She signed up for a computer service to access information and make friends –but found herself the target of an invisible, high-tech predator who threatened to become an all-too-real menace to her children. As Mark Stuart Gill reports, it’s simpler to log off than to seek justice in cyberspace.
January 1995
Portraits by Mary Ellen Mark.

Computer targets: On-line-stalking victim Laurie Powell, her son, Burt, and daughter, Amber, near their North Carolina home.

On February 17, 1993, Laurie Powell, a housewife in Greensboro, North Carolina, said good night to her children. She put the house in order. Then she flicked on the computer in her bedroom and, through her phone line, signed on to the on-line service Prodigy, not knowing she was about to open a Pandora's box.

Her family had bought the IBM clone six months earlier, with Prodigy preinstalled on the hard drive. For a monthly fee, Prodigy members can find out the weather, the news, and the latest stock quotations, make plane reservations, or send E-mail to friends and relatives in different states.

But the main draw for 41-year-old Powell, a small attractive woman with brown hair, was the many discussion groups -known as bulletin boards- where people can upload their ideas, experiences, and opinions, and read other people's comments. New users find E-mail powerfully conducive to intimacy. "On-line relationships become intense very quickly," says Powell. "It's about making close connections, finding others that understand you. That's hard to do today."

These days, this is all Laurie Powell is willing to reveal publicly about herself: She was born and went to college in the Midwest. Several members of her family were cops; she once worked as a medical therapist. After 2l years of marriage, she has two teenagers who live at home: a daughter and an adopted son who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. Her husband's job in industrial sales is good enough for them to own a three-bedroom home in Greensboro with cathedral ceilings, fireplaces, and a wooded lot. At night, they can sit out on the deck and see rabbits and raccoons. "We're a pretty straight-and-narrow family," she says. "Just dealing with the usual: student drivers, boyfriends, homecoming. We have dinner together almost every night." She loves reading Danielle Steele, hates Stephen King.

Sometimes, when she'd felt the strain of raising a retarded son, she had sought solace on the Home Life and Medical bulletin boards. "A virtual extended family was out there listening to anything you had to say, anytime," she says. But that night, the Home Life Board contained an obscene public message that mentioned Powell by name, signed by someone calling himself "Vito." Powell was shocked: This wasn't what she had signed up for -age-old crimes against women, perpetrated on new technology.

What if her kids were to read it? She didn't think to download the message and print it out; it seemed like a random act. Nor could she bring herself to tell her husband about it.

But soon there were more messages, first signed "Vito," then under a variety of names. This one came from a "David Fauhs":

Laurie Powell AKA snutmuffin… The 'Cracker' who has beer for breakfast, lives with a hangover, her underdeveloped AFS child, Mutt's claim to fame is screwing 2/3's of the Navy. Seems she is to visit out west soon, looking at Monterey. Sadly to report, nearby Fort Ord is an Army Base, (and closed) so she will have to keep her pants on.

This message smacked her with the jarring immediacy of a phone call and the stiletto precision of a written letter. She felt sick and confused: Mixed in with the pornographic lies was some vaguely accurate information. In making dozens of faceless electronic friends over a matter of weeks, had she been too forward? Had she mentioned her upcoming vacation or that she had relatives in the navy?

Powell reached out and flipped the computer off. The offending message evaporated, and she instantly felt better. But when she signed on the following day, the message was still there for any of her friends or Prodigy's two million users to read. This time she responded to Vito: "Pls leave me alone."

Later a message came from an "L. Jacques Neaudex," claiming to live in Greensboro, warning: "Laurie, be careful, sometimes even the mailman can be a stalker!" It included her home address. Powell called a Prodigy operator and demanded that the message be deleted, and to know the identity of her harasser. Powell discovered that the sender's ID was fictitious; the message remained on the board for three more hours until Prodigy removed it and kicked the sender off the system.

But the messages continued. What really troubled Powell wasn't the vile personal smears; if all threats and conflicts were confined to cyberspace, the world would probably be a better place. What worried her was that "Vito' seemed to be keeping a personal file on her, culling small bits of information from her on-line conversations and maybe from some unknown sources. How did this person get her home address-and who knows what other personal information? Why was she being singled out? Who was "Vito'?

More than six billion messages flow annually through the global Internet, with few boundaries and no proprietors. Three of the major online services, Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online, reach an audience nearly as large as New York City. And millions more access the Net through independent bulletin boards, corporate hookups, and university links.

The pervasive fear of this electrodemocracy has always been the possibility of terrorists hacking into the U.S. Army's mainframe, or spies datajacking corporate secrets. But instead, the biggest problem has been regular folks arguing, even threatening one another, creating a social meltdown that lawmakers and law-enforcement officials seem incapable of controlling.

Twenty-four hours a day, a large section of the Net is choked with ugly E-mail known as flames. Stumbling across some discussion groups is like seeing the Malibu hillsides after the California firestorms: blackened, apocalyptic, nothing useful left. Maybe it's because the Net has radically thrown together classes of people who've never previously had contact. Or maybe it's the anonymity. The Net is a dizzyingly powerful equalizer: The camouflage of pseudonyms encourages people to say and be what they never could face-to-face or even on the telephone. "Email isn't really even writing," says Laurie Powell. "It's written speech. Very intense. Very irrational. You don't think about it, you feel it."

For all Powell knew, Vito could be a woman masquerading as a man. He could be a boyfriend of her daughter's, an office colleague of her husband's, a complete stranger -or even a collection of people. Wanting to learn the truth, Powell helped initiate a manhunt for Vito that has lasted almost two years and foreshadowed the chilling legal showdown concerning how to handle privacy, free speech, and law enforcement in the torrent of words and images gushing through cyberspace. Moreover, her experience highlights the potential for even the most limited E-mail user to be abused by the new technology.

When I first contacted Laurie Powell, she was obsessed with the Vito case. She seemed a bit like one of those Long Island housewives in a Susan Isaacs best-seller-frightened but energized by the prospect of participating in a world more exciting and volatile than her own. At first, Powell had kept the harassment a secret from her family and on-line friends, but she downloaded most of the suspected-Vito notes and pored over them with the precision of a copy editor, hoping to dig up clues about who he was and what motivated him.

There were many intimidating and angry characters on the Internet, but the "Vito" character was the most infamous to ever penetrate the shallow waters of the commercial on-line services. "Vito always used a fake name," says Powell, "but his style and language were unmistakable." The verbal pyrotechnics were sometimes amusing, but also could quickly devolve into gay bashing and pedophilic references. Prodigy members claiming names like "Rigoberto Gonzaga" targeted Powell's retarded son, Burt, who was small for his age:

L. Piles is having a 'Come See My 'Soooooo Tiny-Timequipped Burt party. Make your reservations now!! Compost Pile will be there with her ... children. Burt, her 16-year-old son that looks 12 ... will show off for the girls .... Bring your binoculars, you won't want to miss his, well, tiny thing .... The little Navy man will demonstrate what lonely sailors do with small, tight, and well-oiled 12-year-olds.

Her teenage daughter was also singled out:

Amber will be there to show off her latest bra. She will demonstrate how she removes "it" with one hand. Don't miss it!

After receiving several hundred Vito-like messages, Powell could no longer keep the secret from her husband. She also started E-mailing about "Vito" to other Prodigy members whom she had met on a bulletin board for owners of Saturn automobiles. Her friends were starting to get messages, too, including E-mail bombs-on-line junk mail that ties up the machine with garbage data. Since "Vito" seemed to thrive on the attention, why didn't Powell cancel Prodigy and do something else with her $9.95 a month? "A mother's instinct," she says stubbornly. "No one was going to intimidate me and get away with it. No one was going to address my children in sexually graphic terms."

Powell didn't want to admit it, but she also found E-mail fascinating. She had to check her mail and read the boards even when she started to dread what she would find.

And what she found was mind-boggling. Sometimes other members would be impersonated to further confuse matters: the log-on of Powell's cyberfriend Carolyn Fleming, a 37-year-old nurse in El Paso, Texas, was appropriated to lambaste Powell's daughter. And a Vito-like user spooked another acquaintance, Washington housewife Carla Bumpas, by reciting intimate information about her car-mileage, specific dents.

They complained to Prodigy security with little success. "Were any of his ID's canceled?" Powell asks. "They sent us canned Email saying 'appropriate action' had been taken. But the messages kept coming."

Powell's Prodigy friends formed an ad hoc anti-Vito group, briefly calling themselves the Coalition for On-line Decency (COLD). They had no more experience with computers than Powell had, but they were infuriated by Prodigy's inadequate response. "We considered ourselves vigilant, but not vigilantes," says one member. They never met one another in person but communicated on-line almost every day.

Comparing their on-line experiences, they theorized that "Vito" had first appeared in early 1993 on Prodigy's Automotive bulletin board, joining a heated debate about the merits of Volkswagens versus Saturns. His interest quickly spread to Prodigy's other boards -Arts, Health, Singles, and Home Life. The average Prodigy user might post a half-dozen E-mail notes a week, but this harassment was relentless, with hundreds of messages generated. Whoever was sending the messages seemed to read and remember everything that appeared on the boards, often lulling people into making themselves vulnerable for attack. After several weeks of correspondence with one of Powell's Jewish friends, one day a "Darbie Lembke" wrote, "It's too bad that Hitler missed one!"

Powell and her friends were determined to persuade Prodigy to prosecute the offender as a criminal. They forwarded the notes to Prodigy security, and even tried to interest the FBI in the case, with little result.

"We thought we were protected by the same laws as other forms of communication," says Powell. That's simply not the case. While most states have computer-crime laws covering misuses like unauthorized access into systems and pirating software, the law is much less definitive when it comes to computer stalking. The nearest Congress has come to a national law directly addressing computer harassment is a still-unpassed bill to update the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits the use of the telephone to annoy, threaten, or harass people.

The system watchers at Prodigy were aware of the offending messages but took the same hands-off attitude as a telephone company. "We are not responsible for any material a customer submits," points out Prodigy representative Brian Ek. "If someone sends a harassing message, we can help you, but it's not our fault. We can't control it." Besides, "Vito' was a tiny glitch in an on-line ecosystem of 700,000 daily sign-ons that ran nearly trouble-free.

Still, Prodigy's marketing methods did encourage predators indirectly. Free start-up kits -polybagged with newsstand magazines or preinstalled on new computers- were a main strategy in the war with America Online and CompuServe for subscribers. Millions of these kits, consisting of a floppy diskette and a manual, were distributed like trick-or-treat candy. Users generally received ten free hours of on-line time, and weren't billed for 30 days. Prodigy had no restrictions on transferability nor any limits on how many free diskettes a subscriber could use. Initially, Prodigy didn't even request a credit card. Asking for such personal data was a matter of privacy. "It interfered with the rights of the individuals to enjoy this service," according to Ek. The problem was that users could take advantage of this system to create short-term fraudulent accounts. By the time Prodigy realized these accounts had exceeded their limit and were based on false information, the person could easily switch to another startup kit, another pseudonym.

And the Vito situation was getting out of hand. Dozens of women were both fearful and enraged; one accumulated an entire 80 MB hard drive of Vito-related material. This stalking was the subject of tens of thousands of E-mail messages. But it was still infecting the boards like a sentient virus, feeding off those trying to stop it:

I will buy ID's. I will trash this board. My friends and cohorts will help me as long as it takes ... I will sue you Greenbaum [Prodigy's director]. Eric [a Prodigy bulletin board leader] is mine to chop up into little fine pieces. I am off right now to buy more ID's ... I will find your home [signed by "S. Fleming"].

Prompted by such taunts and by user complaints, Prodigy's chief of security in White Plains, New York, Alex Bidwell, started an internal investigation in May 1993. According to Prodigy, Bidwell found that the majority of Vito-like messages originated from a local access telephone number for Prodigy in Fresno, California. Someone in Fresno had signed on with free kits again and again, each time typing in a fake ID, fake birth date, fake credit card number, and fake home phone number. In all, as many as 125 startup kits had been used and discarded, sticking Prodigy with $5,231.34 worth of fraudulent credit card charges.

In July, Bidwell contacted a police detective in Fresno who specializes in computer crime and set up a free on-line account for him. Powell and her friends were not told about this; according to Powell, Bidwell asked them to stay on-line: "Prodigy said they had a way to catch who was doing this," she recalls. "They kept telling us, 'You know how to make him come out. Make him come out.'" (Prodigy denies this.) In November, a "Stephen Lockhart" threatened to toy with Powell's credit rating:

I love it when people don't know WHO they are REALLY dealing with. (Oh if they only knew) <Credit reports are marvelous tools.> HEE HEE!!

A month later, "Lockhart" was even more vengeful:

This is a loose bunch of feminazi extremists. They represent the worst that their gender has to offer mankind. The Paranoid "Coffee Clatch" you see in here is an accurate representation of how destructive gossiping women can be. In the Middle Ages they used to cut their tongues out.

In January 1994, Powell received a phone call from a pushy man calling himself "Fred" and claiming to be a salesman at a computer company that was distributing low-cost software; he kept demanding her credit card number. Suspicious, Powell told him she'd take down his number and call him back. When she did, there was no Fred at the number.

That night, Powell read a note on a public bulletin board concerning the stalker that said, "I think we should rename it 'Fred."

Powell had never in her life encountered such psychological torture: "This was mind rape," she says. Protesting what they considered to be Prodigy's inaction, Powell and her friends went offline for a week. Messages under various names claimed victory for the stalker, charging that "COLD" had actually been kicked off by Prodigy for harassment.

That wasn't true. In fact, Powell and her cohorts were talking to attorneys about a possible civil lawsuit against "Vito' and Prodigy when, in early February, they received an open letter online announcing that an investigation was indeed under way. It was signed Frank Clark, the computer-crimes detective whom Prodigy had contacted.

Clark explained that "real crimes" had been committed, involving electronic harassment, grand theft, and credit card fraud. He signed off ominously: "Everyone using the 'Information Superhighway' should know that they are really in the electronic frontier. They are not talking to their caring next-door neighbor. There are good guys and predators. Very few laws or law enforcement."

At 48, Frank Clark is a serious man, built like Robert Mitchum, with a silver mustache. He started at the Fresno Police Department when Lyndon Johnson was president. In his career Clark has worked every division, from arson to burglary to SWAT patrol. But he didn't find his real career calling until he became a ‘cybercop."

Over the past eight years, he's handled hundreds of computer-related cases, from homicides to child pornography, as well as teaching computer investigations to the Secret Service and the IRS. He specializes in covert operations; his biggest computer bust came in 1992, when he posed as a teenager on-line and shut down an operation that solicited sex from minors over a computer bulletin board.

Clark thinks the Internet is "the most significant man-made creation ever." But in the last decade it has undergone a demographic change, with a surge in what he calls "vulnerable people " -women and children. "People like Vito used to be confined to their own neighborhoods," he says.

"I wanted the legal system to start taking computer crime seriously," Clark continues. "When I send a computer case over to the D.A.'s office, they turn pale and green." Prosecutors dread such cases because they're usually black holes: very little established case law, thousands of tedious documents to pore over, not to mention the difficult task of educating a jury on technical issues.

With the stalking on Prodigy, Clark saw the opportunity to set an important precedent. He wanted not only to pursue the credit card fraud but to try to define a standard for stalking-like crimes. Since Clark was eligible for retirement in a few years, spearheading such a case could help if he decided to hire himself out as a private computer-security expert.

Screen play: Powell at her computer

By coincidence, Clark says, a month before Prodigy contacted him he had met a local man who had said he was using the name Vito on-line: Mark Johnson, 40, a substitute teacher. Johnson had been helpful in Clark's sex solicitation bust and, Clark says, claimed to have spent time on a Prodigy bulletin board exchanging barbs with Saturn owners and to have been sent thousands of Prodigy start-up kits.

In some ways, Johnson was an unlikely suspect: He had a wealthy, straitlaced Mormon background; he often worked with special-education students; his father is a university professor. On the other hand, Johnson was well versed in computers, having worked at Sperry Univac in the data department and later teaching programming at Volkswagen.

The problem, according to Clark, was pinning all these harassing messages and multiple identities to any one person. Tracing the phone line from Fresno to Prodigy in New York was nearly impossible; it goes through many states and switches. And the nature of bulletin boards is such that an innocent message can be corrupted by a second party, yet to the untrained eye appear to come from the original writer.

Still, based on their previous encounter, Clark felt certain that Johnson was a prime suspect. In late August, Clark contacted Johnson and warned him to stop logging on to Prodigy. Johnson countered that -despite all the start-up kits -he was not using Prodigy anymore, and that he would erase its software from his computer.

Two weeks later, Bidwell called Clark: "Vito' was still at it. On December 6, Clark reviewed nineteen pounds of computer printouts from Prodigy concerning fraudulent accounts. They showed dozens of different user ID's in Fresno, many sent to the same street address and using variations of the same credit card numbers. Was this the source of the messages Powell claimed to have gotten from, variously, a rabbi, a police chief, a blond babe, a French photographer, and others? Clark thought so. He called Johnson again. Johnson claimed he was the one being harassed, that people on-line were framing him. But as Clark later explained in an affidavit seeking a search warrant, he then got a call from a woman who he had suspected was a cohort of Johnson's. Clark says she revealed that Johnson-despite his claims of not being on Prodigy-was going on-line using her husband's ID.

Finally, on December 28, 1993, Clark called Johnson and his attorney into his office. Johnson again denied going on Prodigy. He denied using credit cards or sending vulgar messages, and repeated his promise to get rid of all his Prodigy equipment, this time saying his lawyer would witness the act.

Six weeks later, when Frank Clark logged on to read his E-mail, he found two sexually explicit photos of prepubescent boys. But he researched and learned that they hadn't come from Johnson.

On March 7, the Fresno Bee ran a story detailing Clark's hunt for Vito, which was picked up by the AP newswire. It ended with quotes from an anonymous caller who "has identified himself as Vito, Oppenheimer, and several other personalities." He admitted only that he "likes to push people's buttons" using on-line services, and that he was victim of a "witch-hunt."

Three days later, Clark received a phone call from a person who had read the article, claimed to know Vito's identity, and wanted to put Clark in touch with a foreign-exchange student who had lived for two months in Johnson's house.

On April 5, Clark interviewed the student, who was a minor. According to Clark's sworn affidavit, the student claimed that Johnson was on the computer virtually all the time when he was home, sometimes as early as 5:00 A.M. He added that Johnson had bragged to him about being Vito, which was also the name of Johnson's cat, and that the license plate of Johnson's decade-old Volkswagen bus was VITOLAW. Also, according to the affidavit, the student told Clark he saw Johnson create user ID's by pulling names out of the Fresno phone book, entering his credit card number, then changing the last four digits until it was accepted; his three favorite passwords were "Diesel," "Molly," and "Mollydog." (Johnson had a car with a diesel engine and a sheepdog named Molly.) The student reported that Johnson had between 500 and 1,000 user ID's in a cardboard box in the trunk of one of his cars. He said that Johnson would often print out messages he had received and store them, and that Johnson would get up early after sending messages to people on Prodigy and say, "Let's see if I pissed enough people off last night," and "All hell broke loose last night because of Vito." The student also made sexual allegations.

Clark checked the student's story by reexamining the names of the fraudulent users and found ten of them in the phone book. He got Bidwell to fax him a list of users whose passwords were Diesel, Molly, or Mollydog. Of the 53 ID's using Diesel, Clark reports, only two listed legitimate credit card numbers-both belonging to Johnson. He ran a Motor Vehicles check on the cars Johnson owned and confirmed the license plate VITOLAW. Frank Clark thought he could now nail his man.

After a year of abuse and fear, Laurie Powell was finally given a name for her suspected stalker. But when she pursued the subject on-line the stalking got more intense. Someone calling himself "Crazy Wright" wrote:

Wrong you fucking bitch, Stalker is still here.

Powell snapped. She entered the flaming fray, writing to others that "Vito' needed a "blow-up doll and a penile implant." "I couldn't help myself," she says today. Others followed suit; this led to a backlash. "Too much virtue is also a vice," one Prodigy member wrote to COLD. "You are as punitive and shrill in pursuing an uncharged man as Vito ever was." In addition, at the request of Mark Johnson, the Fresno Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau initiated an investigation of Frank Clark for invading Johnson's privacy and releasing confidential information.

Powell was part of one of the ugliest flame wars in cyberspace's young history. Non-Prodigy members began to join in. An entire discussion group on the Internet was devoted to "Johnson as the stalker." Camera crews from CBS's Eye to Eye staked out Johnson's house.

Then in April, the sniping seemed to jump the guardrail of the information superhighway. Powell developed an intestinal blockage and had to be rushed to the hospital. "No one but my family knew I was there. I didn't even tell my mother." But within 24 hours a message was posted referring to Powell, including the ward telephone number near her hospital room. The only way she could possibly have been tracked down so fast was by someone getting access to her medical records. If this person could crack into files at a hospital or doctor's office, what damage could be done involving giant, low-security databanks like the Department of Motor Vehicles or her TRW credit rating?

A few days later, Powell's daughter, Amber, got an emergency call at her high school's office: "This is Amber's father Michael. There's been an emergency. I need to pick up Amber right away." If the person had gotten her father's name right, Amber might have believed it. But no one showed to pick her up. Then over the next several weeks, someone kept removing the screen from Amber's bedroom window.

Laurie Powell blames her on-line experiences for this off-line kidnap threat, although she doesn't believe it was Johnson: "He's not everywhere. " Still, she called the Greensboro police and asked them to shore up patrols in her area. Other Prodigy members, reading about these events on-line, had had their fill and began poking fun, calling the boards the Stalk Talk Café. Someone was also openly mocking Detective Clark on-line, with messages questioning his intelligence and impugning his character.

Clark felt the situation was out of control. What had started as electronic bickering and name-calling was escalating into a new kind of terrorism.

On April 14, armed with the foreign-exchange student's story and a search warrant, Clark went to Mark Johnson's home in Fresno, and CBS cameras were there. He confiscated computers, modems, a fax machine, and dozens of start-up kits, and arrested Johnson for credit card fraud and grand theft.

Powell and her friends believed the reign of terror was over. Some felt they had been a part of history, contributing to a technology that would change the world. One wrote, "Someday our grandchildren can look at us and say grandma/grandpa, thanks for what you did way back then to help bring law and order to the information superhighway."

"I would love to meet 'Vito' in court," Powell said. "Is the word lawsuit in his vocabulary? You betcha."

But within a week the case had fallen apart.

The Fresno district attorney's office had decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. There were many theories as to why the case was dropped. "It's a comedy of errors," says Frank Clark. "When you take a case like that, with thousands of documents, and drop it on the D.A.'s desk and he has 52 cases already that he doesn't have time to read through, which do you think he's going to take on?" By the time Eye to Eye aired its segment on May 5, Johnson was back home, not charged. The show provided victims with their first glimpse of their alleged tormentor and seemed to implicate Johnson, but reasserted that it was impossible to prosecute him. (A Federal grand jury is rumored to be reviewing the case.)

"Isn't this the classic nineties mystery?" posited one Prodigy member. "There are no villains. Everyone's a tragically misunderstood victim."

No one can ever be sure of anything in cyberspace. The same technological loopholes that allow stalkers to roam anonymously also allow innocent people to be framed. In a two-hour interview in his lawyer's office in Fresno, Mark Johnson contends that that's exactly what happened to him. Johnson is six feet tall and handsome, with a preppy haircut and boyish blue eyes. He can be gentle, charming, and patient. But as we talked, his charm and patience dissolved. He would launch into ten-minute tirades against his accusers.

"I make no bones about creating or being the personality Vito," he told me. "But I'm not the individual on Prodigy who's harassing these parasites. I think Laurie Powell and her friends are sending the Vito messages to each other. Maybe they'll get on Oprah." He blames the whole affair on his accusers' "obscure, bonbon-eating, soap-opera watching, humdrum daily lifestyle . ... They make me a scapegoat so they can sue Prodigy." He also suggests Vito could be an amalgamation of wanna-bes, like "Elvis look-alikes." Alternately, Johnson theorizes that it could be an ex-tenant of his whom he had evicted, and who knew a lot about computers and Johnson's life. Or perhaps, he says, somebody who had been laid off by Prodigy was creating the situation to make the service vulnerable to lawsuits.

Asked about the similarity between his real credit card numbers and the fraudulent ones Prodigy reported, he said, "[People] knew I lived here. They started posting that on the [bulletin] boards. They found out who owned this place, ran a credit check, and picked a credit card number off the file. What they got was my dad's credit card number .... Personally, I don't have any credit card numbers except a gas one." Johnson also claims that his work as a teacher prevented him from sending the sheer volume of messages Vito was responsible for. (But in the past year he has been teaching only a few days a week in the district where he usually works and some of these schools have access to the Internet.)

Johnson became even more virulent when it came to Detective Clark (who was cleared of any wrongdoing by Fresno Internal Affairs on May 17). "Clark is the real villain in this story," Johnson said, pounding his fist on the table. "He wanted to get his puss on TV. Be the great cybercop no matter who he wounded." Was this the frustrated passion of an innocent man, or the verbal pyrotechnics of the infamous Vito?

With no other suspects and the Internet still ablaze with flame wars, the Vito case has perfectly captured the tyranny and freedom of cyberspace; everyone seems somewhat self-interested and no one knows exactly how to proceed. It's certainly a new kind of investigation, which allows anyone with a computer to contact the principals and join in the discussion. Considering the tsunami of data, evidence, and opinion filling the screen, it's hard to know what to think.

Given the circumstances, Prodigy seems unlikely to recover its money, although it has taken more aggressive steps to prevent fraudulent use of the system. It has updated its validation process to catch bogus credit card use immediately, as well as adding a feature known as a "Bozo filter," which lets members reject messages from specific users. It has software that screens public bulletin boards for obscene language, though the subject of stalking is still quite popular.

Last September, Prodigy felt it no longer needed Frank Clark's services and canceled his free account. Someone began posting bizarre religious parodies on the Internet under the name "Mark Johnson," declaring his innocence and portraying himself as Jesus, the "Cold Gang" as the Twelve Apostles, and Clark as Judas. In real life, Johnson filed a claim for damages against Frank Clark and the City of Fresno for $14.5 million.

The "Vito' mess maybe only the tip of the iceberg. This year, market competition will force Prodigy, America Online, and CompuServe to offer not just E-mail but complete Internet access, so tens of millions of newcomers will head past the safety pylons and into informational deep water. That's the largest immigration wave in the history of the world. No one quite knows how to prepare for it or what social problems it will pose.

These days, Laurie Powell is more cautious about her activities both on- and off-line. Although her children are teenagers, she forbids them to play in the yard unless she is home. The harassment "hasn't ruined my life," she says, "but it's changed it. I trust people less." Last November she received a vicious message on the Internet calling her "a cunt" and signed "Mark Johnson," although she says she has no idea who sent it.

Yet Powell still can't seem to resist the pull of E-mail. She continues to go on-line once or twice a week-"just to check my mail," she says. And despite all she's experienced, she's gotten herself involved in another suspected stalker investigation, for which she is cooperating with the FBI.

And where is Vito in all this? Probably still out there in the billion miles of optical microlinks and analogue corridors and packet-switched outdials. Waiting. Lurking..