Meet Nikki Catsouras, a beautiful 18 year old who's life was brutally cut short in a gruesome car crash Halloween night, 2006. Traveling at what the California Highway Patrol estimates to be about 100 miles per hour, an intoxicated Nikki slammed her father's Porsche 911 into a concrete tollbooth.
The accident is really nothing unique unfortunately, but the events that followed provide an extremely sobering example of the evil that lurks within the Internet. It also exposes the tragic reality of how unreasonably ineffective our laws are for dealing with online predators, bullies and harassers.
Shortly after Nikki Catsouras accident, photographs of the accident were taken by the California Highway Patrol. This is normal policy and a widely followed practice of accident scene investigators who are seeking to preserve the accident scene. Unfortunately for the Catsouras family, this is the point where the their daughter's tragedy would be turned into an ongoing nightmare.
While some details of the case have yet to emerge completely. We do know that someone from the California Highway Patrol leaked these photos to the public. Within a matter of weeks, the accident scene photos succeeded in saturating the Internet.
The photos in question were extremely graphic. The twisted wreckage of the accident are convincing enough, however the most upsetting images were those of Nikki, who's nearly decapitated head was smashed open. Parts of her head were scattered across the scene while Nikki was still seat belted in the driver's seat of the car.
It's important to give a description of the photos, so you'll understand the heinousness of what came next. The Weekly Vice will not show the image of Nikki this article deals with because it is extremely graphic, and that Catsouras family has been plagued enough by it. We have shown one abstract photo of the wreckage, so you'll be able to understand the significance of the damage, and why the Catsauras family would like the more gruesome photos removed.
While the leaking of these images opens many issues about how law enforcement handles it's investigative material, the real outrage is what the Catsourus family was forced to experience next.
Soon after the release of these photos, while the Catsouras family mourned their daughter's death, the family began to receive taunting message along with the most graphic images from their daughter's accident scene. The photos quickly made their way to an estimated 1,600 websites across the Internet.
Just a few days after the accident, Nikki's teenage cousin opened her cell phone and was confronted with an image of of Nikki's mangled remains. This was no isolated event as many members of the Catsouras family began receiving emails, text messages and links to websites which repeated these graphic images over and over.
The statements that accompanied the images were often cruel, poking fun at the beautiful girl who was no longer beautiful. Even the deceased girl's MySpace page had contained anonymous postings of the accident scene, and a tribute site that was created for Nikki was eventually found to be little more than another front for displaying the grizzly photos.
Christos (Nikki's father) and Lesli Catsouras no longer go online or use email accounts. The Catsouras' three children also avoid using the Internet.
"It's evil!" says Nikki's mother Lesli Catsouras. "It's evil, and this was done maliciously as a joke. And it has devastated our lives completely. People should know that this can happen to them."
"There was threats that people were gonna put the pictures on my locker, in my locker," said Danielle (Nikki's sister). "I remember her in such a great way, I don't wanna see it and have that image stuck in my head."
Nikki's mother agrees. "I've stopped using my email," she says. "I don't want to see these every single day. ... And you know, I take a risk every time I go to the computer.
"We talk about Nikki all the time," says Nikki's father Christos. "We've got pictures of her everywhere. We laugh about her, cry. I always called her Angel."
Tyler Offenhauser, the family's attorney laments the utter lack of legal recourse in cases like these. "The Internet is growing in leaps and bounds. The law is not," he explains.
The Catsauras family's lawsuit against the CHP for allegedly releasing releasing the accident scene pictures to the public was recently confirmed by a judge who set the case for trial before a jury.
"They were crime scene pictures that never, ever should have gone out," says Christos. "There was a big mistake made by the California Highway Patrol that was never really acknowledged, or they never wanted to help us once the mistake had been made".
While the CHP has admitted in a letter to the Catsouras family that it's dispatchers violated department policy, it has said it is not responsible for the Catsouras' anguish.
The Weekly Vice Reaction :
Example after example, the story is the same. Internet predators who victimize the innocent with calculating, heinous acts of disregard, continue to go free. Their activities sometimes even condoned as "free speech".
What may be most troubling however is the ever present excuse making of our elected officials who continue to hide under a desk when the public calls upon them for justice in these cases.
In the case of harassing emails, why didn't officials track down the author behind these offensive attacks? The technology certainly exists. Why would tossing a cigarette butt out a vehicle window constitute a graver offense in the eyes of law enforcement, thus prompting immediate action while cases like these languish in silence?
The excuse lawmakers use to let themselves off the hook stem from the growth of the Internet and how fast it's changing. This is a sham. Chat rooms, message boards, instant messengers and email have been in existence for far over a decade now. While the software used to transmit messages changes slightly, the basic essence of using the Internet to send a message is largely the same. Is a decade or two long enough to establish some basic decency laws in regards to Internet usage? The Vice certainly believes it is.
In both the Nikki Catsouras case and the Megan Meier case, we're continually reminded of how inept our laws are to combat such egregious acts of lawlessness, however these same officials ignore the call to pass the laws they say would convict such acts. We'd like to know what the hold up is.
In very few instances have I ever seen such a great disconnect between lawmakers and the public it claims it serves. In very few instances have I seen such a clear, concise message being sent to lawmakers to act. It isn't every day that an entire nation becomes outraged at the lack of law, yet lawmakers fail to heed the call.
In many Internet stalking/harassment cases, perpetrators refuse to take responsibility for their actions. In both cases here, we have a complete lack of real concern from officials towards victims of these cases. They simply continue to point out the lack of legal recourse as if it were a bragging right.
Why wouldn't voters be outraged at lawmakers who waste massive amounts of time running American troop activities into the ground, while our own children are exploited, harassed, stalked and even murdered - all the while excusing themselves from responsibility by casting it off as a freedom of speech.
Laws that are eventually enacted are so weak, they often times rival the seriousness of a speeding ticket. It's really time the issue be fully explored as a priority at both the state and federal levels. Unfortunately we aren't optimistic that this will be the case - as lawmakers have already played the "freedom of speech" card in both cases here.
The Weekly Vice