Arresting the Web

People used to blame the messenger for bad news. Now they blame the medium.

IN 1993, STEVEN LONG, 40, a computer expert, allegedly killed 38-year-old Elvira Long, his wife and the mother of their three children. They were having marital problems. He hid her body near North Bend and reported her missing. Arrested, he confessed and eventually led police to her remains.

In 1998, Robert Durall, 40, a computer expert, allegedly killed 36-year-old Carolyn Durall, his wife and the mother of their three children. They were having marital problems. He hid her body near North Bend and reported her missing. Arrested, he confessed and eventually led police to her remains.

The eerie similarities don't end there: Prosecutors say what really links these two cases is that both husbands first cruised the Internet looking for ways to kill their wives. Long, a former IBM employee and private computer consultant, searched the Net for murder methods and, it turned out, for an alibi should he be caught. "His statement to the police that he had killed his wife accidentally during sex was a story he concocted from research he had done on the Internet," said King County deputy prosecutor Kerry Keefe. Long wanted out of his marriage, and wed a 23-year-old woman before he was convicted of the strangulation slaying—the first and only known murder on Mercer Island

Durall, of Renton, still faces trial but is reported to have confessed to the bloody killing of his wife. The director of the King County Housing Authority's computer division, Durall cruised the Net downloading information on "homicide," "smothering," "poison," and "kill-spouse," prosecutors say. The day she died, Durall's wife told friends she intended to ask out of their marriage.

The murders are two among many examples, experts say, of growing use of the Internet to both enable crimes—such as scams, pedophilia, and porn—and research them. "People used to have to go to the library" seeking crime tips, said Oregon State Police Sgt. Jeff Howard after a recent rash of homemade explosives in his state were linked to online advice sites. "Now they can just sit down at the computer." King County Prosecutor's Office spokesperson Dan Donahoe says his office is seeing a "more common" trend of cases in which juveniles have Net-researched the making of explosive devices as well as "cases where people have researched on the Net ways to make amphetamines."

There's little to prevent it, although the availability of such information may change, depending on the outcome of a Maryland court case. A US appeals court recently ruled that the family of victims of a 1993 murder of two women and a disabled boy have the right to sue the publisher of a book consulted by the hired killer. According to the Los Angeles Times, experts think the liability claim against Palladin Press of Boulder, Colorado, for publishing Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, sets the stage for a landmark free-speech ruling that could affect publishers and Internet service and information providers. Should the court decide that those who supply the deadly how-to's for murder are at least partly culpable (books have been implicated in terrorist acts as well, including the Oklahoma City bombing), it could lead to costly damages and likely limit online criminal guidance.

Some fear it could also have a chilling effect on the First Amendment; for that reason, the Washington Post and New York Times have filed briefs supporting Palladin, arguing in essence that publishers and computers don't kill, their consumers do.

IN SUCH CASES, interpretation may be essential. Numerous Web sites, for example, offer lethal advice to the murderer wannabe, but allegedly just for laughs. The "How to kill yourself" site, for one, advises somewhat tongue-in-cheek how to commit suicide, but offers up diabolical methods that could be used on others. "According to different accounts," the site notes, "death by cyanide ingestion can be quick and painless (12 sec.) or long, drawn out, and unbearably painful (4 or 5 days of writhing pain). It is essentially unpredictable but death is almost certain in any situation." The site then instructs on ways to mix and use the deadly poison. But hey, just kiddin'!

Other sites offer similar advice on such subjects as guns ("Suicider Kurt Cobain taught us a wonderful lesson with shotguns: They can do a fine job removing the pain! Be sure to use buckshot rounds and remember not to kill the neighbors"), bleeding ("Pierce any major arterial blood vessel. The femoral arteries . . . will work great! . . . When a major artery starts to bleed, blood will spray at a high velocity"), and revenge ("Gather intelligence on the target. Comings and goings, car, work, family, look through garbage—this reveals a lot about the target . . . NEVER USE AN ACCOMPLICE"). All in good fun.

There are also seemingly endless search-engine lists of serious and technical ways to shoot, stab, hang, maim, choke, and poison as well as tips on how to cover your tracks: "After having made sure everything is destroyed and disposed of, keep silent! You may want to brag. You may want to let the target know it was you, but don't. It is enough that they suffer."

But that could also be a tip you might get from a neighbor—if you live in that sort of neighborhood. To some, rebuking the Net for murder is a little like denouncing the knife for the cut. Net technology "does not create human vices," thinks Donna Hoffman, a Vanderbilt University professor who has researched the subject. "It's always interesting to me that the Internet is indicted or blamed when we should really be indicting ourselves."

 
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