Virtual Relationship Leads to Criminal Charges

What began as a virtual relationship -- she as a female avatar and he as a lion -- led to a real-life crime, according to police.

Kimberly Jernigan, 33, was arrested for allegedly attempting to abduct her virtual ex-boyfriend, whom she'd originally met in the online game Second Life, for the second time in several weeks.

New Castle County, Del., police say Jernigan hid inside her former boyfriend's home in Claymont, Del., with a Taser and planned to kidnap him so the pair could start a new life together.

"She started this virtual relationship and she wasn't ready to break it off," said Cpl. Trinidad Navarro, a spokesman for the New Castle police. "She had difficulty distinguishing between the virtual relationship and a real-life relationship."

Jernigan was being held on $65,000 bond, and police would not release the name of her alleged victim. It was unclear if Jernigan had a lawyer as of Monday afternoon.

Her husband, Michael Jernigan, in Durham, N.C., said both he and his wife had become involved in online relationships through Second Life. What began as online fun turned into an obsession for his wife, he said.

"We had an agreement to have a somewhat open relationship and actually being involved in [a] game online was a very safe way to do that," said Jernigan, who added that he recently separated from his wife. "Or so I thought when we both got started."

But, he said, Kimberly soon spent all her free time playing the game. "I always knew that she could be obsessive, and that type of thing, but I never thought it would go as far as this," he said.

Kimberly Jernigan is not the first person to allegedly blur their virtual and real lives, and her case presents one of the myriad problems that can arise when the two worlds collide.

Last year, a 48-year-old man in upstate New York was sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing a rival for the affections of a woman he'd never met. Thomas Montgomery reportedly posed online as an 18-year-old Marine and started an Internet relationship with a middle-aged woman from West Virginia, who was, herself, posing as an 18-year-old student.

Montgomery was convicted of killing Brian Barrett, a co-worker who had also become involved virtually with the woman. "One blurred into the other," Montgomery's attorney, John Nuchereno, said of his client's real and fantasy lives.

Internet Addiction

Mental health experts say Internet use can progress into a form of addiction, at times leading to destructive consequences.

"People get so caught up in a fantasy world that it becomes their reality," said Coleen Moore of the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, which has the nation's only Internet addiction treatment program. "It's easier. It may be more comforting to get stuck in that virtual reality than to confront their real-world problems."

Moore said patients at the institute are more likely to become obsessed with gambling, but that, occasionally, patients do believe that online social networks and virtual reality sites are more important than their real lives.

Dr. Bankole Johnson, chair of the University of Virginia department of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences, said people who become so wrapped up in online worlds, that they have difficulty distinguishing fantasy and reality, often have pre-existing mental illnesses. "What people develop is a delusional idea that the [virtual] person is real," he said.

In Jernigan's case, police say she met her ex in the online virtual reality game Second Life. His character was a lion. She was a virtual woman, according to police.

The pair met in real life several months ago, but at some point after their meeting, the boyfriend, 52, ended their relationship, police said. Michael Jernigan said his wife and the other man spent several days together.

According to police, Jernigan's virtual ex claims that she attempted to kidnap him several weeks ago outside his office in Pennsylvania. "She encountered him in the parking lot and pointed a gun at him and told him to get in the car," said Navarro. "He went off running."

It was unclear if Jernigan was ever charged in connection with that incident.

Navarro said Jernigan, a postal worker in Durham, posed as a local mail carrier in Delaware in order to get her ex-boyfriend's address.

Last week, the man called police and said he escaped from his apartment because a person who he believed was Jernigan was inside with what appeared to be a Taser. Police say they found Jernigan's dog –- bound with duct tape –- locked inside the apartment bathroom. They found a pair of handcuffs outside his bedroom window.

Second Life vs. Reality

Jernigan faces charges of attempted kidnapping, burglary and aggravated menacing.

Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life, said in a statement, "We were saddened to hear of this unfortunate incident. Second Life provides a richly immersive environment for communication, and we have seen very positive real-life relationships form between residents who first met inworld. However, as with any online communications medium –- from e-mail to dating Web sites -– we recommend that people choose their friendships and other relationships wisely, and carefully consider these relationships before meeting in person."