July 1, 2008— -- With just a few mouse clicks, you can find pictures that are too graphic to show in the mainstream media -- images of horrible accidents, mutilations and death.
There's an Internet subculture devoted to death and gore with thousands of images, each bloodier than the next. For one family, an image that circulated on these types of Web sites added injury to already profound pain.
Nikki Catsouras was an 18-year-old college freshman living in California with her parents and two sisters. She loved to shoot videos on her camera, and ironically, it was a camera that would memorialize Nikki's life and death as a gruesome and macabre joke on the Internet.
It all started with a typical fight between parents and teenager when Nikki got caught sneaking a cigarette in the house.
"Nikki broke a house rule and we had a disagreement, and I took her car keys away," said Christos Catsouras, Nikki's father. Catsouras had no idea the next day would be the last time he'd ever see the daughter he called "Angel."
"As I was walking out the door, I kind of winked and blew her a kiss, and she winked back and flipped me a peace sign," he recalled. "I said, 'Bye, see you at two-thirty, love you. She said, 'Love you, bye.'"
Then, her family says, Nikki did something out of character. She took the keys to her father's Porsche 911 Carrera, a car that goes zero to 60 miles an hour in less than five seconds. She had never driven the Porsche before.
According to state highway patrol reports, at approximately 1:45 p.m. last Halloween, Nikki Catsouras was traveling 100 mph on State Route 241, near Lake Forest, Calif., when she clipped another car and lost control, going across lanes over the median and slamming into a concrete tollbooth. She was killed instantly.
"Her head was more or less cut in two and sort of cleaved and then smashed. It's nothing that anyone should ever have to see," said Michael Fertik, the founder of ReputationDefender, a company that helps clients such as the Catsouras family remove items from the Internet. The Catsouras family was told they should never see the photos from the scene of the horrendous accident.
But as the Catsouras family was grieving for their daughter, the accident scene photos showing Nikki's mutilated body suddenly appeared on the Internet. "They didn't even let me see my daughter, and now the whole world is seeing my daughter," recalled Lesli Catsouras, Nikki's mother.
The family soon began receiving anonymous e-mails and text messages that contained photographs of the accident, including pictures of Nikki's 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 Catsouras.
The pictures, taken by California Highway Patrol officers and e-mailed outside the department, became so persistent that Lesli Catsouras stopped checking her e-mail. Nikki's 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.
The Catsouras family has filed a lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol for allegedly releasing the accident scene pictures.
Who would want to look at such horrible images? Shockingly, the Catsouras family says many people. At one point photos of Nikki's crash could be found on 1,600 Web sites in 50 countries.
"Everybody I know has either seen them or they know someone that's seen them," said Lesli Catsouras. "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."
Though the Catsourases hired ReputationDefender to remove the photos from the Internet, the images live on. "It spreads in bursts, and when it spreads, it happens very fast," said Fertik.
"Whether it's right or wrong doesn't even matter when you're online. The digital world has no morals," said Ron Braunstein, who goes by the name Necro. Braunstein is a self-described death rapper who has made a career of exploiting gore in his music and on his Web site.
"Me personally, I've built a career around exploitation. I consider what I do real, everything is real, death is real," Braunstein said. He said his intent is not to shock people. "They're intrigued, they're into it."
Braunstein's site never posted the crime scene photos from Nikki Catsouras' death, but he has posted other accident photos. With thousands of sites like Braunstein's, there is no shortage of places to find disturbing images.
"This is very damaging. It's desensitizing some people. It's feeding into the perversion for some people. It's one thing when no one suffers; it's very much another thing to be involving the suffering of others," said Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist.
"We all have some pretty primitive human emotions that are about sadism," Saltz said. " And there is something very gratifying about watching other people get hurt, or tortured or suffer violence."
Saltz warns that while curiosity is normal, an obsession with these images can be unhealthy. If they're pretty obsessed with it, and they're looking at it a lot, I would call it a fetish. I would call it a perversion."
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."
"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, Nikki's sister.
"We are a real family with real hearts," said Nikki's father. "And it hurts what people are doing."