Digital Forensics Hall of Fame, Episode 2: The Death of Sharon Lopatka

Welcome to the Digital Forensics Hall of Fame, where we talk about the most famous cases in history solved by digital forensics. The second episode will tell us the story of Sharon Lopatka, whose murder was the first case in history in which the murderer was caught and convicted based primarily on e-mail evidence.

 Sharon Lopatka was a 35-year old woman living with her husband, Victor, in Hampstead, Maryland. On October 13th 1996 she left the house, telling Victor she was going to travel to Georgia to meet with her friends. One week later the husband, who at that time did not suspect anything was out of the ordinary, found a note written by his wife, which said that she is not likely to come back, and if her body is never retrieved he shouldn't worry, for she is at peace.

Victor immediately notified the police. When Sharon's computer was searched, a surprising picture emerged.

It became very clear very quickly that Sharon had a second life online. She had several online businesses going on: she rewrote  ad copy for advertisers, offered psychic readings, owned a premium-rate phone number, advertised herself and others, usually with fake sites and services.

That was not even the beginning, as the investigators found out. Sharon was also very active in various online communities, where other members shared her fascination with death, torture, sadism, and masochism, all with underlying sexual context. She created numerous accounts and numerous aliases, complete with names, photos, descriptions and personalities. If you are interested in this part in particular, it's called the Mardi Gras effect: the ability to hide identities and create new ones, especially on the Internet. Sometimes it's used just as a form of self-expression, and sometimes it leads to luring people to commit murder.

In Sharon's case, it was a little different. She was trying to lure people not to kill them, but to find someone who would fulfill her fantasy of getting killed. Digital investigators were able to put together an astonishing amount of evidence suggesting that Sharon did all she could to find someone who would torture and kill her.

She found one person - from messages pulled from other accounts the police found that most people upon realizing that Sharon was serious just stopped answering, apart from one. Robert Glass was a computer analyst from North Carolina, who led a life similar to Sharon's: he spent most of his time online, browsing the same websites Sharon did. He drove his obsession to a point where his wife left him and took off with their kids a few months before Robert offered to fulfill Sharon's fantasy.

It wasn't a rushed decision. Robert and Sharon exchanged many messages before they both agreed to do anything. The investigators had to analyze the amount of text comparable to a 900-page novel. Those messages were later used in court by both the defense and the prosecution, interestingly enough. The latter used them as evidence against Glass, and the former argued that the messages proved that Sharon met with Glass with full knowledge that she will be tortured and killed, therefore changing the case from murder to assisted suicide.

The digital evidence led the investigators to Glass's trailer, with Sharon's body buried beside it in a shallow grave. Glass was arrested and charged of first degree murder, despite his claims that Sharon's death was accidental. His lawyer based the defense on the autopsy results, which did not show signs that Sharon resisted, and messages exchanged between her and Glass. In January of 2000, after a lengthy three-year trial Glass pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter as well as six counts of second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor (which were a result of child pornography found on his computer). He was sentenced to 36 to 53 months in prison for the manslaughter of Sharon Lopatka and 21 to 26 months for the possession of child pornography. He died in prison in 2002 as a result of a heart attack, two weeks before he would have got out.

That is the history of Sharon Lopatka's murder, a case solved by analysis of digital evidence. It sparked many discussions on the Internet and beyond, on issues like online anonymity and freedom of self-expression, it even inspired some of the first calls of Internet censorship. We think it's an interesting one. Do you? 

Have you heard about Sharon Lopatka before? What about the Mardi Gras effect? Did you like Digital Forensics’ Hall of Fame? Do you want more? Let us know and leave your comments below!

June 4, 2015
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