When 25-year-old Kimveer Gill went on a shooting spree last week at Montreal's Dawson College, killing one student and injuring 19 others before turning his shotgun on himself, reporters seeking to explain the man's homicidal snap mined a treasure trove on Gill's personal blog. "His name is Kimveer," he wrote of himself at VampireFreaks.com. "You will come to know him as Trench. You will come to know him as the Angel of Death. He is not a people person." His Web journal featured a photo of his hoped-for tombstone, featuring his name and an epitaph that read: "Lived fast, died young. Left a mangled corpse." Gill wrote, prophetically, that he wanted to die "like Romeo and Juliet—or in a hail of gunfire."
When 21-year-old Melinda Duckett, the Florida mother of a 2-year-old missing for almost four weeks now, shot herself two weeks ago, she left behind an elaborate personal journal on her Web page at MySpace.com, the massive online networking site. "I have had to fight to keep my son, whom I am extremely proud of," she wrote in one post. "Why can not anyone understand/ the burdens I hold within my hand/ Life can not be all fun for I/ so many issues that I have to hide," she posted in June. Police desperate for clues as to whether Duckett is involved in her baby's disappearance are poring over these journals.
And three weeks ago, in Hillsborough, N.C., 19-year-old Alvaro Castillo killed his father before a shooting spree at Orange High School. Castillo's MySpace page lists "handguns, shotguns and rifles" among his "general interests." Among his "pics" is one of him brandishing a pair of scissors as he appears ready to stab an unidentified young male in the head. "Attempted Murder," the caption reads. "Are you scared? Ha ha." Castillo lists his heroes as God, his mom, his dad, and his younger sister. The people he would like to meet one day include John Hinckley Jr., Tom Hanks, Michael Moore, and God.
Increasingly, ours is a world in which no emotion is real unless it's expressed on a reality show, and no murder is a murder unless it's "blogged" in advance. In an age of unparalleled narcissism, even the serial killers want to direct their own movies first. And there are all sorts of legal implications to this explosion of virtual fingerprints, not only with respect to solving crimes but also in terms of inspiring others.
Consider, first, the copycats. Both Gill and Castillo appear to have been obsessed with the 1999 Columbine murders in Littleton, Colo. Gill loved to play Super Columbine Massacre, a computer game that simulates the high-school shootings. And on Aug. 29, just before he took a sawed-off shotgun to his old high school, Castillo sent a videotape and letter to the Chapel Hill News claiming to be obsessed with Columbine.
There is nothing like the World Wide Web for forging deep and meaningful bonds between anti-social outcasts. Whereas before the advent of the Internet, Kimveer Gill may well have lived out his days drinking whiskey and hating others in his parents' basement, the Web site VampireFreaks.com afforded him the opportunity to reach out and touch thousands of other petulant misanthropes. "Can I go play with you?? I wanna go hunt down the preppies with you!!" wrote a 19-year-old Indiana member who called herself caranya in the comments section of Gill's VampireFreaks page one day before the killings. Subsequent postings from visitors to caranya's Web page aren't kind: "Congratulations on inspiring a psycho to go on a murderous rampage killing innocent kids," says one. "One has to wonder where he was able to get his moral support from," mused someone else.
Lest you think the overwhelming reaction is one of outrage, though, it's worth pointing out that in the wake of the Montreal shooting spree, not only has traffic on VampireFreaks.com exploded, but some admirers have decided to stick around. The Calgary Herald reported this week that the site's 616,000 members grew by 800 in an hour last Friday morning, two days after the attacks.
Networking sites like MySpace and Facebook also make would-be criminals' jobs vastly easier, from pedophiles to stalkers. A recent piece in U.S. News & World Report reveals how easy it is for predators to locate names, addresses, and other identifying details of vulnerable kids; and also how readily they create a sense of false intimacy with a child. But just as the Web allows strangers to appear friends, it also dehumanizes and distances. That may explain how Heather Kane, the 22–year-old Arizona woman arrested last week for a conspiracy to attempt murder, was able to pay an undercover policeman posing as a contract killer $400 to bump off a woman she believed her old boyfriend was dating. Kane discovered the new girl as she lurked on his MySpace page, from which she downloaded the victim's picture, home address, and workplace information. Not only did MySpace offer one-stop shopping for Kane, but police later observed that ''she showed no emotion" as she commissioned the hit.
Why would she? Her victim was probably no more real to Kane than the virtual students Gill mowed down each day playing Super Columbine Massacre.
These MySpace postings are also affecting criminal prosecutions. A star witness in another Canadian murder trial associated with VampireFreaks.com discussed the trial on her blog, resulting in a mistrial. A California prosecutor has abandoned his efforts to shut down the website of a criminal defendant. The young woman—who allegedly used her car to run over and kill her old boyfriend's new girlfriend—has a MySpace page on which her mother posts trial documents that might taint the jury pool.
It's not at all clear that increasing the formal regulation or monitoring of these networking sites is the answer. Beyond the many obvious privacy issues, and the fact that it's impossible to differentiate true threats from fantasy on the Web, police departments don't have the resources to monitor a web site such as MySpace, which signs up 230,000 new members a day. (MySpace already contributes to about 150 police investigations a month, reports Newsweek.)
Moreover, some of the most disturbed users seem to relish their belief that they are subject to constant police surveillance: "I know you're watching me... . I laugh at thee. There is nothing you can do to stop me. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA," wrote Gill last February. Police in fact knew nothing of his Web page at the time.
As a legal matter, we still treat the Internet as though nothing on it is real. We aren't yet sure how to regulate it and most of us still use it with little regard for the legal consequences of what we post. That makes it a perfect medium for people like Duckett, Castillo, and Gill—people hoping desperately not to be invisible. Both Castillo and Gill are described by former school friends as unmemorable. Castillo would "sit in the back of class quietly, his hands folded atop his desk." Gill had a blank entry in his high-school yearbook. Yet each was the hero of his Web page.
But, in the end, these Web pages aren't real, either, although the victims and alleged victims of their owners are quite dead. And even their authors' efforts to use the Web to leave a permanent mark on this world has been thwarted. Kimveer Gill's page on VampireFreaks.com has now been taken down, replaced by this apt message: "This User Does Not Exist."
A version of this piece appears in the Washington Post Outlook section.