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Feud With Officer Pursued Online

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The squat stone courthouse hunched in this tiny Sierra town may look antique, but these days it’s hosting a new millennium battle over cyberspace. This is the case of the cop, the woman in a Corvette and a collision on the Internet.

It began in 1993, along isolated U.S. 395 in Inyo County on the way to Mammoth. Behind the wheel of a canary-yellow Corvette, Judy Komaromi led California Highway Patrol Officer Gregory Mason on a 45-mile chase, topping 145 mph on the high desert highway. When the exhaust cleared, the Fullerton woman was arrested and ultimately served nearly four months in jail for fleeing a peace officer.

Case closed? Not a chance. Infuriated over her treatment, Komaromi’s husband created an Internet Web site bashing Inyo County as a haven of “good old boy” justice and accusing Mason of roadside sexual harassment. Komaromi admits she was wrong for speeding, but argues that her punishment far exceeded any crime.

Her computer Web page outraged Mason, a 15-year CHP veteran. When his teenage daughter was harassed about it by some classmates last year, the officer decided enough was enough and sued Komaromi for libel.

“This is an electronic lynching,” said Mason’s wife, Valerie. “She’s created a hate forum and put my husband and family in a fishbowl. I don’t think the Internet was intended to be a crime scene.”

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Komaromi, 32, said she has no plans to drop the site, seen by more than 70,000 Web surfers so far. “As a citizen of this country, I have the right to voice my grievances,” she said from her Orange County home. “They took my freedom away. Now I’m having to fight for my free speech.”

The case, set for preliminary arguments Monday, is emblematic of the tug of war between defamation and free speech in the age of the Internet. Experts say Mason vs. Komaromi could break new ground in cyber law.

Our defamation laws came of age in the era of the newspaper and the TV anchorman, and courts are now scrambling to catch up with the new wrinkles of the World Wide Web. Although rare, Internet libel cases can turn nasty, like White House aide Sidney Blumenthal’s bitter legal scrap with cyber-muckraker Matt Drudge over an inaccurate online report of spousal abuse.

Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, said the feud between Komaromi and Mason represents “the sorts of burrs” the public has not faced since Revolutionary days, when aggrieved persons retaliated by distributing disparaging pamphlets.

“When society was small, you could reach everyone with the hand-cranked printer,” he said. “Now, with the Internet, the hand-cranked printer has caught up, so we’re back to it.”

Certainly the Internet has become a ready forum for critical free speech that tests 1st Amendment limits. In Portland, Ore., a federal jury recently awarded a Planned Parenthood chapter and doctors $107.9 million in a lawsuit against a Web page that posts personal details about abortion providers, then crosses off those attacked or killed.

Police are hardly immune to bashing. Cyberspace is littered with dozens of anti-cop Web sites, and sometimes the criticism has turned potentially dangerous for law officers.

In Bellevue, Wash., a computer junkie incensed at local police established a Web site giving the names, salaries and the home addresses of some officers. “Basically, he had his right to exercise free speech,” said Bellevue police Capt. Bill Ferguson, “even if it was a rather deplorable thing to do.”

Komaromi’s site, dubbed “Small Town Justice,” offers her version of events in Inyo County, alleging that a network of police and prosecutors engaged in lies and misconduct to secure a guilty verdict.

The springboard for all the hubbub was a drive up lonely Interstate 395 a few days before Thanksgiving 1993. Komaromi was accompanied by a young female friend, who documented the occasion by videotaping as they drove north.

In her Web page, which is the prime exhibit in Mason’s lawsuit, Komaromi acknowledges that she was speeding. Early in the trip, the narrative says, “Judy opened up her beautiful, yellow 1990 Corvette ZR-1, the fastest, best handling production car built in America, just cruising at 130 mph.”

At a gas stop, the Web page said, Komaromi was leaning over to check the car’s oil and “the short dress she was wearing undoubtedly rode up her thighs a bit.” Mason, she charges, pulled up alongside in his patrol car and commented that she had nice legs. “Judy turned around quickly,” the Web page read, “glaring intently at this vile officer.”

A few miles up the road, Komaromi passed Mason as he ticketed another motorist. Komaromi says she slowed to about 35 mph to let her friend videotape the CHP officer. In his report, however, Mason said Komaromi flew by at more than 100 mph.

Komaromi stepped on the gas, the Web text said, “to put a safe distance between her and the officer.” Mason chased the Corvette at more than 145 mph, court documents say, but couldn’t get close. Komaromi contends the officer never activated his red lights or siren to alert her until the end of the pursuit.

The Web page says Komaromi was fearful Mason might rape her, but finally stopped after reaching two other law officers poised to nab her. With guns drawn, officers handcuffed Komaromi and her passenger.

In the Web text, Komaromi contends that Mason made another pass on the drive to jail, rubbing her leg and saying he could drop the whole thing if she “worked” with him.

Mason, through his attorney, denied all the allegations.

Komaromi’s videotape, which included footage of the chase, was a prime piece of evidence for prosecutors. It showed her insulting local drivers for going slow and detailed inflammatory remarks she made about Mason as he pursued the Corvette. None of it sat well with the Inyo County jury.

In her Web page, however, Komaromi claims that the videotape was doctored to remove segments where she expressed fears Mason might assault her.

“This is a speeding ticket gone terribly astray,” Komaromi said in an interview. “The whole thing was exaggerated.”

After her conviction, Komaromi appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court, arguing that law officers had illegally confiscated the videotape. By the summer of 1997 the appeals were denied and she went off to Inyo County Jail, leaving an 18-month-old daughter with her husband, Karl Hoelscher.

It was then that Hoelscher thought up the idea of a Web page.

Although the couple had considered filing a formal complaint against Mason, Hoelscher said, they figured it would end up in the trash.

“Read the Web page,” he said. “This is our complaint.”

Charges of Harassment

The Masons have their own set of complaints.

Even before the Web site went up, court documents say, Mason and his wife believed that Komaromi had been targeting the officer and his family.

Exhibits in the libel case say a yellow Corvette matching the description of Komaromi’s car cruised by their house on several occasions a few months after the arrest. In another instance, according to court documents, a woman and man inquired at a local grocery store about Mason’s children. The Masons also received repeated prank phone calls, court records say. And almost a year after the chase, several hundred leaflets labeling Mason a law enforcement “predator” were posted at rest stops along the route he patrolled.

Komaromi denies that she or anyone she knows put up posters or harassed Mason in any way. “He’s making that up to try to gain sympathy,” she said, “as if he’s the victim.”

Mason, meanwhile, would not comment on the case, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, saying he wants it resolved before he speaks out.

But his wife is willing to detail her family’s woes. Valerie Mason said the harassment prompted them to move on five different occasions and change their phone number half a dozen times.

The family, which has included a dozen foster children over the years, ultimately ended up in Alpine County, a pine-studded region that is California’s smallest county. After another CHP officer alerted them to Komaromi’s Web page, they decided to sue in the county seat of Markleeville, population 165.

“From the beginning of this ordeal, people were telling us to sue her,” Valerie Mason said. “We’d say, for what? Lawsuits are a pain in the neck. But then when this Web site came out, we’d had it. You get tired of running.”

What she fears most is that Komaromi’s Web page could put a bull’s-eye on her husband. Mason is the only black Highway Patrol officer in the southern Sierra, and Komaromi repeatedly refers to his race on the Web page.

“My fear is that something terrible is going to happen to Greg,” Valerie Mason said, “that some opportunist will do something because of this.”

She is also disappointed with the CHP brass. Although the rank and file have supported the officer, Highway Patrol leaders declined to help fund his lawsuit against Komaromi, reasoning that it was a private matter. Incensed, Mason named the CHP and the Highway Patrol union in his lawsuit for negligence, but the case against both was dismissed.

Mason’s lawsuit isn’t the first legal attack on Komaromi’s Web page. A jail guard she accused of “unprofessional” behavior sued in small claims court. It was dismissed over a venue issue, but the case was later heard on TV’s “Judge Judy” show, where Komaromi prevailed once again.

Komaromi’s Web page also was challenged last year by Inyo County probation officials, who demanded in a letter that “the continued harassment and discrediting of Officer Mason” in cyberspace be stopped. A judge refused to order Komaromi to shut down the page because of free speech concerns.

“The public can judge for themselves,” Komaromi said. “They can go to the Web site, they can read the documents and judge for themselves.”

But on the other side of this feud, Valerie Mason just wants Komaromi to go away.

“This woman has been relentless,” she said. “I want Judy to get a life. Get a real life.”


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