For six months, something filthy and menacing entered the O'Fallon home of Mike and Cheri Price. Their daughter Stefanie, 18, received 500 to 1,000 unwanted electronic messages to her MySpace account.
The sender threatened to stalk her and track her down, drug her and rape her.
The language was obscene and disturbing. Many messages came with the image of a swastika. Some made derogatory references to African-Americans.
A May 6 message mentioned where Stefanie works, AmeriKids Christian Care, an O'Fallon business owned by her parents. Another told Stefanie she had better sleep with a gun. One subject header was "kill you."
"The messages just got worse and worse," Cheri says.
The sender taunted Stefanie's efforts to try to block them.
Stefanie didn't immediately report this to her parents. But she finally came to them in tears. Her tormentor had taken her photo from MySpace, posted it on RateMyBody.com and listed her "hobbies" as various sexual acts. The posting included the Prices' home phone number.
Stefanie says people will not fully understand the viciousness. She fears they will dismiss it as merely written words.
"No one has gone through reading these messages " She is in tears before she finishes.
Why didn't she simply cancel her account?
She didn't in order to help police, says Mike, a former member of the Fort Zumwalt Board of Education. Mike started screening the messages. No one in the family ever responded, he says.
From February through July, the Prices did not know who was responsible. Was it a registered sex offender? Was it someone who had raped before?
Mike and Cheri required that Stefanie be on her cell phone with them - continuously - when driving alone.
'I wasn't being serious'
O'Fallon police worked the case armed with subpoenas for MySpace, Charter Communications and others. It led to two Internet Protocol addresses, neither of which was linked to a suspect. But both houses - one in O'Fallon and one in Maryville, Ill. - had unsecured wireless-Internet service.
In a textbook case of police work, the detective talked with people in the O'Fallon neighborhood, and two young people mentioned a young man living nearby who, in the words of the police report, "has made statements about idolizing the person in charge of the holocaust."
Police questioned the boy, then a 17-year-old Fort Zumwalt North student, and discovered he had been pirating the unsecured Internet service of neighbors.
The boy's parents have homes in O'Fallon and Maryville.
Here is what he told O'Fallon police July 16:
"This all started one day when I decided to try MySpace. I created an account and uploaded a fake picture. I started to browse for users that went to my school, and I noticed this hot girl that used to be in a class of mine.
"So I tried sending her a message saying hi and that I thought she was really hot. I didn't get a reply back, so I started to try and get her attention in some negative and stupid ways. I made it my goal to get some response out of her because I am stubborn like that.
"Anyway, I did not mean any threats I made to her. I am very sorry for what I have done, and the stuff I said does not reflect how I really am. The messages I was sending on MySpace were just a joke. I wasn't being serious and did not want to hurt anyone."
Here's Mike's response: "I think you mean what you say if you say it 500 times."
Stefanie doesn't know the young man. "I looked in the yearbook. I recognized his face."
A conviction, but for what?
The boy was charged with harassment in O'Fallon Municipal Court, an ordinance violation. All ordinance violations carry the same range of penalty: a maximum $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail.
Although the Prices are unsure why more serious charges were not filed, they knew that, at least, a harassment conviction might alert others to what the boy did. The Prices believe he is dangerous and needs counseling.
His e-mails remind Cheri of the murderous rampages at Columbine and Virginia Tech.
"I am just so fearful that one day he is going to grab a gun and go to school or to work because he doesn't think his life is important," she says.
In one e-mail, the young man states, "I don't have a life I live on my computer and will never leave it."
He refers to himself as a loser. In an obscenity-laced e-mail, he states that he is ugly, stupid and has no future other than going to Iraq to get his head shot off.
I have chosen in this story not to name him.
In September, the boy, or possibly his family, hired an attorney.
The Prices, all four of them, wrote victim impact statements.
"I have never felt so disrespected and scared in my life," Stefanie wrote.
The Prices requested several times to meet or to talk to the municipal prosecutor, Larry D. Nesslage. They wanted to personally convey the impact this has had on their family.
But the only way to reach him was through Jeff Chapple, the administrator of the O'Fallon municipal court. Nesslage, a former St. Charles County prosecuting attorney, does not have a law office. He does not have a listed phone number. He does not allow court staff to give out his phone number. He has to call you.
Chapple says he relayed the Prices' requests to Nesslage.
But the Prices, despite their efforts, never had the opportunity to speak to him. Chapple repeatedly told them there was no reason for them to go to court unless the defendant pleads not guilty.
Nevertheless, the Prices went to municipal court Oct. 8. They were flabbergasted to discover the young man already pleaded guilty to a charge of littering. Yes, littering.
Can't discuss any case
"How did his confession to harassment become a 'lie' of littering?" Mike asks. "The system did not communicate to us what was going to happen. If the prosecuting attorney would have given us a half-hour of his time … "
Cheri interrupts, "We would have even paid him for his time."
Mike says he would have been satisfied, even with a littering conviction, if the boy was required to seek counseling.
In response, Nesslage said on Thursday that he would check his records to see if he ever received a request to contact the Prices.
I asked how a harassment charge gets reduced to littering.
Nesslage says he is prohibited by a professional code of conduct from answering that question if it comes from someone unrelated to the case, such as a reporter, which is news to me.
"Of course he doesn't want to talk to you," Mike says. "He didn't want to talk to me either. And regarding our requests to talk to him, that's just poor housekeeping on his part."
I gave Nesslage Mike's cell number, and he said he would call him. I later found out he did and that he offered to meet the Prices this week.
If he doesn't, says O'Fallon City Administrator Robert Lowery Jr., the Prices should call him. Nesslage is under contract with the city.
"Our police put a lot of work into the case," Lowery says. "I am disappointed. If nothing else, I am troubled for the parents.
"If it was my daughter, I also would want to talk to Jack (Banas) about it," Lowery says. Banas is the prosecuting attorney for St. Charles County.
Banas checked his records Friday afternoon for the name of the young man convicted of littering and said there is no record that O'Fallon police ever asked his office to file charges against him.
Lowery says his officer discussed the case with a senior member of Banas' staff.
"It was never brought down here and formally applied for," Banas said. "And now we are in some kind of spitting contest."
Banas also said that, legally, no court should accept a plea to a lesser charge when there is no evidence or no allegation that the defendant committed that crime.
"Yet that routinely happens in municipal courts throughout the St. Louis area and no one has questioned it," Banas says. It also happens in state courts when speeding tickets are reduced to a non-moving violation such as a loud muffler, he says.
Lowery points out that the young man received the maximum municipal-court fine and either he or his family incurred the expense of hiring an attorney.
Was last laugh in June?
But is the young man receiving counseling? Did his parents fling his computer into the landfill? Do they even know of the rage and hate in his messages?
The boy's lawyer did not return phone calls requesting comment. I called the parents directly and spoke to his mother Thursday afternoon. I told her I would not identify her son.
She said she would not immediately answer my questions but would write them down. In the process, she provides one answer.
"Of course I did not know what he was doing until later," she says.
"I really don't think my son would want me to answer these questions," she adds.
What about your husband? Can I speak to him?
"He's sleeping; he works the second shift."
She asks me to call back at 7 p.m. But later in the afternoon, she says, "We have been advised not to speak with you."
So I will leave you, instead, with one of her son's e-mails.
Jun 21, 2007 9:09 PM
the police .what am i gonna do now???
look at me i'm shaking