A Missouri woman accused of pretending to be a smitten teenage boy on MySpace and driving a 13-year-old girl to suicide with cruel messages faces federal charges that could lead to 20 years in jail.
Prosecutors say Lori Drew, 49, and others created the fake persona of a 16-year-old boy to woo her neighbour Megan Meier for weeks on the social networking site, then suddenly ended the relationship, telling her the world would be better off without her.
Megan hanged herself in her room, hours after she read those final messages two years ago, prompting worldwide calls for sites such as MySpace to crack down on cyberbullying.
"This adult woman allegedly used the internet to target a young teenage girl, with horrendous ramifications," said Thomas O'Brien, an attorney in Los Angeles, where MySpace is based. "Any adult who uses the internet or a social-gathering website to harass or bully another person, particularly a young girl, must realise their actions can have serious consequences."
The indictment, which was delivered in Los Angeles after state prosecutors in Missouri declined to bring charges, is unprecedented, and legal experts believe it may stretch to breaking point the federal statute on which it was based .
"We are in uncharted waters here," Rebecca Lonergan, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said. "This is a very aggressive charging decision, and I'm not sure this statute technically covers the essence of the harm."
Ms Drew was charged on a total of four counts – one of conspiracy and three of accessing a computer without authorisation – each carrying a jail term of up to five years.
The latter three counts are normally used in cases of people accused of hacking into government computer networks. But Ms Drew is accused of violating MySpace's user agreement to obtain information to "further a torturous act, namely the intentional infliction of emotional distress". MySpace said it was "fully co-operating" with prosecutors.
Ms Drew, the mother of a teenage girl who had quarrelled with Megan, and others are said to have set up a profile for a fictional "Josh Evans", using the picture of a teenage boy.
They then contacted Megan, who lived just four doors away in O'Fallon, Missouri, through MySpace and used the non-existent Josh to flirt with her before ending the relationship in October 2006. That day, "Josh" sent Megan a message saying, "I don't want to be friends with you any more because you're not nice to your friends".
This post set off a deluge of hate mail from other users of the site. "All of Josh's friends and all of Megan's friends were calling her a whore, a fat ass, all kinds of God-awful names," said Megan's mother, Tina, in a TV interview last year when the case surfaced. Megan, who had argued with her mother over the cyber-relationship, hanged herself in her bedroom cupboard, unaware until the end that "Josh" did not exist.
Ms Drew is accused of deleting the fictitious MySpace account after Megan killed herself, and warning a girl who knew about it to "keep her mouth shut". Ms Drew denies that she ever created the "Josh" account.