A federal grand jury in California indicted a suburban St. Louis mother on Thursday (May 15) for her alleged role in an Internet hoax against a 13-year-old neighbor who committed suicide. According to the Associated Press, Lori Drew was charged with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization for her part in an alleged bid to get information that was used to inflict emotional distress on Megan Meier.
In December, Missouri prosecutors decided not to file charges against Drew, citing a lack of evidence, but federal authorities in California took up the case because it involved actions that allegedly took place on the computer servers of MySpace, which is a subsidiary of Beverly Hills-based Fox Interactive Media Inc.
Meier committed suicide in October 2006 after being dumped online by a 16-year-old, whom Drew is alleged to have helped create by setting up a fake MySpace account, according to the AP.
Meier's mother said the teen had been on medication but had been upbeat in the six weeks prior to her death, in part as a result of striking up a relationship with a boy she came to know as Josh Evans. She learned that he was born in Florida and had recently moved to a neighborhood near Meier's. He said that he was homeschooled but didn't have a home phone number he could give her yet. Tina Meier said Megan received a message from Josh on October 15 saying he didn't want to be her friend anymore and that he'd heard she wasn't nice to her friends. Another message stated that the "world would be better off" without Megan Meier in it.
The assistant agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office described the case as "heartrending." Salvador Hernandez told the AP, "The Internet is a world unto itself. People must know how far they can go before they must stop. They exploited a young girl's weaknesses. ... Whether the defendant could have foreseen the results, she's responsible for her actions."
Drew has denied creating the account and sending messages to Meier. U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien said the indictment was the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case. "This was a tragedy that did not have to happen," O'Brien told the AP.
Each of the four counts carries a maximum of five years in prison. Drew will be arraigned in St. Louis and then moved to Los Angeles for the trial.
The protected-computers charges came about because, according to the indictment, MySpace members agree to abide by terms of service that include not promoting information they know to be false or misleading, soliciting personal information from anyone under the age of 18 or using information gathered from the Web site to "harass, abuse or harm other people."
The indictment alleges that Drew and other unnamed persons conspired to violate those service terms from around September 2006 to mid-October of that year by allegedly registering as a MySpace member under a phony name, accessing the account to obtain information on Meier and then using that information to "torment, harass, humiliate and embarrass the juvenile MySpace member." After Meier killed herself, the indictment alleges that Drew and the others deleted the account.
Earlier this year, one of Drew's employees, 19-year-old Ashley Grills, told ABC's "Good Morning America" that she created the fake profile but that Drew wrote some of the messages to Megan and suggested that Grills talk to Meier through MySpace to find out what the 13-year-old was saying about Drew's daughter, who was a former friend.
Grills added that she wrote the final message about the world being a better place without Meier, intending to end the online relationship because Grills thought the hoax had gone too far.
"I was trying to get her angry so she would leave him alone and I could get rid of the whole MySpace [account]," Grills told the morning show, according to the AP. Drew has denied knowing anything about the final message.
In November, Tina Meier told a local newspaper that she didn't think anyone involved in the hoax intended for her daughter to commit suicide, but that she thought it was "vile" that an adult would be involved in such behavior.