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Originally published Friday, November 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Frontier justice in an online world?

An outraged town tries to take matters into its own hands after Internet taunts by a woman posing as a boy prompted a young girl to commit suicide.

Los Angeles Times

DARDENNE PRAIRIE, Mo. — For nearly a year, the families living along Waterford Crystal Drive in this bedroom community northwest of St. Louis kept the secret about the boy Megan Meyer met in September 2006 on the social-networking site MySpace.

He called himself Josh Evans, and he and Meier, 13, struck up an online friendship that lasted for weeks.

The boy then abruptly turned on Meier and ended it. Meier, who previously battled depression, committed suicide that night.

The secret was revealed six weeks later: Neighbor mother Lori Drew had pretended to be 16-year-old "Josh" to gain the trust of Meier, who had been fighting with Drew's daughter, according to police records and Meier's parents.

After their daughter's death, Tina and Ron Meier begged other neighbors to keep the story private. Let the local police and the FBI conduct their investigations in privacy, they pleaded.

But after waiting for criminal charges to be filed against Drew, neighbors learned that local and federal prosecutors could not find a statute applicable to the case.

The community's patience dried up. Furious neighbors — and in the wake of recent media reports, an outraged public — are taking matters into their own hands.

In an outburst of virtual vigilantism, readers of blogs listed the Drews' home address, personal phone numbers, e-mail addresses and photographs of the couple.

Dozens of people allegedly have called local businesses that work with the Drew family's advertising-booklet company and flooded the phone lines this week at a local discount department store where Curt Drew reportedly works.

"I posted that — where Curt works. I'm not ashamed to admit that," said Trever Buckles, 40, a neighbor whose two teenage boys grew up with Meier. "Why? Because there's never been any sense of remorse or public apology from the Drews, no 'maybe we made a mistake.' "

Local teenagers and residents protest just steps from their tiny porch. A fake 911 call, claiming a man had been shot inside the Drew home, sent police to surround the one-story house. People drive through the neighborhood in the middle of the night, screaming, "Murderer!"

The Drews, who have mounted cameras and recording devices on the roof of their house to track neighbors' movements, have declined to comment.

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Cyberbullying has become an increasingly creepy reality, where the anonymity of video games, message boards and other online forums offer an outlet for taunts. Yet drawing the line between conduct that is illegal and constitutionally protected free speech can be difficult.

Still, Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, notes one federal statute that might apply in the Meier case: the telecommunications harassment law. The law, amended in 2005, prohibits people from using the Internet anonymously with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person. Terri Dougherty, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in St. Louis, declined to comment on whether prosecutors could apply the statute in the case.

The mounting tension worries community leaders. The St. Charles County Sheriff's Department, which rarely visited the suburb, now patrols regularly. County prosecutors are re-examining the case.

On Wednesday, the city's board of alderman unanimously passed a law that makes cyberharassment a misdemeanor with a maximum 90 days in jail, $500 fine or both for each violation. It's the most stringent punishment available to the city.

"We're all in shock," Mayor Pam Fogarty said. "If I have anything to say about it, we'll never have our hands tied legally like this again."

Online chats

Dardenne Prairie is an upper-middle-class enclave of about 7,400 people 35 miles northwest of St. Louis. Over the years, the flat expanse of farmland has been taken over by subdivisions, bistros and strip-mall cafes.

The Meiers moved to the east side of town 13 years ago. The couple was drawn by numerous families and safe streets with names such as Swan Lake Drive and Tri Sports Drive.

"There were kids everywhere, and they've all grown up together," said Tina Meier, 37, who works in real estate. "They ride their bikes together, have barbecues together, go on family vacations together, go to school together."

Megan Meier befriended Lori and Curt Drew's daughter in elementary school, and the two became close, Meier said.

When Megan transferred to a different middle school last fall in an effort to help her deal with her depression and get away from some bullies, the two girls grew apart, her parents said.

Around the same time, Megan started to use the Internet under the supervision of her parents. The eighth-grader browsed through her friends' Web sites and chatted about school.

When a boy, "Josh," messaged her on MySpace and asked to be friends, the girl excitedly agreed. The two talked online for about six weeks, her parents said.

The messages grew nasty in October 2006, according to an FBI transcript. Josh told her he had heard she was a terrible friend and sent a string of disturbing messages and postings that said Megan was "fat" and "a slut."

The final message isn't included in the transcript: "I remember it said something like, 'The world would be a better off place without you,' " said Ron Meier, 37, who works as a machinist.

That evening, as her parents were downstairs preparing for dinner, Megan wrapped a cloth cord around her neck and hanged herself in her closet. She died the next day.

In the weeks that followed, the Drews comforted the Meiers. They said nothing about the fake MySpace account.

They prayed at the wake and consoled sobbing community members at the girl's funeral. They invited the Meiers to birthday parties and had Megan's sister, Allison, over to bake holiday cookies. They asked the Meiers to help hide Christmas gifts in their garage, far from their children's prying eyes.

Last Thanksgiving weekend, the Meiers learned the truth from a neighbor who had figured out that Lori Drew had conducted the online relationship with Megan. In a rage, they hacked up one of the gifts they were storing — a foosball table — with an ax and sledgehammer. They dumped the pieces onto the Drews' driveway.

"I heard this God-awful screaming," said neighbor Kristie Kriss, 48. "It was Tina. When I heard what happened, I couldn't believe it."

Days later, when the Drews complained to police about the loss of their foosball table, the truth became public.

According to a police report, Lori Drew said she "instigated and monitored" a fake account before Megan's suicide "for the sole purpose of communicating" with the girl.

The Meiers hired an attorney.

"We told our friends to trust the system, and we would have our justice," Ron Meier said.

Neighbors couldn't keep their feelings hidden: Many people shunned the Drews, meeting their gaze with sneers and obscene gestures.

On the anniversary of his daughter's death, Ron Meier's relatives lined the street with balloons and put up signs that asked for "justice for Megan."

Meanwhile, the Meiers' marriage fell apart. Tina moved out this spring and lives with her mother. They are getting divorced. Allison, 11, splits her time between the two.

Ron Meier remained in the house on Waterford Crystal Drive and kept his daughter's room exactly as it was before the suicide. Her clothes fill the closet. But he's stopped sleeping at the house.

His attorney suggested that he spend nights with friends or family, because "if something does happen to the Drews, I'm going to be the No. 1 suspect and I'll need a witness to prove my innocence," Ron Meier said.

"All we feel is frustration, anger," neighbor Kriss said. "For months, we've been asking ourselves, 'What mother in her right mind would do this? And why won't the cops do anything to punish them?'

"We just want them gone."

Los Angeles Times researcher DeeDee Correll and the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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