Family, friends shocked at cyberposts after teen's death

Teens gather at Robert Moses State Park field Teens gather at Robert Moses State Park field 5, Monday, to remember their friend, Alexis Pilkington, 17, of West Islip, who was found dead Sunday. (March 22, 2010) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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The news that Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old West Islip High School graduate and soccer player, had committed suicide was shocking enough for her family and friends.

Almost as shocking to them have been the comments posted on social networking sites directed at the star student-athlete before her death, as well as dozens of often anonymous, mean-spirited postings in the days since on a Facebook tribute page set up in her memory.

There, amid the sincere proclamations of grief, were obscene and insulting comments. They piled up faster than her friends could remove them.

Parents of her distraught friends now say they want to pursue legal action against those whose identities can be traced in this Internet activity known as trolling - vicious, provocative and often anonymous and profane postings.

"Right now we have four different kids taking down all the names, profiles and finding out who the . . . people are," said Donna McBride, mother of a close friend of Alexis. "We're going to present them to the police."

Michael Stracuzza, father of another friend, said he'd spoken with a Babylon Town councilman who said he'd get in touch with the Suffolk County district attorney's office.

"I'm going to take this as far as I can possibly get," said Stracuzza, a businessman. "I don't care what it costs me."

In a statement, Deputy Chief Frank Stallone of the Suffolk County Police Department said, "Investigators are monitoring the postings and will take action if any communication is determined to be of a criminal nature."

A number of states have laws or policies making it easier to prosecute or curtail so-called cyberbullying, but not every case of offensive speech is prosecutable.

The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, introduced last April by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), would make it a federal crime to send communication intended to coerce, intimidate, harass or cause emotional distress using electronic means to accomplish the task.

It is named for the 13-year-old Missouri girl who committed suicide in 2006 after she was harassed on MySpace by a woman pretending to be a boy who befriended her and then disparaged her, sending her into depression.

Alexis Pilkington's father, Thomas, longtime member of the New York City Police Department, said he would cooperate with any legal proceeding or investigation. "If I have to be the complainant in a criminal proceeding, then I would be," he said.

However, he said he and his wife had not read the Facebook page, which is open to comment by anyone, nor had they read their daughter's exchanges on Formspring.me, a new social networking site in which participants agree to answer often anonymously posed questions.

In the days before her suicide, she'd dealt with insulting and anonymous comments there, and some of her friends have criticized the site for those comments, suggesting it may have had an effect on her state of mind.

Her father, however, does not blame those exchanges for his daughter's actions.

"It could be one of many things [contributing to her suicide] but it was not the major, or even a minor factor in her deciding to do what she did," said Pilkington, who had previously said his daughter had been in counseling.

Formspring.me's president, John Wechsler, who said it has 50 million unique users in a month, said he was surprised and saddened to learn Pilkington's friends are blaming the site for playing a role in her suicide.

"It's just tragic," Wechsler said. "I am sorry to hear that her friends think there is anything in there that would cause her to do something like that."

Wechsler said the site does not monitor online conversations between users. However, if a complaint were filed, the company would investigate and shut down the account of any users who violated the company's policy, which includes the use of "objectionable" language.

Facebook officials were unavailable for comment Tuesday.

The postings to Alexis' memorial page have compounded her friends' loss.

McBride said of her daughter Erin, "She has to deal with the loss of her best friend. Then you throw in these malicious ghouls and she has to deal with three times as much . . . there's about 40 kids in a room crying. They're all devastated."

- With Zachary R. Dowdy, Chau Lam and Andrew Strickler

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