Not long after their 18-year-old daughter died in a car accident, Christos and Lesli Catsouras were forced to relive their grief.
They soon began receiving anonymous e-mails and text messages that contained photographs of the accident, including pictures of Nicole Catsouras' decapitated body, still strapped to the crumpled remains of her father's Porsche. A fake MySpace page was created, which at first looked like a tribute to Catsouras but also led to the horrific photos.
"What type of individual would do that?" asked Christos.
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 family. 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 gonna put the pictures on my locker, in my locker," said Danielle. "I remember her in such a great way, I don't wanna see it and have that image stuck in my head."
"I've stopped using my e-mail," says Lesli Catsouras. "I don't want to see these every single day. …And you know, I take a risk every time I go on the computer."
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."
A judge in California ruled that the Catsouras family's lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol for allegedly releasing the accident scene pictures can go forward. According to Catsouras family attorney Tyler Offenhauser, the ruling is a significant step toward getting justice for Nikki because a jury will now decide whether the CHP must take responsibility for its employees' conduct of disseminating the graphic photos outside the agency.
"They were crime scene pictures that never, ever should have gone out," Christos Catsouras said. "There was a big mistake made by the California Highway Patrol that was never really acknowledged, or they never wanted to help us once that mistake had been made."
The California Highway Patrol declined to comment on the case, citing the pending litigation. Though the CHP has admitted in a letter to the Catsouras family that its dispatchers violated department policy, it has said it is not legally responsible for the Catsourases' anguish.
According to state highway patrol reports, at approximately 1:45 p.m. last Halloween, 15 minutes after taking her father's Porsche 911 for a drive without permission, Nikki Catsouras was traveling 100 mph on State Route 241, near Lake Forest, Calif., when she clipped another car and lost control, slamming into a concrete tollbooth, killing her instantly.
Photos of Catsouras' decapitated body, still strapped into the car, were taken by highway patrol officers investigating the crash, as per departmental procedure.
According to Keith Bremer, an attorney for the Catsouras family, "One of the officers e-mails some of the photographs to a dispatcher and then the dispatcher e-mails them outside the Police Department. And then from there, you know, it, it created a life of its own and created momentum and it just, it just exploded."