"Oh! What a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive." Sir Walter Scott
Web Mystery Magazine, Summer 2005: Volume III, Issue 1
Dr. Maurice Godwin, former beat cop in a small North Carolina town, holds a Ph.D. in Investigative Psychology from the University of Liverpool. He is an assistant professor of Justice Studies at Methodist College in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Dr. Godwin is a forensic consultant to law enforcement and families of missing and murdered persons. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, BBC, Connie Chung, and At Large with Geraldo Rivera. He has published numerous academic journal articles on profiling and linking serial crimes, and co-authored Slave Master (Pinnacle Books), the true crime story of John Robinson, the first Internet serial killer. Dr.Godwin's latest book is Tracker: Hunting Down Serial Killers (Avalon Publishing). Visit Dr. Godwin’s website. Contact Dr. Godwin or Editor.
Bound for Death
The Mardi Gras Effect
American psychologists refer to the ability to hide one’s identity on the Internet as the Mardi Gras phenomenon. Internet users feel they are wearing masks and can act anonymously.
In the dark and secretive world of cyberspace, there are individuals seeking to experience weird adventures. Hidden in the cloak of their on-line screen names, some offer to sell their used underwear while others are looking for potential victims to stalk and murder. The stage for the fulfillment of these fantasies is an imaginary world created by the visitors to chat rooms, newsgroups, and live Internet relay chat (IRC) accounts.
Newsgroups are unmediated areas that provide forums to every topic imaginable. A series of messages, called a thread, is posted for anyone to see and respond to. No one needs to use their real name if they don’t want to, and most don’t. Instead, participants choose one or more handles by which they are known. This handle is their mask.
Chat rooms and IRC operate in real time with messages posted and responded to instantly for all participants to see. Private chat rooms can also be arranged. Handles are used here also. This anonymity allows chat room and newsgroup visitors to take on the persona of whomever they wish. It provides the perfect venue for deceit.
Outsiders may question whether individuals are able to maintain their touch with reality when they continuously pretend to be someone that they are not. This might be true for some; for others, this also means exploring their fantasies in ways never before possible. Thirty-five-year-old Sharon Denburg Lopatka from Maryland was someone who trolled the Internet, little knowing someone was trolling for her, someone else who had bought into the Mardi Gras effect knowingly, and with deadly intent.
Sharon Lopatka boarded the 9:15 passenger train on the morning of October 13, 1996, in her hometown of Hampstead, Maryland. She told her construction worker husband, Victor Lopatka, she was going to visit friends in Georgia, but her ticket said that she was bound for “Charlotte, North Carolina.”
In the chat room she frequented, she read the fantasy messages others posted and related her own intimate sexual fantasies. By the standards and norms of the bondage/sadomasochism chat rooms Lopatka frequented, she could feel normal. While the term BDSM – bondage, domination, and sadomasochism – is frequently used to describe the type of sex act where one person plays the role of a dominant partner and other takes the submissive role, in general terms it describes the activities of individuals involved in dominant/submissive sexual relations.
While posted messages may be anonymous, they are not private. Among the rules of the BDSM aficionados is the promotion of safety. The only thing Lopatka had in mind was satiation, not safety. She talked of things like strangulation to obtain an orgasm, and insertion of foreign objects into her body. Some tried to prevent her from traveling down this dangerous path. One woman attempted to counsel her over the Internet, but Lopatka rejected her with the response, “I want the real thing. I did not ask for you preaching to me.”
Sharon Lopatka was a "happily married" woman, living in a suburb of Baltimore. Her father, Abraham J. Denburg, was the longtime cantor for the Beth Tfiloh Congregation. When twenty-nine-year-old Sharon, the oldest of four daughters, married Victor Lopatka, a Catholic from Ellicott City, Maryland, in 1991, she considered the marriage an act of rebellion against her parents’ Jewish heritage; they considered it sacrilege. Orthodox Jews believe in literal interpretation of the Old Testament, including ban against intermarriage with those outside the faith. In some Orthodox Jewish families, when such a marriage happens, the parents of the offending child sit Shiva, the seven-day Jewish mourning period for the dead. Again flouting Orthodox Jewish traditions, she and her husband Victor did not have children.
All Lopatka’s friends thought her to be a normal, well-adjusted middle-class housewife, but you never know what happens when the door closes at night. Behind the façade, Sharon was miserable, unhappy, and sexually frustrated. She and Vic spent little time together. She did not work outside her home, and when she discovered the Internet, she had the time and the opportunity to explore it completely. Sharon discovered the anonymous world of sexual chat rooms, where she poured out her heart and her fantasies to strangers, because they were there and willing to take the time to listen.
Sharon may have been innocent on the Net but she wasn’t in her business. On two different Web sites, Lopatka touted psychic services. Her inspiration was a thirty-nine-dollar money-making kit advertised by an Arizona company. It outlined ways she could make money from running Internet advertisements and leasing 900-numbers.
As Craftsy@GNN.com, Sharon posted messages all over the net offering a “FREE Newsletter” on how to turn crafts into money. Under the business name of “Classified Concepts Unlimited,” she offered to write or rewrite classified ads, promising “phenomenal results” for her fifty-dollar fee.
“Sit back and then literally watch the pour in,” she told her unsuspecting audience. On two other Web pages, “Psychics Know All” and “Dionne Enterprises,” she promoted psychic hot lines. By day she made money from her phony businesses. By night, she let the Mardi Gras phenomenon overtake her, becoming the well-built femme fatal “Nancy,” or the 250 pound dominatrix “Gina.” On August 2, 1996, she wrote in one chat room: “DO YOU DARE ENTER…THE LAND OF THE GIANTES??? Where men are crushed like bugs … by these angry ... yet gorgeous giant goddesses.”
Fantasies. Sharon had them all. She was everything from a porn actress to necrophilia aficionado.
“Hi my name is Gina … I kind of have a fascination with torturing till death … of course I can’t speak about it with my friends or family. Would love to have an e-mail exchange with someone.”
When her Internet lovers realized she was serious, that she wanted a real time(r/t) encounter to enact her death fantasies, her “loves” stopping writing her. Except for one. One man continued his communication with Sharon. His name was Robert Glass. His net handle was “Slowhand.” Between August and October 1996, they exchanged over nine hundred e-mails. Over half contained graphic sadomasochistic fantasies. Unfortunately, Sharon had not chosen well.
During their marriage, Glass encouraged his wife, Sherri, to take a computer class at the local community college. He though it would build up her self-confidence. Sherri later stated, “He knew his computers. They were his passion, too. Computers became his life. He ate, slept everything about computers. He would stay up almost all night on the Internet. I’d have to drag him out of bed in the morning to go to work.” They separated in early 1996.
Glass used an IBM-compatible PC with a slow 66 megahertz (clock speed) and only 8 megabytes of RAM. Antiquated by current standards, it was considered a moderately powerful computer in 1996. A subscriber of America Online (AOL), in his online profile Slowhand said he loved photography, music, and model railroads. Under personal quotes, he wrote, “Moderation in all things, including moderation.” It was actually a paraphrase of what the High Lama says to the hero in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. It was also a lie. He was into BDSM.
Lopatka and Glass met in an online chat room. They exchanged S&M fantasies and agreed to finally meet after months of e-mail and chat room correspondence. This was how Sharon Lopatka, the daughter of Orthodox Jews, "happily married" to Vic, came to take her ill-fated trip to Charlotte, North Carolina. Like in some hammy country western song, her dream-man Glass met her at the station. He took her to his ramshackle trailer in the backcountry of Colletsville.
Trailer trash was exactly what Glass had all over the interior of his10’x50’ turquoise blue house trailer, which sat on a desolate lawn littered with rusting toys and rotten produce. In the dank trailer, dirty dishes were mixed in with computer disks and computer magazines. Whatever the place wa,s it didn’t deter Lopatka, who decided to stay. For three days, the happy couple acted the fantasies they had only previously talked about. They were violent and lurid, the stuff tabloids feed on.
Glass would tie a rope around Lopatka’s neck during sex, cutting off oxygen to her brain. This enabled her to experience a strange euphoria as she climaxed. Some who practice this, called autoerotic asphyxiation, actually die from it. Other times, Lopatka’s hands and feet were bound by rope to Glass’ bed while he probed her vagina and anus with foreign objects. It was during one of these sadomasochistic acts that Sharon Lopatka stopped breathing and died.
On October 20, Vic Lopatka discovered a note that his wife had left. It stated, “If my body is never retrieved, don’t worry; know that I am at peace.” Immediately, he filed a missing person report with his local police department. Maryland police investigated and found no indication of anyone in Sharon Lopatka’s background who would want to do her harm. She was well-liked and respected by everyone.
The Maryland detectives decided to check out Lopatka’s computer for clues to her disappearance. That’s when they found hundreds of sexually-oriented messags about torture and murder that had been exchanged with a male who used the computer handle "Slowhand." Specifically, Slowhand had written that he was to sexually torture Lopatka and then kill her.
On the application for a search warrant, investigators said the message “described in detail how Slowhand was going to sexually torture the missing person and ultimately kill her.” The investigators backtracked the trail through the Internet and state lines, until they discovered the true identity of Slowhand to be Robert Glass.
Without hard evidence, like a confession or the discovery of a body, the Maryland police didn’t fully believe that Lopatka would board that train for a date with her killer. On October 22, the police began surveillance on Glass, hoping he would lead them to Lopatka, whom they doggedly believed was alive.
Glass’ routine was uneventful; Lopatka never appeared. On October 25, police obtained a search warrant. While Glass was at work, they searched his trailer. From the trailer, police removed boxes filled with thousands of computer disks, bondage and drug paraphernalia; a pistol; videotapes; Glass’ computer; and what appeared to be items of Lopatka’s that matched the description her husband had give the police.
One of the investigators searching the trailer’s grounds noticed newly turned dirt a short distance down the path from Glass’ trailer front door. They had to dig down only a few feet before they found Lopatka. Her hands and feet were still bound with rope, and she had a piece of nylon cord around her neck. Detectives also found scrapes on her breasts and neckline.
The day after Robert Glass’ arrest, October, 26, 1996, North Carolina superior court Judge Beverly T. Beal placed a gag order on investigators and attorneys. They were not to talk to the media. Glass was indicted for first degree murder and ordered held without bond. It would take the authorities three years to categorize a mountain of case evidence. While the delay was a bit unusual, it is not uncommon. Police regularly arrest suspects without enough evidence to convict them for the crimes they’re charged with. An indictment is merely that, but it’s enough to put a defendant behind bars while the system goes to work to convict the defendant. In the Lopatka case, the system worked.
After the three-year investigation, there was certainly enough to get a conviction on second degree, willful murder charges if the jury saw the things the prosecution’s way. If they didn’t, there could be an acquittal. Anyone who has ever had anything to do with the criminal justice system knows that you never know what a jury will do. As for the defense, they had a tough road to hoe. During the discovery phase prior to trial, both sides exchanged evidence and witness lists. From the evidence the prosecution was ready to bring to trial, it become evident there was a good chance of a conviction. On January 27, 1999, Glass took a plea.
Robert Glass pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Glass also pleaded guilty to six counts of second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor, a charge that developed after police discovered child pornography on his computer. As part of his plea, the prosecution demanded that Glass describe how Lopatka died and what his contribution was.
Glass explained to the court how Lopatka had looped a nylon cord around her neck. He couldn’t recall how much he had pulled on the rope. All he could say for certain was that he never wanted to kill her, but one way or another she ended up dead anyway.
While Lopatka’s family had signed off on the plea agreement – it is standard practice in a homicide case for the prosecution to get the family of the victim to agree to the deal before it is accepted – a statement by the Lopatka’s relatives said that Glass “took advantage of [Lopatka’s] situation. He could have walked away. He debased not only her but her body after she was dead.”
Caldwell County North Carolina superior court judge Claude Sitton sentenced Glass to thirty-six to fifty-three months for manslaughter and twenty-one to twenty-six months for the first of the six other charges. Sentences for the other five counts were suspended. He also received federal time, twenty-seven months, on the child pornography charge; three years supervised release, and participation in a sex offender program for possessing child pornography.
Robert Glass served his time at the Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution in North Carolina Mountains. With time off for good behavior, he was given parole on March 6, 2002, but didn’t make the date. On February 20, 2002, Glass had a massive coronary and died before he could be released.
Luckily, Glass only murdered once. There are some sadistic predators that rely on the Mardi Gras Effect to lure and murder repeatedly. For several women, their online bondage and sadomasochistic fantasies led to their real-time deaths at the hands of serial killer John Robinson, aka the "Slave Master" of Kansas and Missouri.
|Coming Fall Issue, WMM: Part II – The Slave Master – Internet Serial Killer John Robinson Crimes.||
Copyright 2005 by Dr. Maurice Godwin
"Tracker presents former police officer Maurice Godwin's method of psychological and geographic profiling which is revolutionizing the way police track and capture serial killers. Forget Silence of the Lambs; Hannibal Lecters and Clarice Starlings do not exist."
Tracker (ISBN 1560256346) is available at Amazon.
"Oh! What a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive." Sir Walter Scott
Web Mystery Magazine (ISSN: 1547-9609) is an on-line quarterly dedicated to investigating the mysterious genre in print, in film, and in real-life. Web Mystery Magazine welcomes well-researched, well-written articles, reviews, and mystery fiction. Writers are invited to send comments and inquiries to email@example.com.
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