Shortly after 18-year-old Nikki Catsouras died in a car accident, her relatives began receiving mysterious e-mails and text messages.
When they opened the messages, the family members were confronted again and again with gruesome, detailed scenes of the crash, including photos that showed the woman's decapitated body.
Catsouras' uncles looked closer at the photos and believed they recognized a surprising source: they had been taken by California Highway Patrol investigators.
When the Catsouras family confronted the CHP, the family said, officers acknowledged that the photos had been improperly released to the public.
The family discovered that the photos of the Ladera Ranch woman's Oct. 31 crash on California 241 in Lake Forest have appeared on hundreds of websites worldwide, where they were posted alongside hard-core pornography, pictures of human deformities and other sometimes grotesque curiosities.
The websites exposed the family to the vicious side of the Internet world, where people hide behind alter egos to satisfy their sadism and hurt others. In this case, people sent the gruesome photos to e-mail addresses of family members they found through websites and other sources. Some of the messages have landed with subject lines that disguised them as advertisements; others were intended to appear that they came from friends.
The family learned that even unrelated people named Catsouras were also receiving the e-mails.
"There are just a lot of ugly people doing ugly things," said Lesli Catsouras, Nikki's mother.
Lesli, her husband, Christos, and their three surviving daughters stopped using their e-mail accounts when the messages began to arrive a few days after Nikki's death, and the family hired an attorney to file a financial claim against the CHP, a precursor to a lawsuit.
In the claim filed Dec. 28 with the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, the Catsouras family requests $20 million for emotional distress and punitive damages.
The claim alleges that the investigating officer e-mailed the photographs to a CHP dispatcher, who then e-mailed them to the "general public."
Miles Bristow, a spokesman for the claims board, said the agency would probably consider the claim at a Feb. 22 meeting in Sacramento.
CHP spokesman Tom Marshall said his agency was investigating whether a CHP officer actually took the photographs and how they came to appear online. He said this was the first allegation of this type he could remember. CHP policy and the California Vehicle Code require that such evidence be released only to people involved in the accident or their authorized agents. Punishment could range from a verbal reprimand to termination, Marshall said.
In the meantime, the CHP is working with the family to contact more than 800 websites posting the photographs, asking them to stop displaying the images, Marshall said.
Myspace.com and other websites have complied. Others have refused and cited the 1st Amendment and other provisions, according to Keith Bremer, the Catsourases' attorney.