Murder She Wrote

November 12, 1996

"Hi my name is Gina. . . . I kind of have a fascination with torturing till death . . . . of course i can't speak about it with my friends or family. Would love to have an e-mail exchange with someone."

This message was posted this past August to the newsgroup from an account that Hampstead resident Sharon Lopatka held. Two months later she was dead.

Was this a serious inquiry? Or was it fantasy, some game that went one step too far? No one knows.

Cyberspace theorists such as Sherry Turkle have long written about how computers serve as "extensions" of the self. This may sound like mumbo jumbo, but it's not really. No other form of entertainment lets a person fully play out as many different sides of his or her personality. Even minor quirks, from the mundane to the nihilistic, are given full, uninhibited reign. An Internet user can be transformed from a soft-spoken knitting expert to a fear-inspiring S&M dom in seconds. How this freedom of expression will affect us is still largely unknown.

No doubt anyone with even half an eye on the news is familiar with Sharon Lopatka's murder. On October 25, North Carolina authorities found Lopatka buried in a shallow grave outside the home of Robert Glass, a government computer analyst who lived near the small town of Lenoir, North Carolina. The Caldwell County Sheriff's Department noted that Lopatka appeared to have been strangled; Glass has been charged with murder. The two met on the Internet.

At first, the Lopatka case seemed standard tabloid fodder. So many enticing elements for vultures of shock journalism: trailer-home victim, the Internet, sex, torture, death, etc. More disturbing was the news that followed. Maryland State Police, after examining the E-mail correspondence on Lopatka's computer, reported that she may have left Maryland with the intention of being sexually tortured and murdered by Glass.

If such is true, it is hard to know what to make of it. It is far too immediate for anyone to interpret, in the press or in the Internet community.

At first glance, the cyber trails both Lopatka and Glass left offer few clues as to where they were headed. Kent Annas wouldn't have predicted it. He met Glass in person while working as the Webmaster for Wave Communications, the Lenoir-based Internet service provider Glass used.

"To me, he was friendly and humorous," Annas recalls. "He stuck to small chat. He was a mild-mannered guy."

Annas had known of Glass as a regular user of his own bulletin-board system (BBS) from a year earlier. "From what I gathered, he was very much into tinkering with computer hardware, had a love of swimsuit pictures, and enjoyed interacting on the Internet relay chat. I never thought of him as different from any of my other users."

Although apparently a heavy Internet user, Glass left little evidence of his presence. His name doesn't come up on major Internet search engines on Dejanews, the database of old newsgroup postings. His home page was quickly taken down after the murder.

Lopatka, on the other hand, blazed a trail through cyberspace that still can be traced. It seems she became fascinated with the Internet about a year ago. The beginning of this fascination can perhaps even be pinpointed to a visit she made to the office of Baltimore Resources in the autumn of 1995. Lopatka went to the locally based, health-oriented publication to place an ad and was shown Web pages designed by Doubleclick'd Publications, Baltimore Resources' Web venture.

"Her eyes just lit up," Mike Hughes, then the Webmaster for Doubleclick'd, recalls. He remembers talking to Lopatka for hours about Web pages, chat rooms, and newsgroups. "Most people were just eager to get on-line, but I remember her as being most eager," he says.

Hughes remembers Lopatka as being "a little quirky, but not like she was into dark sexual perversions or anything." Lopatka returned to Baltimore Resources on numerous occasions to rework the two pages she had commissioned Doubleclick'd to design-ads for a psychic hotline and a classified-ad rewriting service. She soon got an account through the Carroll County library system to answer the E-mail those pages generated.

It was to be the first of many accounts, with Prodigy, America Online, and others.

Lopatka spammed numerous newsgroups with advertisements for get-rich-quick schemes. As, she posted messages offering a "FREE Newsletter" on how to turn crafts into money. Under another alias she hawked the 1-900 services of "Vilado," who was "America's Favorite Warlock."

Lopatka also became adept at marketing instant gratification for darker fantasies. As Nancy Carlson, she sold a video of women being rendered unconscious. "Never before has a film like this been made that shows the real beauty of the sleeping victim," she wrote in a posting. "These are actual women who have been induced by many different means . . . into a long sleep." Other messages touted worn panties for sale.

Little is known about how Glass and Lopatka actually met. Was it the death-wish post she issued under the name of Gina that attracted him, or did they meet in a sexual-torture chat room?

Tanith Tyrr, a "sex-rights advocate," told The Washington Post that she became aware of Lopatka's quest late last summer. According to Tyrr, Lopatka was "going into chat rooms and asking to be tortured to death." Tyrr claimed several men had corresponded with Lopatka; some even helped her act out the fantasy in cyberspace, but backed off when they found she was looking for a real-life version.

The reaction to Lopatka's death on the Internet was almost subdued. Much of the discussion on the alt.torture and newsgroups focused on what the limits to playacting are, and how these two people went beyond them. (I talked to Nancy Ava Miller, a sex educator and member of People Exchanging Power, an S&M support group, and she agreed this case went way beyond anything resembling S&M practices. "I don't know what they were doing, but it wasn't S&M," she says; the fundamental rule of the S&M community, says Miller, is to keep interaction "safe, sane, and consensual.")

The mainstream media were similarly befuddled. Cautionary editorials appeared, parroting the usual public-service announcements-don't give out your phone number or other information to strangers in cyberspace, etc.

The real issues are far murkier, however. That Lopatka ended up in danger probably had more to do with opportunity than enticement. Perhaps it was only her geographical location that kept her from dying sooner. Maryland State Police commented to The Sun that in the months preceding her death, she approached people locally asking for the same service. The Internet, however, was a much bigger neighborhood, and chances were far greater that she'd find someone twisted enough to carry out the task.

It's this collapse of space, the Internet's ability to bring together a world of people in one place, that, when combined with the extension of inner self, creates an entirely new dimension. And as in any new world, there are unfamiliar, unknown patterns of cause and effect that each person must learn. No one knows if Lopatka knew what she was getting herself into. We can agree her death is a tragedy, but it would be a mistake to write it off as a freak case, a product of someone else's wrong turn.

Research assistance: David Cassel, Michelle Gienow, and Ed Stevenson.
--Joab Jackson

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