Nov. 16, 2007— -- 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."
"There is absolutely no public benefit pursuant to the investigation and the preparation of that police report for those photographs to go anywhere other than in the evidence locker," he said."
The pictures were passed around to thousands of sites, and the Catsourases began receiving the images masked behind anonymous e-mails and text messages. A fake MySpace page was created, ostensibly as a tribute site to Nikki's life. But friends and family were again met with the horrific photos, captioned by "false and degrading labels" about Nikki and her family, according to the lawsuit.
"Everybody I know has either seen them or they know someone that's seen them," said Lesli. "This was an expensive car and it was a young girl and she was also a very pretty girl. It was also Halloween, so it was just the perfect recipe for something like this."
"People say that she deserved to die," said Christos. "She was irresponsible, driving fast, we understand that. But she didn't deserve to die, and especially in the manner that she died."
Though the Catsourases hired a company to remove the photos from the Internet, the images live 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 website 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."
"We've asked them to please take down the pictures, and they've said, 'No, I don't have to because I've got my First Amendment rights," says Lesli Catsouras of the Web sites that still carry the photos. "But we have rights, you know, we're living in the United States of America."
One such Web site did not remove the photos. It's owner declined a request to be interviewed, but provided a statement to ABC News, which reads in part:
"Wanting to view photographs of tragic events is a part of human nature. It's a very rare person who doesn't rubberneck as they pass the scene of an accident, because we're all interested in a glimpse into death and misfortune. When we look upon photographs, like those of a young girl who has been violently struck down in the prime of her life by a moment's recklessness, we gaze upon our own mortality, and we think about how easily this could have been us. …While I sympathize with the family and have no desire to perpetuate the pain of their loss, I also realize the reality of the internet. Once photographs like these leak online, they spread like a virus. … For those who find photographs of deceased individuals disturbing, they have the option of not visiting the sort of sites that display those images. (Most of those sites have ample warnings before anything disturbing is shown.) But the right of the rest of us to view such images should not be infringed upon."
After an internal investigation, the California Highway Patrol identified two dispatchers, Thomas O'Donnell and Aaron Reich as being responsible for the leaked images. Citing "pending litigation," the highway patrol has yet to 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 CHP employee did violate departmental policy in this matter. Appropriate action has taken place to preclude a similar occurrence in the future," the letter, signed by Orange County Communications Center Lt. Cmdr. Paul Depaola, states.
"Again, my sympathy to you and your family at this difficult time of loss," Depaola wrote.
"The CHP has taken the position that plaintiffs do not have a civil case against them because the release of the photographs, while morally wrong, did not violate any governmental regulation or statute," Bremer said.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Steven Perk refused to dismiss the case against the California Highway Patrol. Bremer expects more challenges to the lawsuit from the dispatchers as well.
Rex Parris, a lawyer for defendant Thomas O'Donnell, said his client is innocent of any wrongdoing and said that O'Donnell did not leak any of the photos. He only received pictures and sent them to his own, personal e-mail, Parris said.
O'Donnell says that the agency isn't defending him in the lawsuit, and that he feels abandoned.
"I don't understand why the department isn't sitting here with me, helping me," he said.
"Other than looking at the photographs and forwarding them to his own private e-mail account, he did nothing," Parris said. "He was just a recipient of the digital photographs, he didn't forward them on to anyone," Parris said.
Sharing photographs of accident scenes are a part of the job for highway patrol workers and dispatchers, and always have been, he said. He claimed that as long as taking accident scene pictures remains part of CHP policy, incidents such as this one will continue to come up.
"There isn't anybody out there that wouldn't want to protect this family from seeing those photographs," Parris said. "This is an issue of technology, not morality or equal prohibition. It's one of those painful things that come along with technology."
Parris and Bremer said the CHP should apologize.
"It is disappointing that the CHP acknowledges an internal error of this magnitude has occurred," Bremer said, "but steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the ramifications and extent of pain it has caused the Catsouras family."
"They'd like the California Highway Patrol, which has admitted that internal policies were violated, to come and say that they are sorry."
On the first anniversary of Nikki's death, the Catsouras family cut together a video tribute with their own pictures of Nikki, set to the song "Angel," which is what her father always called her.
"I feel like no one really realized she was a person, and they in a sick way got really entertained by this photograph, and it's just sad that someone can feel the need to put it out and keep it going on and harming others by putting it up," said Danielle.
"We are a real family with real hearts," said Christos. "And it hurts what people are doing."
Protecting Your Online Reputation: Advice from ReputationDefender
1. Be smart about what photos and videos you put on the Web. Think of every item as a possible tattoo that could last for years.
2. In addition to refraining from giving out personal details, like your contact information, be careful not to reveal too much about your personal health or professional life, for example, salary information.
3. Be careful when others ask you to pose for photos when you're at a party or another type of social situation.
4. Be careful about "friending" people on social networking sites: Once they have access to your details and pictures, they can send them to others and publish them on the Web.
5. If you see a problem, work hard to nip it in the bud by trying to get the person who posted it to remove the content immediately.
6. Be wise about how you communicate with people online: Hesitate before engaging in online confrontation via IM, message boards or social networks.
7. Even if you think a Web forum is anonymous, be careful what you say. Sometimes the site owner may inadvertently or deliberately reveal your identity at some point in the future, for example, when the Web site changes hands or if someone hacks it.