LOS ANGELES (AP) - A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted a Missouri woman for her alleged role in perpetrating a MySpace online hoax on a 13-year-old neighbor girl who committed suicide.
Lori Drew of suburban St. Louis was charged with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress on the girl.
Drew allegedly helped create a false-identity MySpace account to contact Megan Meier, who thought she was chatting with a 16-year-old boy named "Josh Evans."
Megan hanged herself at home in October 2006 after receiving cruel messages, including one stating the world would be better off without her.
Drew has denied creating the account and sending messages to Megan. Messages seeking comment were left with Drew's attorney, Jim
Briscoe, on Thursday.
In Missouri, Megan's mother, Tina Meier, told The Associated Press she believed media reports and public outrage helped move the case forward for prosecution.
"I'm thrilled that this woman is going to face charges that she has needed to face since the day we found out what was going on, and since the day she decided to be a part of this entire ridiculous stunt," she said.
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 has said stemmed from the circumstances of their daughter's death.
U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien said the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used before to address Internet hacking, but this was the first time it has been used in a social-networking situation.
"This was a tragedy that did not have to happen," O'Brien said at a Los Angeles press conference.
Both the girl and MySpace are named as victims in the case, he said.
After the indictment, MySpace issued a statement saying it "does not tolerate cyberbullying" and was cooperating fully with the U.S. attorney.
MySpace, a social networking site, is owned by Beverly Hills-based Fox Interactive Media Inc. The indictment noted that computer servers are located in Los Angeles County.
Due to juvenile privacy rules, the indictment refers to the girl as M.T.M., the U.S. attorney's office said.
FBI agents in St. Louis and Los Angeles investigated the case, said Salvador Hernandez, assistant agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office. He 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," Hernandez said.
"Whether the defendant could have foreseen the results, she's responsible for her actions," he said.
The conspiracy count carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. Each count of accessing protected computers carries
a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison. In all, Drew could face up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted.
Drew will be arraigned in St. Louis and then moved to Los Angeles for trial.
The indictment said MySpace members agree to abide by terms of service that include, among other things, not promoting information they know to be false or misleading; soliciting personal information from anyone under age 18 and not using information gathered from the Web site to "harass, abuse or harm other people."
The indictment charged that Drew and others, who were not named,
conspired to violate the service terms from about September 2006 to
mid-October of that year.
They registered as a MySpace member under a phony name and used
the MySpace account to obtain information on the girl, the grand jury alleged.
Drew and her co-conspirators "used the information obtained over the MySpace computer system to torment, harass, humiliate, and embarrass the juvenile MySpace member," the indictment charged.
The indictment contends Drew and others committed or aided in a dozen "overt acts" that were illegal, including using a photograph of a boy that was posted without his knowledge or permission.
Drew and the others used "Josh Evans" to flirt with the girl, telling her she was "sexi," the indictment charged.
Around Oct., 7, 2006, Megan was told that "Josh" was moving away, prompting the girl to write: "aww sexi josh ur so sweet if u moved back u could see me up close and personal lol."
Several days later, "Josh" urged the girl to call and added: "i love you so much."
But on or about Oct. 16, "Josh" wrote to the girl and told her "in substance, that the world would be a better place without M.T.M. in it," the indictment contended.
The girl killed herself the same day, and Drew and the others deleted the information for the account opened under the phony name, the indictment said.
Last month, 19-year-old Ashley Grills, an employee of Drew, told ABC's "Good Morning America" she created the false MySpace profile, but said Drew wrote some of the messages to Megan.
Grills also claimed Drew suggested talking to Megan via the Internet to find out what Megan was saying about her daughter, who was a former friend.
Grills also said she wrote the message to Megan about the world being a better place without her. The message was supposed to end the online relationship with "Josh" because Grills felt the joke had gone too far.
"I was trying to get her angry so she would leave him alone and I could get rid of the whole MySpace," Grills told the morning show.
Megan's death was investigated by Missouri authorities, but no state charges were filed because no laws appeared to apply to the case.
Associated Press Writers Greg Risling in Los Angeles, Betsy
Taylor in St. Louis and Lara Jakes Jordan in Washington, D.C.,
contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)