Innocent Man's Life Destroyed by Anonymous Topix Poster

Georgia father was besieged by startling, unfounded allegations online.

ByABC News
March 20, 2012, 2:34 PM

March 21, 2012— -- In Blairsville, Ga., as in most American towns, gossip is dished out with the daily special at the local diner. But now there's a new forum called Topix that spreads gossip as fast as the Internet connection allows. And unlike the diner, where you know the person you're talking to, Topix uses only screen names.

The combination of small-town familiarity -- everyone knows each other -- anonymity and instant dissemination compounds the impact when gossip is aimed at a neighbor or small business. Words on a web page -- permanent, searchable and bearing the authority of the (digitally) printed word -- are different from hearsay that can be forgotten or laughed off. They can ruin someone's life.

Watch the whole story on the full episode of "20/20"

Ask Gene Cooley. Cooley grew up in and around Blairsville. In 2008 he was living in town, a divorced father of two young boys who was holding down a job as a hair stylist.

He had been given a second chance at love. He was engaged to Paulette Harper, who, together with her daughter, was getting ready to start a new life with Cooley.

"She was a wonderful girl," Cooley said in an interview with "20/20" Anchor Chris Cuomo. "She had a beautiful heart, a beautiful soul."

Yet before their new life could begin, Harper's ex took it all away.

"Apparently she was taking a nap," Cooley said. "Somehow he got in, startled her, and must have pushed her down and then shot her. He waited around for a little while, and then finally committed suicide."

Cooley's world was shattered, he said. All that was left was to bring Harper's body to Florida, where her family lived.

Just when things couldn't get any worse, they did. As he was preparing Harper's funeral with her family, they began to turn on him, Cooley said.

"They started asking me some unusual questions, asking me about having a drug addiction, being in and out of rehabs," Cooley said.

Cooley was flabbergasted by the sudden shift, he said. Harper's family kicked him out of their home and barred him from the funeral.

Cooley arranged for a sheriff in Blairsville to tell Harper's family his record was clean. Cooley was eventually allowed to attend the funeral, but the damage to his reputation was done.

"I had no idea of what was going on or why," Cooley said.

What was going on was a nasty discussion on Blairsville's Topix forum. A post discussing Harper's death had morphed into a feeding frenzy on Cooley.

The thread included several users with mysterious names like "Bugs," "Yuck" and "Mouth" that called Cooley a drug addict, a pervert who should be kept away from children and even a possible accomplice in his fiancee's murder.

Topix Chief Executive Officer Chris Tolles said the company, started in 2007, was created to bring more news and information to small towns through articles and citizen reporting and open debate among users. The site operates in 5,000 towns and cities, averaging 125,000 posts a day.

Yet in some cases, the site reads less like a local newspaper and more like a graffiti wall. Mixed in with the mundane chitchat and community news are anonymous personal attacks.