The Dangers of Online Relationships & Stalking:
How True Love or Tragedy is Only a Click Away
The Story of Kerry Kujawa
Author Raymond Chan was a classmate of Kerry Kujawa's for several years in Sugar Land, Texas. Kerry's tragic story serves as a poignant example of the dangers of online relationships with offline consequences.
An Unexpected Phone Call
Late last April I got a phone call one afternoon from a good high school friend of mine who attended Texas A&M University. Not expecting the call, I good-naturedly asked how things were going.
It was not a social call. There was no good news, and things were not going well.
Earlier that day police had identified the body of Kerry Kujawa, a fellow A&M student and an old classmate that we had gone to school with for years. Kerry's body had been found, badly decomposed and unidentifiable, in a field on a remote ranch in the Texas hill country. The story around Kerry's tragic death would come out over the next day, and its nature shocked all of us who had known him.
Kerry had been having an online relationship with whom he thought to be a young woman under the screen name 'kelly_mc', meeting and communicating through an online chat room. Her real name was "Kelly McCauley", and seemed to be a nice pre-law student who was trapped in a destructive relationship, and Kerry was one of those people who wouldn't let her stay in such an emasculating position. They seemed to grow closer and closer over the months, and eventually Kerry started to ask Kelly to meet face to face, so that he could help her. He apparently grew insistent on helping her, and on April 7th, 2000, Kerry left campus to meet her in San Antonio.
A week or so later Kerry's family and friends received an email from Kerry saying that he was ok and would be staying with Kelly for a little longer. Online, Kelly had been telling others in the close-knit chat room that she and Kerry were engaged and would be getting married soon.
In the end, this fairy tale fantasy would prove to have been a terrible tragedy. A couple weeks later Kerry's friends started to worry about his continued absence from school and field a missing-persons report. Just the day before, police had discovered Kerry's body, but had not yet been able to identify it. The news came as a crushing blow to Kerry's family, friends, and all those who had known him.
Who was 'kelly_mc'?
Kerry's online love interest, 'Kelly', was not who he or anybody else thought she was. By interviewing the operators and frequent participators of the chat room, police obtained the phone numbers and addresses that the person had given out to contact her at. Authorities were also helped by carefully examining the computers Kerry had used to send and receive emails from 'kelly_mc'. 'She' was actually 31 year-old, 6' 2" Kenny Wayne Lockwood, a former McDonald's assistant manager who lived with his parents in an upscale neighborhood in San Antonio. He had no felony convictions and described by one neighbor as being the "last [person one would assume] for being involved [in the murder]." Others neighbors described him as "quiet, a real computer geek."
It would later come out that Lockwood had used the persona of 'Kelly' to talk with other young men in addition to Kerry, luring them with an appealing story and pictures of an attractive young woman to further the ploy. To conceal his identity, Lockwood met Kerry under the pretense of being Kelly's brother, then shot and killed him and disposed of his body. To delay the discovery of the murder, Lockwood sent the email purporting to be Kerry and continued to assume the persona of 'Kelly' in the chat room and furthering the story of the two supposedly in love.
To those of us who had known and grown up with Kerry, the news of his death came as a terrible shock. The story of his murder, however, came as an even greater surprise. Kerry was a smart, highly intelligent, and computer-savvy individual. He was not the stereotypical 'computer geek' who spent his entire social life in front of a monitor and kept indoors or a 'jock' who would have been ignorant and not understanding of computers and the inherent risks. Instead, he was a sociable individual, an avid track athlete, and a notable engineering student.
Having talked with him on an almost daily basis throughout high school, I can say that Kerry was not a soft hearted, idealistic, or romantic individual. Furthermore, he was one of the brightest minds at my high school, ranked high in the class and one who took a challenging schedule of AP courses and extra-curricular activities. I would never have guessed that Kerry would be one to be tricked into such a deep and deceptive ploy by someone else; if anything, I can recall some of the joking pranks that he had played on others. All of us who previously had read or heard stories of failed online relationships in the media and dismissed them now had to rethink our beliefs. We had to re-examine our online lives and our hollow belief that we were somehow invulnerable to the situations that these stories presented.
Kerry's death forced all of us in the community and schools to rethink our notions of the Internet and the online world. It is too easy to think of the Internet as a collection of web pages and dot.coms, a resource of information and services that exist in a space parallel but separate from the "real world." However, the Internet is as much a community of people as it is a collection of pages and files, and those people very much exist in the same world that we do. The difficulty one finds in trying to categorize and potentially control the content of static pages becomes exponentially more complicated when applied the mildly analogous realm of miscellaneous interpersonal communication online.
As the idiom goes, on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog.
The World of Online Stalkers
Online chat has become increasingly popular in recent years, offering a way for individuals to meet and talk with others in an environment that seems anonymous and open. As Kerry's story illustrates, it's both easy to meet new people online and easy to forget that these people can come from all walks of life. While people are reluctant to chat with a random person on the street, it tends to be considerably easier for people to talk freely and openly online, under the context of being essentially anonymous. However, a certain danger arises when this sense of security lulls online participants into divulging into their real-life worlds.
A common sentiment among the non-tech savvy in the early days of the Internet was that the online world was disproportionately populated with socially deviant individuals; a seamy underground world best to be avoided. As the online presence has grown, people have come to realize that the online population tends, in a general sense, to mirror the general one. However, the real power in the network is its power to connect individuals who previously had no opportunity for meeting in any real life context. The power to connect those with like interests, but also the power for those with socially deviant desires to seek and stalk their prey more easily and to confide in others who would never admit to their tendencies offline. Online stalkers harass and follow those they meet online, sometimes, as in Kerry's case, with tragic real world consequences.
As with all other aspects of the Internet, anonymous people online should be considered with the same suspicion and regard that is accorded to content. Given the ease by which anyone can publish content online, the source of information is often closely analyzed and critiqued before being considered seriously. Likewise, anyone can log on to the Internet and enter a chat room - it is always prudent to know when to trust and distrust another online.
The Scope of the Problem
While it is easy both to under- and over-state the problem, the truth remains - online stalking occurs with enough prevalence to justify caution and preventive measures among the online public. Statistics, given the uncoordinated nature of the Internet, are few, but an August 1999 study on cyberstalking by the US Attorney General for the Vice President paints a disturbing picture on the ease and seriousness of the problem. Given the severity of offline stalking - the report states that one out of every twelve women have been stalked at some point in their lives - the implications of online techniques are troubling. Even lacking direct quantitative measurement, the report cites anecdotal evidence from law enforcement and ISPs to show that "cyberstalking is a serious - and growing - problem." In addition, while it is tempting to dismiss cyberstalking as merely harassing emails and messages that can be easily ignored, it is a serious crime that can often be a prelude to offline offenses. Also, given the growing integration of online services into daily life, stalkers can interfere more and more with everyday activities such as email and online transactions.
Stalking is an issue of considerable concern in the offline world; the Internet serves to broaden their reach and accessibility. People who would normally have to self control to not harass others in public might not think of online interaction in the same vein. Furthermore, this new level of accessibility to questionable and illegal content poses another pressing problem - addiction to online sexual content.