A Texas couple who filed a defamation lawsuit five months ago against anonymous posters on the Internet forum Topix say they have unmasked people behind some of the offending posts.
Following a trail of digital bread crumbs, Mark and Rhonda Lesher of Clarksville, Texas, say they have confirmed suspicions they've harbored since the day they began their legal crusade.
Information disclosed by Topix, including Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, or the unique number assigned to each computer, led the couple to a business owned by the husband of a woman who last year accused the couple of sexual assault.
The northeast Texas couple filed an amended petition in the District Court of Tarrant County Texas last week, naming six parties and demanding a trial by jury.
The amended petition names Shannon Coyel, the couple's accuser, her husband Gerald Coyel and his brother James Coyel.
It also includes the business Apache Truck & Van Parts in Kennedale, Texas, and two of its employees, Charlie and Pat Doescher. The Leshers allege the computers tied to the IP addresses were used by the Doeschers.
Although the petition says both Gerald and James Coyel own Apache Truck & Van Parts, Gerald Coyel told ABCNews.com that his brother has nothing to do with the business.
Gerald Coyel also confirmed that he had been served with the petition but said "it's totally fictitious."
He said the business has computers and "the public uses them all the time." But he emphasized that neither he nor the Doeschers made the posts. He also said that although he had read comments on Topix he had never posted comments himself.
"Not only do I know for positive that the people who run the business didn't do it, I don't believe that anyone did it," he said, adding that he lives about 200 miles away from the office in Negley, Texas, and only stops by the office about five times a year.
Coyel also said he doubted that the information disclosed by Topix and the Internet service providers really led to his business.
"I don't know how they tracked the IP address," he said. "This is going to help my business. This is going to help me get my name out there."
Last week, James Coyel told the Texarkana Gazette that he hasn't posted on Topix.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Coyel said. "I don't even know how to operate one of them computers."
A woman who identified herself as Pat Doescher declined to comment when asked about the petition by ABCNews.com.
But her husband, Charlie Doescher, told the Gazette last week that neither he nor his wife posted on Topix.
The Leshers, however, say they're very happy with the developments.
"We're just on cloud nine that we finally got some names," Rhonda Lesher said today.
Since filing the original lawsuit, the Leshers have believed that the Coyels and others tied to them were behind a storm of snarling commentary on Topix related to the sexual assault charges against them.
Now, the couple and their lawyer say they have the documentation to prove it. "This is beyond huge," she said. "It confirms exactly what we've always suspected."
Small Town Gossip Mill Explodes Online
Mark Lesher, 63, and his wife, Rhonda, 50, first made news in Texas when the couple, along with a man who works on their ranch, were accused of sexual assault by a woman in their small northeast Texas community.
Before the three were indicted on the charges, a steady stream of attacks on the Web forum Topix.com started to flow.
In January, a jury found the couple and their ranch hand not guilty on all charges.
Since reports of the rape allegations began to surface last year, more than 25,000 comments, on about 70 threads related to the trial, have been posted on Topix message boards for anyone with a search engine to see.
Topix Asks to Withhold Identifying Information
Rhonda Lesher runs a successful day spa and her husband is a prominent attorney. But comments on Topix, which have no basis in fact, Mark Lesher said, accuse the couple of murder, encouraging pedophilia, drug abuse and other "horrendous" crimes that materially attack their characters.
Although the couple feel vindicated by the not-guilty verdict, they said the anonymous posters who have made their lives "torture" should be held accountable for the damage they have done.
In their 365-page lawsuit, filed in February, the Leshers named the 178 pseudonyms used to post what they considered the most defamatory messages. They posted the lawsuit on Topix and served the company a subpoena to obtain the IP addresses.
But finding the request too large in scope, Topix responded soon after with a motion to quash the couple's subpoena.
"We are not averse to a reasonable solution," Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, said at the time. But he said the request was "over broad and burdensome."
Judge Denies Topix's Motion to Quash
In March, however, a California judge denied the Web forum Topix.com's request to withhold any identifying information for the targets of the suit, although it also granted the company's motion for a protective order "to protect the identities of the anonymous Internet posters."
Since then, lawyers for Topix and the Leshers have worked to narrow the number of targets in the case from 178 pseudonyms.
Tolles said a Topix analysis indicated that about 70 percent of the defamatory comments included in the Lesher's petition belonged to a handful of IP addresses. Topix disclosed that information to the Lesher's lawyers, although some information is still under negotiation, the Leshers said.
"We came to a settlement with the Leshers," Tolles said. "A couple of folks had the lion's share of the really objective postings."
He said his company was happy to help those who believe they have been libeled but "the key was that people didn't see us with a soft touch."
Internet Service Provider Disclosed Information
Each month, he said. his company receives about a handful of requests from law enforcement officials looking for information on a case or from individuals. That number hasn't changed as news of the Lesher's case has spread, he said.
The Leshers said that the information from Topix led them to three Internet service providers, Hughes Communications, America Online and Birch Communication.
The couple said Birch immediately responded to their subpoena. The company disclosed that the IP addresses corresponding to posts made by the pseudonym "ilbedipt" were registered to Apache Truck & Van Parts.
"We just got lucky," Mark Lesher said, adding that though "illbedipt" only posted about 10 times from the Birch IP address, he said that pseudonym also posted hundreds of times from another IP address registered to Hughes.
The Leshers said Hughes was cooperative but indicated that because it is a satellite company, it required more information that the Leshers are trying to secure from Topix. AOL said it erased the necessary information after 90 days.
William Demond, the Lesher's Austin-based attorney, said that they will continue to work with the ISPs to identify more posters, but in the meantime they will push forward with the case against the Coyels and Doeschers.
"Now what's happened is we've gone through the process. We've got names. We've got registered owners of an IP address," he said. "We believe that's going to give us what we need to prove our case."