Town Rules Internet Harrassment a Crime

Illinois town ruled Internet harassment illegal, stemming from girl's suicide.

February 19, 2009, 4:40 AM

Nov. 22, 2007 — -- The town where an Internet hoax apparently led to a teenage girl's suicide unanimously voted to make online harassment a crime today, according to The Associated Press.

The vote makes Internet harassment a misdemeanor and punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail, according to the report.

The ruling is a result of an incident that occured last year, where 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself inside her parents' home in Dardenne Prairie, Ill. The apparent cause of her suicide, her parents have said, was the sudden decline of her online relationship with a 16-year-old boy they thought was named Josh Evans.

But, soon after their daughter's death, Tina and Ron Meier discovered that there was no Josh Evans. They say the boy who pretended to be Megan's friend and then sent her nasty messages was the creation of an adult neighbor who still lives down the street from Ron Meier.

Though police and prosecutors have investigated, a year later, no criminal charges have been filed against the woman who allegedly created the online profile, and it's unclear whether any will be brought.

Tonight, the town's board of Aldermen will vote on a proposal to make online harassment a misdemeanor, said Mayor Pam Fogarty.

"It's not much, but at least it's something," Fogarty said of the proposed ordinance. "I think it's absolutely horrible that an adult can do this to a child, much less the mother of a friend and there is nothing to charge her with."

Though it appears the woman who created the online profile will not be criminally charged, that hasn't stopped an outpouring of hostility against her, both online and in the real world. In a police report filed last November, the woman complains that her neighbors have become "hostile toward her and her family" since learning of her role in Megan's suicide.

That antipathy has only increased since the story hit the national media late last week, with Megan's parents appearing on "Good Morning America" and the "Today" show. Though the newspapers and networks declined to identify the real-life "Josh Evans," bloggers quickly outed her and posted her family's name, address and phone number online.

Since then, messages threatening the family have been posted online. Photos of the woman's husband have been posted on the Internet. In the last year, since neighbors learned of what happened, a brick was thrown through their window. Someone drove a truck over their front lawn, according to police. A paint-ball was shot against the house.

The woman, who also has a young daughter, has received threatening phone calls; people have screamed obscenities as they drive by the house, a neighbor said. Police descended on the house in the middle of the night last week, police and neighbors said, after a fake 911 call was made.

Police are concerned that the harassment, first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, may escalate.

"We believe that all the publicity about this situation has led to an air of vigilantism," said Lt. Craig McGuire of the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department. "We're concerned people will take things into their own hands."

Megan, who sometimes suffered from low self-esteem and depression, was elated when she got an e-mail on the social networking site MySpace from a cute boy named "Josh Evans," her parents said. Josh claimed to be a 16-year-old boy who lived nearby. He said he was home-schooled and didn't yet have a phone.

The two developed a virtual friendship that lasted more than a month before things inexplicably took a downward turn. "Megan gets an e-mail, or a message from Josh on her MySpace on Oct. 15, 2006, saying, 'I don't know if I want to be friends with you any longer because I hear you're not nice to your friends,'" Tina Meier said on "GMA."

Insulting messages calling Megan "fat" and a "slut" were being posted, according to The Associated Press.

Tina Meier discovered her daughter's body in a bedroom closet the next day. She had hanged herself.

Six weeks after Megan's death, a neighbor told the Meiers that there was no Josh Evans. He was a fictitious creation of woman whose daughter knew Megan and lived down the street. According to the police report, the woman created the profile to find out what Megan was saying online about her daughter.

The Meiers knew the woman who allegedly created the profile. Her family had asked the Meiers whether they could store their foosball table. The woman attended Megan's funeral, according to the police report.

Once they learned of the family's involvement, the Meiers allegedly destroyed the table, placed it in the woman's yard and encouraged the family to move, according to the AP.

The Meiers said they don't think the woman wanted Megan to commit suicide. But they still hold her responsible for their daughter's death.

"I believe they are the ones who took her to the edge of the cliff and forced her to go over," Ron Meier said. "Everything that we found out so far — it was the sole idea of the mother."

No charges have been filed in the case and the local prosecutor has said it appears no laws were broken. McGuire said the sheriff's department and local and federal prosecutors investigated the case and concluded that they could not file criminal charges. With the publicity, county prosecutor Jack Banas has said he will re-examine the case.

But, it appears that the Josh Evans profile and messages could have violated a federal cyberstalking law, which prevents people from sending abusive or threatening messages, said Perry Aftab, a cyberlaw expert. Aftab, who runs WiredSafety, which helps victims of so-called cyberabuse, said this was one of the few instances she could recall of adults harassing children online.

The involvement of an adult set Megan's story apart from traditional cyberbullying, she said. "This is particularly heinous," she added.

Some neighbors of the family accused of setting up the profile agreed.

"I do think it's criminal, and I think they should be held responsible for it," said Terri Hutchinson.