CRIME
The week of July 3, 2016

A death on Usenet: Sharon Lopatka and the strange case of “consensual murder”

By Jeremy Lybarger

 

On Oct. 13, 1996, 35-year-old Sharon Lopatka from rural Hampstead, Maryland, rode a train south with death on her mind. She told her husband that she was on her way to visit friends in Georgia, then drove her blue Honda Civic 45 minutes down to Baltimore’s Penn Station, where she boarded the morning Amtrak to Charlotte, North Carolina. Twelve hours later, she was met by a man named Robert Glass. The pair drove 80 miles north on dark back roads to Glass’s shabby trailer deep in the foothills of Caldwell County.

Back in Maryland, Victor Lopatka found a note from his wife: “If my body is never retrieved, don’t worry. Know that I am at peace.” He notified police, who searched Lopatka’s computer and recovered hundreds of pages of emails and chat logs in which, over the course of six weeks, she and Glass had arranged their rendezvous. In them, authorities said, Lopatka had asked Glass to torture her to death.

Some 400 miles away, police staked out Glass’s trailer and watched the unassuming 45-year-old come and go as he commuted to his job as a computer programmer for the county government. On Oct. 25, they searched Glass’s trailer and found items belonging to Lopatka, along with bondage gear, drug paraphernalia, porn magazines, a .357-Magnum pistol, and the computer on which he’d conjured his online doppelgangers.

A dozen yards from the trailer, across a yard disheveled with unraked leaves and the detritus of Glass’s former life as a family man—a swing set, broken bicycles, an overturned wheelbarrow eaten with rust—was what appeared to be a fresh burial site. An officer started digging, and barely two feet down hit a kneecap. Digging farther, he unearthed arms, hands, legs.

“I don’t know how much I pulled the rope. I never wanted to kill her, but she ended up dead.”

It was the body of Sharon Lopatka.

Her wrists and ankles were bound, and her neck was reportedly encircled with rope. There were scrapes on her breasts. A police photo taken that week showed a pack of dogs loitering around the shallow grave. Behind them, Glass’s trailer sits against the barren trees that marked the edge of the 800-square-mile Pisgah National Forest.

Glass was arrested at work. “I don’t know how much I pulled the rope,” he later told investigators. “I never wanted to kill her, but she ended up dead.”

***

Sharon Lopatka was enamored of the internet. She thought it could change her life, maybe even make her rich. About a year before her death, she’d signed signed up for webhosting, then built a homepage —“House of Dion”—on which to sell a $7 mail-order home decor guide. The site’s copy mimicked the giddy promises of TV infomercials: “Home decorating secrets seen in the posh homes from the New England states to the Hollywood homes can now be yours. Never published before! Quick easy ways to decorate your home.” She also used the web to advertise two 900 numbers, one for psychic readings, the other for a classified-ad writing service.  

She also took to Usenet newsgroups. In 1996, these newsgroups were the internet’s social backbone, a primitive and more tribal forerunner of Facebook. Beginning in 1980 as a kind of academic bulletin board, Usenet had been a relatively quiet corner of the internet, where thousands of newsgroups, many of them small, niche, were frequented by regulars who enforced “house rules” usually amounting to not much more than “keep it civil.” In 1993, AOL offered Usenet access to its subscribers, opening the floodgates to millions of anonymous users who had no desire to follow the rules—a sea change dubbed “Eternal September.”

Lopatka quickly took advantage of the newly freewheeling Usenet economy. Under her maiden name, Sharon Denburg, she posted ads for crafting and cooking newsletters, claiming to know secrets that few insiders would spill. She also began to advertise love spells and psychic counseling under the alias Vilado Dion, “America’s most powerful mystic.” She cross-posted these ads to nearly 100 groups between March and April 1996. (Google’s Usenet archives contain more than 700 million messages, including Lopatka’s posts.)

Lopatka was prolific and indiscriminate, targeting singles looking for love in Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Australia; lonely souls seeking pen pals; overweight women and their admirers; aficionados of magick and the paranormal. Several users flagged her messages as spam; one reported her to a Usenet group that logged net abuse, requesting disciplinary action against her. Others were more blunt. After she posted an ad for love spells in a group devoted to teen romance, one outraged user replied: “Where on earth do you get off posting your booby trap for neurotics in a group designed for teens?? Because they’re more likely to go through troubled phases in their lives and thus fall for your money-grubbing drivel?” Username Studly Muffin wrote: “Are you expecting any serious replies to this dross? Don’t you think it’s a tad unethical to dangle poisoned carrots in front of hungrey donkeys?”

For all her Usenet activity, her offline life appeared uneventful. Friends and neighbors would later recall nothing out of the ordinary in Lopatka’s marriage, or with her. Steven Hyman, a former high school classmate, remembered Lopatka as a pleasant, ordinary girl who played volleyball and field hockey, worked as a nurse’s aide and library aide, and sang in the school choir. “She was about as normal as you can get,” he said to North Carolina’s News & Observer. “What I want people to know is the woman I knew was not crazy in the slightest,” Diane Safar, a family friend, told the newspaper. “She was always a happy person, always bubbly even.”

Online, she frequented the part of Usenet devoted to the most outré topics. Under her NancyC544 alias, she wrote on May 3, 1996, “Hi! My name is Nancy. I have Blonde hair, green eyes, am 5’6 and weigh 121. Is anyone out there interested in buying my ….worn…panties..? This is not a joke or a wacky internet scam.”

In reality, Lopatka stood 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 189 pounds. She had psoriasis and hair that was more a dull tobacco shade than blonde. In one of the few non-spam, non-sexual messages she ever posted to Usenet, Lopatka noted that she drank only bottled spring water in an effort to treat her red, scaly skin.

In August, she began advertising homemade porn, including $33 VHS tape a $33 VHS tape in which “gorgeous giant goddesses” crushed “men like bugs”—a femdom variation on Godzilla. She also offered a foot fetish video, a video that showcased extreme weight gain, and another that featured chloroformed women frozen like “wind-up toys.” In the case of “Land of the Frozen Women,” she even included detailed production notes describing how 25 “attractive women under 30 volunteered” to participate, without knowing that “REAL chloroform…REAL gas…and REAL knockout drops” were used. “That is the pure beauty of this film,” Lopatka wrote. “The realism.” For $100, clients could place custom orders: an exclusive half-hour video in which no fetish was too bizarre, no scenario too taboo. Lopatka posted more than 50 ads for her films between August and October 1996, including several for torture porn.

All of the films were made under the imprimatur of Nancy Carlson Productions. Of course, Lopatka was Nancy Carlson. And the videos were almost certainly nonexistent. Swindled users warned others about the scam, with one writing, “Nancy Carlson is a bull shit artist. I ordered the video three weeks ago, she confirmed receipt of my order and every week she tells me it will be mailed on Friday.”

At the same time she was fleecing horny men all across America, Lopatka was also politely, almost gingerly, soliciting partners for her own sexual masochism. In a newsgroup devoted to weight gain, she volunteered to be force-fed until she hit her goal of 475 pounds. “I am not interested in an e-mail correspondence or a phone feeding,” she wrote. “What i would really like is the REAL thing!” She noted her willingness to relocate for the right person, which suggests a potential commitment greater than that of her marriage vows. Still, Lopatka was loath to be a homewrecker. “I don’t want to break up any marriages…so if your married please don’t respond to this post,” she advised.

Barely two weeks later, on a group about necrophilia, Lopatka posted a message with the headline, “Want To Talk About Torturing To Death……???” Introducing herself as Gina, she wrote: “I kind of have a fascination with torturing till death…of course, i can’t speak about it with my friends or family.” She urged interested users to email her, and added, “I Hope you all don’t think I’m strange or anything.”

“Yehh! I am really into that,” came a reply. “Such snenarios excites me a lot, but not only the phantasy thing. Experianced painloving men want to exchange thoughts.” Two days later, another user chimed in: “Of course, we all have our fantasies. Would like to share mine with, one of which is to torture a naked woman to death. Would you like to hear about it ???”

In August 1996, she began her email correspondence with Robert Glass. That April, Glass’s wife had left him, taking their three children with her. She told the Washington Post that her husband spent all night at the computer and was emotionally distant during the day. “The final straw was when the kids asked me why Daddy didn’t love me anymore,” she said. Suddenly alone, Glass disappeared into his computer, adopting aliases and such as “Slowhand” and “Toyman” and frequenting chat rooms dedicated to sex fantasies.

It’s not clear that he ever posted to Usenet, or how exactly Glass and Lopatka began their conversations. She may have sought other men to help her die: the Baltimore Sun reported that several weeks before her death she had traveled to New Jersey to meet a man who’d offered to torture and then slay her. Realizing she was serious, he backed out. After her death, a Usenet poster recalled that he had saved a few emails in which he and Lopatka discussed death: “Wanting to see just how far she would go, I told her that I would do it. She never wrote back.”

***

Despite the flood of new users following the beginning of the “Eternal September,” the newsgroups Lopatka favored were still close-knit enough that users noticed the arrival of newbies and trolls. Although public, the groups were more like members-only clubs that observed certain courtesies and protocol. Lopatka’s frank obsession with torture didn’t go unnoticed or unremarked upon.

Tina Delano (not her real name) remembers meeting Lopatka in 1996 in a chat room frequented by those in the BDSM and bondage communities. “At the time, she struck me as just another newbie coming to terms with extreme fantasies,” Delano says. “She did seem responsive to my suggestions of how to play safe, sane, and consensual while still enjoying her intense fantasies.”

It was only after Lopatka’s death made headlines that Delano connected these chat room encounters to messages that had appeared in the bondage newsgroup during the summer of 1996—messages in which Lopatka solicited strangers to torture her to death. “If you posted fantasy talk that included anything unsafe or non-consensual or criminal, you would get dogpiled pretty quick if there was no disclaimer about how that behavior was not condoned in real life and was just fantasy,” Delano recalls. Many users had objected to Lopatka’s hardcore, disclaimer-free posts.

Members of the bondage newsgroup took safety seriously, so much so that they’d arrange phone interventions with users whose fantasies were deemed legal or sexual risks. Some of those calls were even routed to the San Francisco Sex Information hotline, a switchboard where trained volunteers provided unbiased sex counseling.

That self-policing was in some ways a remnant of the internet’s early utopian ethos. As Delano notes, there was “quite a lot of crossover between the hacker, cypherpunk, crypto, coder, maker communities” and the bondage newsgroup. Here, the vision of the internet as an egalitarian space where all were welcome and nobody was privileged still had currency. While dogma and censorship were condemned, an ambient spirit of progress marked these groups—a belief in the internet as a catalyst of human potential.

All that fell by the wayside after the “Eternal September.” Usenet was overwhelmed by what Delano dubs “a veritable tidal wave of assholes and Everymen” that never receded. For her, the inundation of AOL subscribers in 1993 was tantamount to a natural disaster that wiped out Usenet’s liberatory appeal. “Scam artists realized that electrons were infinitely cheaper than paper circulars, while trolls could harass or bully anyone without consequence,” Delano says. “There was anonymity with no accountability.”

Yet Lopatka’s messages, in both the bondage newsgroup and the AOL chat room, inspired concern. Delano sensed something was wrong when Lopatka privately confessed her depression and self-loathing. The statements weren’t suicidal, but they were troubling enough to indicate something more serious than another bored housewife getting off to her own fictions.

Delano thinks she probably talked with Lopatka on the phone; after 20 years, her memory is hazy. What she does remember is that Lopatka sparked to her “kink 101” spiel.

“It was what Sharon said in the chatroom that I messaged her about,” Delano says. “I don’t recall the specifics, only that I thought it worthy to tell her how to play safe with people who wouldn’t really harm [her].” Delano reassured Lopatka that having “weird fantasies” didn’t make her a bad person, and ended the call convinced there was no reason to involve police or mental health experts.

Like the other users who put in time on “newbie education patrol,” Delano believed she did her best to educate Lopatka. “We all thought we’d done right, and that we’d done enough,” she says, adding, “I guess you can figure out how that felt after the news hit.”

Those who’d encountered Lopatka and Glass online wrestled with their own culpability in the crime and lambasted journalists who portrayed the internet as a freak show. “The irony is that if Sharon Lopatka had been a part of this newsgroup… she probably would have been able to find emotional support and understanding of her fantasy/death wish, and, consequently, might still be alive now,” wrote one user, three days after the Washington Post reported on the case.

“We all thought we’d done right, and that we’d done enough. I guess you can figure out how that felt after the news hit.”

The message jibes with Delano’s assertion that the bondage newsgroup was nurturing. But for other users, outreach and education of the type Delano provided wasn’t enough. Another argued, “If someone has made known their intent to commit suicide or harm to another person and you do not seek to warn the other person, the authorities, a responsible party or have the person Baker Acted [involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation]…and if you had the email from her telling you this, you have been derelict and a contributor to the crime. … Effectively you might have saved a life..by providing a cooling off period.” In other words, talking wasn’t enough; fellow users had to consider their responsibility regarding real-life interventions.

Other users rallied to Delano’s defense, assuring her that she’d gone “beyond the call of duty.” That users even invoked the notion of “duty” to describe their obligations to each other says something about how the bondage newsgroup saw itself. It was, Delano says, the final outpost of Usenet civility—or tried to be. She recalls the single largest category of posts being “jokes, bantering, and non-sexual/non-kinky conversation.” It was a genuine community; many members socialized offline. Despite the influx of AOL members post-1993, the bondage group maintained a core roster that tried to maintain the space as a safe haven.

In the case of Sharon Lopatka, it didn’t work, and Delano still regrets what she sees as a collective failure—one larger, even, than the murder. “In an effort to be inclusive, we opened the doors to predators and harassers, and we silence their victims because the ‘community’ puts a higher value on fun sexy time than on identifying, excluding, and turning in rapists and abusers,” she says.

To be fair, the internet’s relative anonymity could make it hard to weed out bad actors. But Glass didn’t escape everyone’s notice. A user named Perigail Armstrong objected to Glass’s behavior and banned him from her channel. “I recognized him as a dangerous fool and refused to talk to him. … He was an idiot and I have no use for fools who use D/s [domination/submission] as a cover for abuse,” she wrote.

Despite those efforts to promote and police a safe, inclusive community, and despite the passage of 20 years,“there is still no safe place to be female online,” says Delano. She eventually quit the BDSM community and left Usenet behind. But she’s still haunted by Lopatka’s fate. “[That case] was exceptional because it was the 0.01% where our attitude of cheerful acceptance for all fantasies was not warranted,” she says. “But, ultimately, I’m not sure we could have done anything differently.”

***

After his arrest, Robert Glass was charged with first-degree murder in Lopatka’s death. In his defense, he maintained that the killing had been an accident; while the two were having sex, she put a nylon cord around her neck, he said, and together they’d pulled too hard.

While Glass languished in prison, debate flared about the moral dimensions of whatever had happened between Glass and Lopatka. One Usenet poster contrasted it with the controversial assisted suicides performed by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, writing, “Helping someone end their life when they are in pain from a terminal disease is one thing. I can sympathize with Dr. Kevorkian…but helping someone out of the world just because they’re depressed, as with ‘Slowhand’ and Sharon L. is, at best a morally questionable thing to do.”

“If someone says, ‘I want you to kill me,’ it’s a reasonable assumption to regard that as an indicator of mental or emotional difficulty such that would render a person incompetent to give consent to something so significant,” wrote another.

But another poster argued that the line between Lopatka’s fantasies and the fantasies of extreme BDSM was perhaps too fine to delineate, writing,“While this obviously isn’t a kink that is up everyone’s street, I’ve yet to hear anyone come up with a coherent strategy for determining when someone’s consent should be disregarded ‘for their own good’…it seems to me that in the final analysis, we either agree to respect other people’s choices and decisions, or we don’t.”

The question of whether anyone can rationally consent to their own murder was both morally and legally complicated. Bill Palmer, a criminal attorney in Glass’s hometown, told the Baltimore Sun that the consensus among 11 lawyers he knew was that the Lopatka case was “assisted suicide.”

Glass seemingly never claimed that he’d helped Lopatka take her own life, saying only that her death had been an accident. He sat in prison for three years awaiting his repeatedly deferred trial. In early 2000 he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, along with six counts of second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor (the result of child pornography found on his computer). The district attorney later said he’d reached a plea agreement because he’d worried a jury wouldn’t be able to understand the computer evidence against Glass. 

He was sentenced to 36 to 53 months behind bars for Lopatka’s murder, and 21 to 26 months for possession of child porn. He died of a heart attack in 2002, two weeks before he was due to be released from prison.

Robert Glass is dead. The debate about what happened between him and Sharon Lopatka in that trailer in North Carolina 20 years ago has receded, even if it remains unsettled. Today Wikipedia describes Lopatka’s death as “the earliest widely publicized example of a consensual homicide mediated through the use of the Internet.” This is a simplification, of course, a distillation of the arguments that played out on Usenet and in the media two decades ago. Those arguments remain captured in Google’s archives, for anyone who wishes to trace them and marvel at how much has changed and how much remains the same.

Lopatka’s death did little to change online culture—whatever we mean when we use that phrase. Usenet continued and is still in use today, though it’s awash in spam. Kendall McCeely, a 60-year-old man from outside Toronto, Canada, is one of the few regulars who still posts to the same necrophilia newsgroup on which Sharon Lopatka was active in 1996. He found the group in 1998, two years after Lopatka died. He’s watched a decadeslong decline, as a once-vibrant Usenet community has gone to ruin. In June 2016, fewer than a dozen non-spam messages were posted to the necrophila group, with several flagged for abuse.

His “rather strange fascination with death,” as he puts it—which includes elaborately detailed emails that verge on erotic fiction—began when he was 12 years old. That’s the first time he almost killed himself by cinching a belt around his neck. Less than a year later, he almost died again by the same method. He claims that CPR brought him back from the brink many times.

McCeely blames the rise of social media for Usenet’s decline, although competition first from blogs and later from instant messengers and apps was equally detrimental. Throughout the 2000s, several internet service providers also banned or restricted access to Usenet, citing the trade in child porn on many alt. newsgroups. Usenet has become a sad shadow of itself, with individual groups straying far from their original missions or simply becoming unusable. “Some groups touching on the topic of homosexuality have turned into a board for hate speech,” says McCeely, who is gay. “Others have become so contaminated with spam there hasn’t been much in the way of messages posted.”

“It’s hard to say if some of the people who post are real or if it’s just a fantasy for them.”

What does get posted, at least in alt.sex.necrophila, is sometimes a disturbing echo of Lopatka’s messages from two decades ago. “I wanna be beaten or choked unconscious,” reads one message. “From there you can use my unconscious body for anything you want. You can rape me, or beat and choke me further, or dump me in a secluded area. Anything you want… If you wanna discuss email me.” In August 2015, the subject line of one message read, “Ive never trued this before but I am interested,” followed by a phone number with a Long Island area code.

“It’s hard to say if some of the people who post are real or if it’s just a fantasy for them,” McCeely says. “For now, I will tell you that I am real.”

Over the past 18 years McCeely has posted hundreds of messages, some of them invitations for men to strangle him, others graphic accounts of his own alleged experiences with asphyxiation and necrophilia. His death wish is nothing if not precise. “I want someone to meet me in a secluded area,” he wrote in May 2014. “There, I will kneel in front of them, but facing away. I will take a length of thin rope, 6mm in diameter, the kind you would use for a clothesline, and I will wrap it around my neck, holding the ends out so the rope is snug.”

He already has a secluded location in mind, and will supply the rope. Anyone interested in “the opportunity” is urged to email him.