Family Can Sue Calif. Highway Patrol for Letting Daughter's Accident Photos Spread Online

"One of the officers e-mails some of the photographs to a dispatcher and then the dispatcher e-mails them outside the police department," said Keith Bremer, a lawyer for the Catsouras family. "And then from there, you know, it created a life of its own and created momentum and it just, it just exploded."

The Catsourases soon began receiving anonymous e-mails and text messages that contained photographs of the accident, including pictures of Nicole. A fake MySpace page was created, which at first looked like a tribute to Catsouras but also showed the horrific photos.

"What type of individual would do that?" asked Christos Catsouras.

Pictures on 1,600 Web Sites

The pictures, taken by California Highway Patrol officers and e-mailed outside the department, spread around the Internet, making their way to about 1,600 Web sites, according to an investigator hired by the family. Messages about the images became so persistent that Lesli Catsouras stopped checking her e-mail. Nikki's three younger sisters were forbidden to use the Internet, and 16-year-old Danielle was taken out of school to be home schooled out of fear that her peers might confront her with the pictures.

"There was threats that people were going to put the pictures on my locker, in my locker," said Danielle. "I remember her in such a great way, I don't want to see it and have that image stuck in my head."

"We talk about Nikki all the time," said Christos." We've got pictures of her everywhere, we laugh about her, cry. I always called her Angel."

How to Stop Accident Photos After They Go Viral

Though the Catsourases hired a company to remove the photos from the Internet, the images lived on. "It spreads in bursts, and when it spreads it happens very fast," said Michael Fertik, the founder of ReputationDefender, a company that helps clients remove items from the Internet.

"We go at it by just direct human-to-human contact. We reach out to the people who are posting them, or chiefly in these cases, hosting the Web site where they are posted, and saying, 'Look, this is in no one's interest. You're getting less pleasure out of this than these people are suffering pain.'"

After an internal investigation, the California Highway Patrol identified two dispatchers, O'Donnell and Reich, as being responsible for the leaked images. Citing "pending litigation," the highway patrol did not comment on the case, but it sent a letter to the family admitting the mistake.

"After a thorough and complete investigation, we have determined that a highway patrol employee did violate departmental policy in this matter. Appropriate action has taken place to preclude a similar occurrence in the future," said the letter, signed by Lt. Cmdr. Paul Depaola of the Orange County Communications Center.

"Again, my sympathy to you and your family at this difficult time of loss," Depaola wrote.

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