For nearly a year, Elisa DeCarlo had been logging on to the Internet daily to type messages to an online support group about her battle against alcohol. It did not matter that she did not know where most of the 200 or so other participants in the group lived, or even their names. All that mattered was that they were there for her, and she for them.
But the morning of Monday, March 23, as she scrolled through the previous day's e-mail, DeCarlo, a 38-year-old comedian in New York City, lost faith in her virtual community.
Along with the typical postings from members about their weekends was a message from a man she knew as Larry. In graphic detail, he described how three years ago he killed his daughter, Amanda, 5, in southwestern North Dakota.
In the message, posted at 12:50 p.m. March 22, Larry recounted how, overcome by a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife, he had set fire to his home and trapped his daughter inside.
"The conflict was tearing me apart, and the next night I let her watch the videos she loved all evening, and when she was asleep I got wickedly drunk, set our house on fire, went to bed, listened to her scream twice, climbed out the window and set about putting on a show of shock, surprise and grief to remove culpability from myself," Larry wrote, according to archives of the group's e-mail, available to any member on the Internet.
The message horrified DeCarlo, but she grew further dismayed over the online debate that followed.
While some members of the support group were appalled, others rushed to Larry's defense, assuring him that he was experiencing a fantasy driven by guilt over his divorce. Others tried to comfort him by telling him that the crime was long past.
It seemed to DeCarlo that online communication was causing her friends to forget their offline responsibilities to bring a murderer to justice.
On March 24, DeCarlo was one of three members of the support group to notify police.
When they did, police in San Diego traced the messages to Larry Froistad, a 29-year-old computer programer. The department notified agencies nationwide to check their records of any fatal fires, and Bowman authorities responded.
Bowman police said Froistad called them March 27 and confessed. Froistad has since been extradited to Bowman, a town of about 1,800, and he is scheduled to be arraigned on murder charges.
On Friday, Froistad's bail was set at $100,000. His lawyers postponed a formal plea until July but told reporters their client was innocent and probably delusional. If convicted, Froistad faces life in prison without parole.
For some, Froistad's declaration is testimony to cyberspace's capacity to invoke trust among strangers. But the e-mail transcripts since then also provide a glimpse into the moral predicaments raised when an increasing amount of social interaction is taking place in electronic arenas with their own rules.
"My position here is that we, as a list, have two responsibilities here: to ourselves as members of this list community and to the larger community beyond," read a March 26 e-mail by Frederick Rotgers, a psychologist who is director of the program for addictions, consultation and treatment at Rutgers University. "That may sound radical to some, but I believe it is an essential feature of the Internet, and one that we must protect if it is to continue to be a source of great support for people who are in need."
Two years ago, Rotgers helped found the MM List, an online support group. He now administers it as a volunteer for Moderation Management, a non-profit self-help organization for people who consider themselves problem drinkers but not alcoholics.
Rather than turn Larry over to the police, he said, he sent private e-mail to the obviously troubled man, referring him to therapists near San Diego.
Many on the list believed Larry simply was expressing his desire to be punished for surviving a horrible accident. Perhaps, as he suggested in subsequent postings, he had subconsciously invented a false memory. Others said he might have done it, but that their role as a support group was not to judge. The few who disagreed became the target of often vicious written attacks known in Internet parlance as "flames."
The Froistad case has a real-life analogue. In 1995, Paul Cox was sentenced for the 1988 murder of a Larchmont, N.Y., couple. He was charged after telling friends in an Alcoholics Anonymous group that he thought he might have done it during an alcohol-induced blackout. But in that case, Cox confided in people he had known in person for some time.
Experts who study the sociology of cyberspace say the confidentiality ethic of self-help groups and the sometimes illusory anonymity of online communion can make for sticky situations.
Yet the combination also is what has made the global computer network such a boon to people seeking support on a wide range of issues, from cancer to old age to homosexuality.
"People will reveal more online than they might in person," said Sara Kiesler, a professor at Carnegie Mellon's Institute for Human Computer Interaction. "Psychologically, economically and in every other way, it's cheap talk, people really enjoy it, and it feels safe too."
Froistad's message alone, however, was not enough to prompt an arrest. Bowman police Chief Don Huso reopened the investigation into the fire after hearing from DeCarlo, but he did not issue an arrest warrant until Froistad called him directly March 27, five days after his Internet posting.
"He prefaced it by saying, "The memories I have of the fire is that I set the fire,' " Huso said.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.