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Something to think about

Apr 30, 1998 06:07 PM
by Thoa Tran

Excerpted from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle
By Amy Harmon
New York Times
Bowman, N.D.

For nearly a year, Elisa DeCarlo had been logging on to the Internet daily
to type messages to an online support group about her battle against
alcohol.  It did not matter that she did not know where most of the 200 or
so other participants in the group lived, or even their names.  All that
mattered was that they were there for her, and she for them, in a fight
that some days sapped all of her strength and sense of humor.

But the morning of Monday, March 23, drinking her usual cup of coffee as
she scrolled through the previous day's e-mail, DeCarlo, a 38-year-old
comedian in New York City, lost faith in her vitual community.

Along with the typical postings from members about their weekends was a
message from a man she knew as Larry.  In graphic detail, Larry described
how three years ago he killed his 5-year-old daughter, Amanda, in a North
Dakota town of Bowman.

In the message, posted at 12:50 p.m. on March 22, Larry recounted how,
overcome by a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife, he had set fire to
his home and trapped his daughter inside.


The e-mail message struck DeCarlo as horrifying, but she grew further
dismayed over the online debate that followed.

While some members of the support group were appalled by Larry's account,
others rushed to his defense, trying to assure him that he was experiencing
a fantasy driven by guilt over his divorce.  Others tried to comfort him by
telling him that the crime was long past.

On March 24, in the midst of what is known on the Internet as a flame war,
DeCarlo was one of three members of the support group to notify
law-enforcement officials.

Bowman police said Larry Froistad, a 29-year-old computer programmer in San
Diego, called them March 27 and confessed.  Froistad has since been
extradited to Bowman, a town of about 1,800 people, and he is scheduled to
be arraigned on murder charges tomorrow in the courthouse.  The courthouse
is a few blocks from a slab of concrete and rusted plumbing where his
daughter died in a fire that was ruled accidental at the time.


Jim Shirk, 59, went to the FBI.  When news of Larry's arrest reached the
group, someone called for the squealers to come forward.  Shirk, of
Bremerton, Wash., who said he had been sober for 19 years and is a licensed
chemical dependency counselor, sent the person private e-mail explaining
his desire to remain anonymous.

Instead, the person posted the e-mail to the whole list, and sent Shirk
private e-mail back:  "Just how big a pervert are you?" it read.  "I bet
you really get off talking to the FBI.  Wow.  Did you ask them if you could
see their guns?"


Experts who study the sociology of cyberspace say the intersection of the
confidentiality ethic of self-help groups and the sometimes illusory
anonymity of online communion can make for particularly sticky situations.


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