In the first prosecution under a new state cyber-stalking statute, a North Hollywood man has been charged with using the Internet in an attempt to set up the rape of a woman who had spurned his romantic advances.
The case, which underscores the darker consequences of the Internet's power as a vast but largely anonymous medium, centers on the chilling account of a North Hollywood woman. According to testimony, six different men showed up on various occasions at her small apartment during a five-month period last year, saying they were responding to online ads and steamy e-mails sent in her name that described fantasies of being raped.
Authorities said Thursday that these were not her ads, her e-mails or her fantasies, and that she was the victim of Gary S. Dellapenta, a 50-year-old security guard who earlier this week was ordered to stand trial on charges of stalking, computer fraud and solicitation of sexual assault.
Dellapenta has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His attorney, Deputy Public Defender Irene G. Nunez, declined comment Thursday.
Experts say the case is a sinister example of the ways that new technology can be used for criminal purposes.
"This technology has created a whole new class of criminals who would not otherwise have the forbearance to terrorize people face to face," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael J. Gennaco, who two years ago prosecuted the first federal hate crime in cyberspace. "It emboldens them to hide behind computer screens and interfere with other people's lives."
Law enforcement officials testified in Los Angeles Municipal Court this week that Dellapenta admitted to the crimes and said he was driven by an "inner rage" against the woman, whose identity is being protected by authorities.
Scott Gordon, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said that the woman was not physically harmed, and that Dellapenta, who is being held at the Los Angeles County Jail in lieu of $300,000 bail, faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.
Dellapenta, who worked as a security guard at the Encino building that houses the West Coast offices of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, is accused of sending e-mail to men who responded to personal ads placed in the woman's name on America Online, the Microsoft-owned e-mail service Hotmail and other Internet sites.
The e-mails said that the woman was "into rape fantasy and gang-bang fantasy," authorities said, and told numerous men everything from the address of her apartment to her physical description, her phone number and how to bypass her home security system.
Dellapenta's arrest in November culminated an investigation that included the cooperation of the FBI, the district attorney's office, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and even the victim's father, who responded to the ads himself in an attempt to learn the identity of the person who had posted them.
"We're seeing more and more cases where the Internet is being used" to harass people, said Gordon, who is part of the district attorney's stalking crimes unit. "But it usually involves people sending each other threatening e-mail."
Police Predict Wave of Internet Stalkers
Law enforcement officials have predicted an outbreak of stalking crimes aided by the Internet, mainly because of its anonymity as well as the proliferation of directories and services online that often enable users to get detailed information about where people live, their phone numbers, their credit histories and even the online message boards they frequent.
The possibility of such crimes prompted an overhaul of the state's stalking statute last year. State Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) authored a bill that expanded stalking and harassment laws to include threats sent via pagers, e-mail, faxes, voicemail and other electronic communications.
"This is a classic case of how someone can cause great bodily danger to an innocent person," Leslie said Thursday of the Dellapenta case. "Many people are devastated by the impact of cyber-stalking. They've had their lives turned upside-down. There are cases where cyber-stalking has ended up in murder or other violent crimes."
Carol Chase, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, said messages Dellapenta allegedly posted are not that different from spiteful remarks that scorned suitors used to scribble on restroom walls.
"But by placing this information on an Internet site, you can reach millions of people," Chase said. "There is a greater likelihood that the harm you intend will be visited upon a victim."
Personal ads have exploded in popularity on countless Web sites and Internet services, part of a vast tide of romantic banter and sexual chat that has been a key driver of the growth of services such as America Online, which claims 15 million members.
Most online firms set strict rules about what kind of information can be contained in an ad, and post guidelines urging users to be cautious about revealing personal information. But even the most careful companies allow users to set up multiple online identities, and are limited in their ability to safeguard users.
"There is a level of anonymity on the Net, and unless you know who you're dealing with, it's risky," said John Ryan, assistant general counsel at AOL.
The victim in the North Hollywood case, authorities said, couldn't be accused of making any online blunders, however. She didn't even have a home computer.
Dellapenta had met the woman in church, according to the testimony of Brian Hale, an investigator with the district attorney's office. Trying to spark a romance, Dellapenta approached the woman numerous times, and sent her flowers and cards, Hale said.
But she repeatedly rebuffed him, and even did so in writing in a 1996 letter. Dellapenta's advances became so aggressive, Hale testified, that the woman appealed to her church's elders, who granted her request to ban Dellapenta from the congregation.
Dellapenta took revenge, prosecutors say, by posting ads in her name beginning last April.
A film editor in North Hollywood, who asked not to be named, told The Times on Thursday that he responded to one of the ads on America Online last spring.
"The ad indicated that she wanted to meet men," he said. In subsequent e-mails, "the person indicated that she wanted to be taken by force, and by more than one individual. I wasn't into that but was curious about who this individual was."
The man said he stopped by her apartment once, but she wasn't home. He left a message on her answering machine. "She called back and I talked to her and her father," he said. "She said this was not the first time it had happened and she was pretty upset."
Using copies of the ads and e-mail, investigators tracked down Dellapenta by obtaining records from Internet providers where the ads were posted and where Dellapenta had accounts.
Until he was taken into custody, Dellapenta lived with his 80-year-old mother, Barbara, in North Hollywood. Reached at her home Thursday, she said that her son had never been in any legal trouble.
"He is very good and very caring," she said. Asked if she thought he was capable of these acts, she said: "I don't think so, but I don't know. This has upset me so terribly."