A woman faces charges for allegedly perpetrating a hoax on the online social network MySpace against a 13-year-old neighbour who committed suicide.
Lori Drew, of suburban St Louis, Missouri, is accused of helping to create a MySpace account in the name of someone who did not exist to convince troubled teenager Megan Meier she was chatting with a 16-year-old boy called Josh Evans.
Megan hanged herself at home in October 2006, allegedly after receiving a dozen or more cruel messages, including one stating the world would be better off without her.
Drew was charged yesterday with conspiracy and fraudulently gaining access to someone else’s computer.
Each of the four counts carries a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison.
Drew will appear in court in St Louis and then be moved to Los Angeles for trial.
Salvador Hernandez, assistant agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, called the case heart-rending.
“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,” he said.
“Whether the defendant could have foreseen the results, she’s responsible for her actions.”
Drew was charged by a federal grand jury on one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorisation to get information used to inflict emotional distress on the girl.
She has denied creating the account or sending messages to Megan.
Her lawyer, Jim Briscoe, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
A man who opened the door at the Drew family home in Dardenne Prairie yesterday said the family had no comment.
Megan’s mother, Tina Meier, said she believed press reports and public outrage helped move the case forward for prosecution.
Megan’s father, Ron Meier, 38, said he began to cry “tears of joy” when he heard of the indictment.
The parents are now separated, which Tina Meier claims stemmed from the circumstances of their daughter’s death.
Mrs Meier admitted that Megan was too young to have a MySpace account under the website’s guidelines, said she had been able to closely monitor the account. The family has also acknowledged that Megan was also sending mean messages before her death.
Megan was being treated for attention deficit disorder and depression, her family has said. Meier has said Drew knew Megan was on medication.
MySpace issued a statement saying it “does not tolerate cyberbullying” and was cooperating fully with the US attorney.
US Attorney Thomas O’Brien said this was the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case. It has been used in the past to address hacking.
“This was a tragedy that did not have to happen,” Mr O’Brien said in Los Angeles.
Both the girl and MySpace were named as victims in the case, he said.