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.