Woman charged over 'vile' Web stories

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A Donora woman who federal prosecutors say posted fictional stories online about the rape, torture and murder of children was indicted this week on six charges of distributing obscene materials over the Internet.

Unlike typical obscenity cases, though, Karen Fletcher, 54, of Meldon Avenue, is charged with violating the law through simple writing, and not with pictures or movies.

Ms. Fletcher, who owned a publicly accessible Web site, will be arraigned on Oct. 17.

"I can't imagine why anyone would want to write or read stories involving the rape and torture of children," said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. "The law does not prohibit an individual from thinking or writing about their own thoughts within their own home. But when they go beyond that, and distribute that through interstate commerce, then they violate the law."

Excerpts from the stories were posted on Ms. Fletcher's Web site, but additional content and the full stories were available only by paying a membership fee of $10 a month.

In a February 2005 interview with the FBI, Ms. Fletcher said she had 29 members to her site.

"Fletcher described the Web site as a fantasy site and stated that she posts sexually explicit stories about adults having sex with children," wrote FBI Agent Christopher Cantrell in an affidavit for a search warrant.

According to the paperwork, Ms. Fletcher wrote many of the stories herself, but she also had about 40 other people writing for the site, as well.

Prosecutors believe, though, that most of those that involved graphic sexual exploitation of children were written by Ms. Fletcher. The stories alleged to be in violation of law have been taken off the Web site.

No one else is being charged in the case, Ms. Buchanan said.

Though Ms. Fletcher has told authorities that the stories were fiction, Ms. Buchanan said that doesn't matter.

"Whatever the genesis of the stories are is irrelevant to the federal violation," she said. "This material rises to the level of obscenity, and it is dangerous. Material of this type is the kind that emboldens individuals who have an interest in sexually exploiting children."

And that is one of the reasons obscenity laws were created, said Arthur Hellman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

"The worry is that people will be aroused and do awful things based on obscene work," Mr. Hellman said.

The legal definition of obscenity embraces both "description," as in text, and "depiction," as in images, he said.

Prosecutions for purely verbal violations are "relatively rare," Mr. Hellman said. Reasons for that could be a sense that written material is less harmful, or it could be more difficult to prove -- as required under the law -- that there is no artistic value in it.

"Juries would be more likely to see the evil in pictures," he said.

For the case against Ms. Fletcher to rise to the level of child pornography, there would have to be an actual image of a child. But to be considered obscenity under the law, that's not necessary.

"It is some of the most disturbing, disgusting and vile material that I've ever viewed," Ms. Buchanan said.

Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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