seemed to already know what was happening.

And, they continue, they don't think that's by coincidence.

State of Texas vs. Lesher, McCarver

In early 2008, Shannon Coyel, 38, accused the Leshers and McCarver of sexual assault after the Leshers had tried to help her divorce her husband, Jerry Coyel, 62, and gain custody of her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son from a previous marriage.

Mark Lesher said he tried to help Shannon Coyel retain legal counsel to pursue her divorce and file a complaint against a local judge whom she said was close to Jerry Coyel and had awarded him temporary sole custody of her daughter, despite at least one report of child abuse.

According to the 2007 complaint filed with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Shannon Coyel claimed that her husband "is very wealthy, but he is also very possessive, demanding and a sexual pervert." In the same document, she also said that Jerry had abused her daughter.

In 2007 court proceedings to determine who should gain custody of the children, Jerry Coyel denied mistreating his stepdaughter.

When contacted the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to determine the status of the complaint, a spokeswoman for the agency could say only that it had taken no public action against the judge. She also said that as of Dec. 31, 2008, the judge had become a senior judge and was no longer active in district court.

But when Shannon and Jerry Coyel decided to reconcile later that year, she retracted her abuse charges against Jerry and turned against the Leshers.

In her testimony in January, she said that the Leshers had given her pills that "just made [her] crazy." She admitted to calling Child Protective Services in Oklahoma and Texas to report the abuse charges against her husband but said she did it because the Leshers had drugged her.

Who Dunnit?

Through her husband, Jerry Coyel, Shannon Coyel declined to speak to

But Jerry Coyel spoke to on several occasions. When asked if he knew who was behind the posts on Topix, he said he had "no idea." Coyel said he was "computer illiterate," had only been able to obtain access to the site with the help of his daughter and never commented on anything on the site.

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