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Jewish World Review May 5, 2000 /1 Iyar, 5760

Michelle Malkin

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An Internet victim's
sad story

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHEN SHE WAS JUST 13 YEARS OLD, Katie Tarbox was sexually molested by a 41-year-old man who had befriended her in one of the world's most popular gathering places for perverts and predators: an America Online chat room for teens.

The man's screen name was "VALLLEYGUY." He told Katie his name was "Mark." He bragged that he was a wealthy 23-year-old with "a four seater Mercedes convertible I love it a BMW convertible, and a jeep." When that didn't impress Katie, he boasted: "I have sexy green eyes. Girls love to look into them. What do you look like?"

Despite her apprehension about the "animals" and "weirdos" who populated AOL chat rooms, Katie developed a secret relationship with "Mark" over a six-month period. He listened sympathetically to the vulnerable girl's adolescent fears and frustrations. They talked about movies and music. She played the piano for him over the phone. In March 1996, she agreed to meet him face-to-face in Dallas, Texas - where her New Canaan, Connecticut swim team was traveling for a national competition.

The sordid details of their encounter, and the subsequent federal prosecution of Katie's cyber-seducer (a Calabasas, Calif. financial analyst whose real name was Francis John Kufrovich), are laid out in the teenager's new book, "Katie.com." Published by Dutton Books for official release next week, this true-life horror story should be required reading for parents in the Internet Age.

Feminists and women's magazine reviewers will focus on Katie's youthful critique of our beauty-obsessed culture. The author, now 17 and college-bound, writes candidly of her insecurities about clothes, weight, hair, and skin: "At thirteen I accepted the image of beauty I saw on the covers of fashion magazines. I thought the Calvin Klein models inside were beautiful. I thought ultra-thinness was beautiful. Beauty was painful. And it was very expensive."

But low self-esteem and societal pressures weren't the main factors in driving Katie to seek companionship on the 'Net. In a painfully straightforward manner more incisive than any academic, pundit, or sociologist's work, Katie indicts parental absenteeism: "Home was a place where I always felt alone." On most days, Katie reveals, "I'd spend a couple of hours on-line. Usually my parents weren't home to even know what I was doing."

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Katie's mother and stepfather gave her obligatory warnings about not disclosing her real name and address on AOL. But "[a]side from these warnings, they didn't have much else to say."

The young girl's 200-page memoir is filled with sad longing for her parents' company. Katie describes "a dreadful thing called 'year-end' " that consumed her mother's attention. "Because she worked on the financial side of [her] company, she was responsible for composing a year-end report. Sometimes she would come home as late as one in the morning and she went to the office on weekends."

On a trip with her school singing group to Washington, D.C., Katie "hoped that my mother would be able to attend these performances, considering it would be one of the last times I would sing with the choir. But as always, business was a conflict, and she was not able to make it." Her stepfather, she writes, "could have defined what a father is for me. Instead he always told me to go to my mother for answers or for help, and she was usually working, so I was left on my own."

When neither parent was around to celebrate her 14th birthday, Katie turned to the one adult she could depend on - Francis John Kufrovich, a.k.a. "Mark," lurking in the AOL chat room. They corresponded in the middle of the night as Katie baked herself birthday cupcakes. "He was someone to talk to, Mom," Katie later explained. "You haven't been around a lot with all your business trips and the fact that you live at work doesn't help."

Even after Kufrovich's arrest and conviction, Katie's mom still doesn't seem to have her priorities straight. Instead of accompanying Katie to her molester's plea hearing, "she was in Florida on business."

Katie's book offers tips and website addresses to help families defend themselves on the Internet. But no software program, no filtering tool, and no amount of law enforcement resources can protect children from the cyber-predator's best friend: parental neglect.


JWR contributor Michelle Malkin can be reached by clicking here.

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