A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted a woman for her alleged role in perpetrating a hoax on the online social network MySpace against a 13-year-old neighbor who later committed suicide. Lori Drew of St. Louis, Mo., 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. Josh didn't exist. Megan hanged herself at home in October 2006 after receiving cruel messages, including one stating the world would be better off without her.
Due to juvenile privacy rules, the indictment refers to the girl as M.T.M., the U.S. attorney's office said.
In January, a Missouri state panel formed by Gov. Matt Blunt after the suicide met and said it would recommend making certain types of harassment a felony, such as if anyone 21 or older harasses people 17 and younger.
"This is an extremely rare case of an adult woman posing as a teenage boy but the cyberbullying is very real and very hurtful,'' notes CBS technology analyst Larry Magid. "About one-third of teens say they have been bullied or harassed online and though suicide is rare, there are plenty of cases where it has led to depression and extreme anxiety."
The unprecedented charges came out of Los Angeles because MySpace is headquartered there, reports CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes. According to the indictment "Lori Drew created a fictitious account and used MySpace to "harass, humiliate, and embarrass...".
While no charges were filed in Missouri, Hughes reports, a local law was passed to outlaw cyberbullying - but some St. Louis neighbors have retaliated with cyber-payback at Rottenneighbor.com - posting: " jail lori drew now" and " ...shame her out of her home..."
Salvador Hernandez, assistant agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, 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. Drew was charged with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress on the girl.
Drew has denied creating the account or sending messages to Megan.
U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien said this was the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case. It has been used in the past to address hacking.
"This was a tragedy that did not have to happen," O'Brien said.
Both the girl and MySpace are named as victims in the case, he said.
MySpace is a subsidiary of Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Fox Interactive Media Inc., which is owned by News Corp. The indictment noted that MySpace computer servers are located in Los Angeles County.
Each of the four counts carries a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison. Drew will be arraigned in St. Louis and then moved to Los Angeles for the trial.