A 40-year-old St. Peters woman was charged Monday under Missouri’s new cyberharassment law for allegedly harassing a 17-year-old girl by posting the girl’s photo, workplace, e-mail and cell phone on a Craigslist forum where people go to pursue sexual encounters.
Elizabeth Thrasher is accused of posting the information May 1 to harass the daughter of her ex-husband’s girlfriend.
The ex-husband had moved in with his girlfriend in St. Charles County, which prompted an argument between Thrasher and the girlfriend, according to Jack Banas, St. Charles County prosecuting attorney.
As part of the bickering, the girlfriend’s daughter sent an electronic message to Thrasher, Banas said. Thrasher retaliated by placing the ad on Craigslist, Banas said.
According to the probable cause statement, which is made by police and found in court records, "The language in the advertisement could be construed as sexual in nature."
Without permission, Banas said, Thrasher used the 17-year-old’s MySpace photo as part of the ad. Because of the ad, the 17-year-old received lewd calls, e-mails and photos, according to Banas.
"She did it for the purpose of causing emotional distress and it actually caused emotional distress," Banas said.
It is the first time in St. Charles County the law, passed in May 2008, has been used to bring a felony charge. The law was created in response to the 2006 suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie.
Megan, who had suffered from depression, took her life after a boy she had met on MySpace turned mean and wrote, "The world would be a better place without you."
Six weeks after Megan’s death her parents discovered that the boy, named Josh Evans, did not exist. Instead, his MySpace page was created by an adult neighbor down the street, Lori Drew, and Drew’s daughter Sarah and an 18-year-old employee named Ashley Grills.
Drew, now 50, was convicted by a jury in November in Los Angeles, where MySpace is located, on three misdemeanor federal charges of illegally accessing a computer. Those convictions were tentatively overturned last month by the judge in the case. The Drews no longer live in Missouri.
Banas said in 2007 that existing Missouri law did not cover Drew’s actions and therefore he could not bring charges.
The new law covers cases where the harassing information is not sent directly to the victim, but to a third party, in this case Craigslist, Banas said.
The charge is enhanced to a felony because Thrasher is 21 or older and the victim is 17 or younger.
"It was born of a tragedy, but now we have a law that has broadened our ability to go after those individuals who try to disrupt other peoples’ lives or who try to frighten others or who try to cause emotional distress," Banas said. "It brings us into the 21st century."
Thrasher faces up to four years in prison. Her attorney, Michael Kielty, with offices in St. Charles, said Tuesday the law is so broad that, if challenged, it would be found unconstitutional.
"That is just a patently ridiculous statute," Kielty said. "It’s a knee-jerk reaction to a terrible tragedy that happened a couple of years ago. It’s flabbergasting that this lady has been charged and that she is looking at four years in prison."
In addition, Kielty said, the Craigslist posting was "relatively innocuous" and does not constitute criminal behavior. If the same information were disseminated about the victim on a street corner or written on a bathroom wall, he said, the conduct would not be criminal.
Thrasher was released from jail Monday after posting 10 percent of a $10,000 bond. She was ordered to not contact the victim and, when home, not to use a computer or the Internet.
The information was posted on an area of Craigslist called "Casual Encounters." It is listed under "Personals" and viewers must first state they are at least 18. They are cautioned that there might be "adult content." The subject lines on Tuesday were mostly sexual, including "looking for well endowed man" and "in search of real life nymphos."
Banas said he was stunned that given the sustained publicity of the Megan Meier case that someone would attempt to harass a 17-year-old in cyberspace, let alone do it in St. Charles County.
"When it came across the prosecutor’s desk, I could not believe that we were sitting here dealing with this," he said. "What are the chances of my county having it?"
The first St. Charles County case brought under the new law was resolved with a negotiated plea of guilty in March. Nicole Williams, 21, of unincorporated St. Charles County, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of harassment and was sentenced to two years of probation.
But that case, Banas said, could have been brought under the old law, as well, because the harassment was sent directly to the victim, in the form of text messages.
State Sen. Scott Rupp, R-2nd District, of Wentzville, said Tuesday the state panel that wrote the first draft of the cyberspace harassment bill thought long and hard about how to address third-party Internet postings. Rupp was on the state panel and sponsored the bill in the Senate.
Rupp said the panel discussed how the law should make it a crime, for example, should an angry ex-boyfriend post in a sex magazine that his former girl friend has rape fantasies, and include the woman’s name and address in the post.
"Prosecutors at least have a tool to bring a case forward now," Rupp said. "And then it will be whatever the jury decides. When the Megan Meier case came up, they didn’t have that."