Woman owes life to internet sleuths—(NJ.COM)

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nj.com

Friday, April 03, 2009

BY TOM HAYDON

Star-Ledger Staff

The call came to State Police in the middle of the night.

Someone from California reported a woman from somewhere in New Jersey had posted a suicide threat on the internet, saying she was going to cut her wrists and take some poison.

For three and a half hours, police raced to identify the woman, finally sending officers to a Sayreville home, where she was found passed out on a couch with self-inflicted injuries and empty bottles of prescription antidepressants around her.

“Nine times out of 10, these turn out to be fake or a hoax,” said Detective Sgt. Charles Allen of the State Police digital technology unit. When Sayreville police found this woman alive, it was really rewarding, he said.

Jon’a F. Meyer, an associate professor of criminology at Rutgers University in Camden, said people are using the internet in unexpected ways.

“They are communicating with their deep dark secrets to strangers. There’s no way they would say this stuff out loud, but they say it anonymously,” Meyer said. “Some people feel more comfortable with people who will not criticize. She may not have felt that support from people around her.”

Allen was the on-call officer for his unit when a California woman contacted State Police at 1:30 a.m. Monday to report someone had posted a suicide threat on an eBay message board.

The woman is an eBay member and had sold items on the online auction site, but this night she was on another eBay site where members can talk with each other about any topic, Allen said.

From prior postings, the caller knew the person was a woman from New Jersey, but knew only her first name, Allen said.

By 2 a.m., he was talking with eBay representatives, who agreed to try to track down the woman by using her internet name. But by 3 a.m., Allen decided to try another route. He created his own account to access the message board and asked whether anybody knew the person who posted the threat. Allen got a hit.

Another person from California messaged him a first and last name and an approximate age, the trooper said. Allen then ran those details through state motor vehicle records and found a match in Sayreville.

Shortly before 4 a.m., more than two hours after authorities were notified of the threat, Allen called Sayreville police to go to the house.

About the same time, eBay representatives called back to say they had traced the posting to the same person.

Sayreville officers arrived at the house and found the door unlocked, but when they knocked and rang the bell, nobody answered, borough police Detective Jeremy Berry said.

Officers entered and found the woman on a couch, with injuries to her wrists and pill bottles that were empty, Berry said. Police awakened the woman, who, though still groggy, was able to explain what she had done, the detective said.

Emergency workers took the woman to Raritan Bay Medical Center in Perth Amboy, where she was admitted for treatment.

This was second time Allen handled a case that prevented a suicide. The technology unit often checks threats of attempted suicides, attacks at schools and attempts to interrupt the internet.

“People come on web cams with knives or a gun pointed at their head,” he said. “More often than not, it’s a hoax,” he said.

Each threat each is investigated.

“This time, it was worth the price of getting up in the middle of the night,” Allen said.

Tom Haydon may be reached at thaydon@starledger.com or at (732) 293-4928.