Internet-assisted suicide: The story of Sharon Lopatka
On Oct. 13, 1996, 35-year-old Sharon Lopatka left her Hampstead, Maryland, home to travel to North Carolina. Sharon had told her husband, Victor, that she was traveling to Georgia to visit friends. One week later, Victor was surprised to discover a mysterious note written by his wife suggesting instead a bizarre, clandestine trip.
Victor immediately called the police, who looked for evidence to Sharon's whereabouts on her computer. They found emails suggesting that Sharon had visited someone in Lenoir, North Carolina. On Oct. 25, 1996, North Carolina police found Sharon's decomposing naked body buried a short distance from the trailer of the person she went to visit. Her hands and feet had been bound with rope and a nylon cord had been strung around her neck. Investigators also found scrape marks around her neck and breasts. According to the Associated Press, the medical examiner determined that she died of strangulation—the violent death Sharon had wished for.
Sharon Denburg was the oldest of four daughters born to Mr. and Mrs. Abraham J. Denburg in 1961. The family lived in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland. Sharon Denburg’s parents were devout Orthodox Jews, who were active in the Beth Tfiloh Congregation. Abraham Denburg was, in fact, a cantor at Beth Tfiloh, Baltimore’s largest Orthodox Jewish synagogue. His daughter Sharon had been active in sports, sang in the school choir and perceived by classmates to be “as normal as you can get,” wrote the North Carolina News & Observer on Nov. 3, 1996.
In 1991, Sharon married Victor, a Catholic and an Ellicott City, Maryland, construction worker. Sharon’s parents did not approve of the marriage. A former high school classmate told the Washington Post on Nov. 3, 1996, that the marriage was Sharon’s “way of breaking away.” Sharon moved with her husband to a small, ranch-style tract house in Hampstead, Maryland, in the early 1990s. They had no children.
Sharon began several small Internet business ventures from her home to make some extra money. In her business, “Classified Concepts,” she rewrote ad copy for advertisers for $50 per ad. She also operated several other Web sites, where she sold psychic readings and advice. On the sites, Sharon would also post ads selling other services, with a 1-900 number, for which she would receive a percentage of the revenue. Another way she made money was by advertising pornographic videos.
Under the pseudonym Nancy Carlson, Sharon sold videos of unconscious women having sexual intercourse. According to the Augusta Chronicle on Nov. 4, 1996, one excerpt from her ad from Oct. 1, 1996, stated that she had, “Just made a video of actual women...willing and unwilling to be...knocked out...drugged...under hypnosis and chloroformed.” Sharon even went so far as to advertise her own undergarments online, which read, “Is there anyone out there interested in buying my worn panties...” Sharon had no qualms about advertising and selling products that would appeal to the lurid sexual fantasies and fetishes of her customers. She also had her own risqué sexual fantasies that she actively sought to fulfill.
Net full of fantasies
Sharon used the Internet for a variety of purposes, such as to obtain business ideas and make money. However, she also used the Internet to interact with a larger variety of people who shared her unconventional interests. She often ventured into hard core pornographic chat rooms where subscribers would openly discuss their interests in necrophilia, bondage, fetishes and sadomasochism.
She used numerous pseudonyms and multiple personae in her Internet messages. Using these “masks” allowed her anonymity and the freedom to pursue her unusual fantasies. According to the Washington Post, on Nov. 3, 1996, one message Sharon posted stated that she had, “a fascination with torturing till death.” Some of the identities she assumed during the chat room sessions included a 300-pound strict dominatrix and disciplinarian, a screen actress named Nancy Carlson who would offer to star in customized sex videos for a price, and a shapely 5-foot-6 beauty.
The News & Observer found more than 50 such messages of Sharon’s over several months. Many were found on Internet sites such as fetishfeet.com and sexbondage.com. The overriding theme of Sharon’s messages was that she wanted to be tortured and killed. Often, she would post messages on the Internet looking for a man to satisfy her wish. A sex rights activist named Tanith, who often visited the sites, told the Washington Post that she became concerned with Sharon’s bizarre messages. On Nov. 3, 1996, the Post quoted Tanith saying that Sharon was “going to chat rooms and asking to be tortured to death.” Tanith had tried to stop her, but Sharon refused. Sharon replied to the woman, “I want the real thing. I did not ask for you preaching to me.”
The Baltimore Sun learned that there were numerous responses to Sharon’s messages offering to fulfill her fantasy. Most eventually withdrew when they discovered that Sharon’s requests were serious. But there was one man willing to give Sharon exactly what she desired.
Robert "Bobby" Frederick Glass was a 45-year-old computer analyst who worked for the Catawba County, North Carolina, government. According to the Washington Post, Bobby was a productive worker who was responsible for programming tax rolls and keeping track of the gas consumption of county vehicles. He worked for Catawba County for almost 16 years.
Bobby was also a computer enthusiast according to Sherri, his wife of 14 years. But in an interview with the Washington Post, she lamented that he had more passion for his hard drive than his marriage. Sherri Glass stated in an interview that her husband had lost his attraction for her. Sherri said the "final straw" was when her children asked why their father didn’t love her any longer. In May 1996, Bobby and Sherri separated. Shortly thereafter, Sherri moved from the family home with their three children, daughters aged 10 and 7, and a son, 6.
It may have been more than a lack of love that caused the breakup of the Glass family. According to Sherri Glass, there were other marital problems that few had known about. Daily, Bobby had spent countless hours typing on his computer, and Sherri eventually became suspicious. One day she logged on and found worrisome e-mails saved on the hard disk. The messages, she told theWashington Post, which had been posted under the pseudonyms Toyman and Slowhand, alarmed her because of their "raw, violent and disturbing" nature.
After dinner one evening, she confronted her husband. Sherri later said that "all of the color had drained out of his face." She realized that there was "this side to him" that was unknown to her. Despite this alarming discovery, Sherri recalled him as generally pleasant, hard working and amiable.
A sadomasochistic soirée
In August 1996, Bobby and Sharon became acquainted while visiting the various sexually oriented Internet chat rooms. Bobby displayed a fetish for inflicting pain, whereas Sharon exhibited a desire to be tortured. In an e-mail message to Bobby, Sharon asked him to fulfill her fantasy. She wrote to Bobby that she wanted to be bound and strangled as she approached an orgasm. Bobby responded to her message by describing in depth how he would fulfill her wish. E-mail correspondence between the two lasted for several months. An investigator of the Lopatka case, Captain Danny Barlow of North Carolina’s Caldwell County Sheriff’s Department said “if you put all their messages together, you’d have a very large novel.” Police were able to recover almost 900 pages of e-mails from Sharon and Bobby’s computers.
On the morning of Oct. 13, 1996, Sharon drove her blue Honda Civic to the train depot in Baltimore, Maryland, telling Victor that she was going to visit friends in Georgia. Instead, she boarded the 9:15 a.m. train to Charlotte, North Carolina. At about 8:45 p.m. that evening, she arrived in Charlotte where Bobby was waiting. Together they drove 80 miles from the station in his pickup truck to his trailer home in Lenoir, North Carolina. The events that followed later became a source of speculation among investigators.
The Daily Telegraph reported that in the note that Sharon left for Victor, she said that she would not be returning and told him not to go after her killer. She also wrote, “If my body is never retrieved, don’t worry: know that I’m at peace.”
On Oct. 30, 1996, South Coast Today reported that after the police department’s newly developed Computer Crime Unit found substantial evidence in Sharon’s computer linking her to Bobby Glass, police in North Carolina monitored Bobby’s trailer for several days. It was hoped that Sharon would be found alive at his residence, but she was not seen during the stake-out.
On Oct. 25, Judge Beal issued police a search warrant for Bobby’s trailer. Investigators arrived at Bobby’s home while he was at work. The property surrounding the turquoise trailer was littered with rotten garbage and abandoned toys. The interior was equally dirty and cluttered. Still, they found items belonging to Sharon, as well as drug and bondage paraphernalia, child pornography, a pistol and thousands of computer disks.
Seventy-five feet from the trailer, an officer discovered a fresh mound of soil. After digging only 2 ½ feet beneath the mound, they found Sharon’s decomposing remains. Caldwell County investigator, D. A. Brown, told The Washington Post that if the body had been buried in the woodlands behind the trailer, “we would have never found her.” That same day, police arrested Bobby at his workplace. According to Capital News Service, the Lopatka case was the first time a police unit captured a murder suspect based primarily on evidence obtained from e-mail messages.
While in custody, Bobby was interviewed about the events surrounding the alleged murder of Sharon. He told investigators that for several days he and Sharon had acted out their violent sexual fantasies in his trailer. He confessed that Sharon had willingly allowed him to tie her up with rope and probe her with objects around the house. Bobby also admitted that Sharon allowed him to tie a rope around her neck and tighten it as she climaxed during intercourse. But Bobby claimed to have accidentally strangled Sharon to death, while in the throws of violent sexual play, according to his lawyer Neil Beach. Bobby was later quoted as saying, “I don’t know how much I pulled the rope ... I never wanted to kill her, but she ended up dead.”
The body of Sharon Lopatka was sent to Dr. John Butts, North Carolina’s chief medical examiner. The autopsy report stated the cause of death as strangulation. Other tests showed some inconclusive evidence of sexual torture or mutilation. Butts believed that Sharon died three days after she arrived in North Carolina. In an interview with the Associated Press, on November 1, 1996, Neil Beach said that the autopsy reports supported his client’s claim that the death was accidental. “It is hard for me to believe the woman was tortured for three days if the medical examiner of North Carolina couldn’t find any indication of that ... It’s much easier to understand or picture an accident occurring during sexual activity than it is to conjure up an image of this man as a cold blooded, premeditated killer,” Beach said.
Search warrant affidavits released by police stated that Sharon intended to meet Bobby specifically to be tortured and killed. Capt. Danny Barlow considered a death under such circumstances to be deliberate, not accidental. According to police, the e-mails written under the pseudonym “Slowhand” detailing how he was going to kill Sharon provided further evidence that the death was premeditated. Bobby was charged with first-degree murder and held without bond in the Caldwell County Jail. On October 26, Superior Court Judge Beverly T. Beal issued a gag order to those directly involved in the case.
Regardless of the court order, the media obtained enough information to sensationalize the Lopatka case. Most of the news stories focused on the dangers of Internet-mediated meetings. Sharon’s death spawned debates and discussion groups worldwide. Many called for censorship of the Internet to prevent such deaths and to protect children. Conversely, anti-censorship activists argued that the Internet was a useful tool, allowing people to express themselves more freely and to voice their ideas, thoughts and views in an open forum, often anonymously.
The Mardi Gras phenomenon is a term used by psychologists to describe the ability to mask oneself and assume a variety of personalities, allowing one to speak and act freely with little or no consequence. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent on the Internet, where users can express themselves freely and anonymously in online chat rooms and news groups.
A psychological and historical perspective
Sharons death and the publicity surrounding the case led to an increased interest in understanding deviant sexual behaviors, especially sadism, masochism and the use of asphyxia during sexual intercourse. Psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing first coined the terms sadist and masochist to describe behavior in which sexual arousal was achieved through the infliction or reception of pain.
According to Rebers Dictionary of Psychology, sadism is the association of sexual pleasure with the inflicting of physical and psychic pain upon another, including humiliation, exploitation and debasement. Masochism refers to any tendency to direct that which is destructive, painful or humiliating against oneself. Psychologist Sigmund Freud was the first to combine the two terms into sadomasochism in an attempt to emphasize the reciprocity of the use of pain during sexual intercourse (Des de Moor, 1997).
A controversial form of deviant sexual play practiced by some sadomasochists involves the use of strangulation. Sexual strangulation is referred to by the psychological community as a form of asphyxiophilia. Asphyxiophilia refers to the general practice of controlling or restricting oxygen to the brain by interfering with the breath directly or through pressure on the carotid arteries in order to achieve sexual gratification (The Deviants Dictionary, 1997). Often, the hands or a tourniquet of some sort is tied around the throat during sexual intercourse or masturbation to achieve a feeling of euphoria and elation, which accompanies a lack of oxygen to the brain. Supposedly, this can increase the intensity of an orgasm.
According to The Deviants Dictionary, sexual strangulation practiced with a partner is a form of edge play, in which ones life is literally in the hands of another. Supposedly, the thrill lay in the danger and vulnerability associated with the activity. However, there have been cases in which such edge play had resulted in an unintentional death. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 250 deaths occur every year in the United States involving strangulation or chokeholds during sexual activity. A large majority of these deaths have occurred during auto-erotic asphyxiation, in which one restricts ones own oxygen during masturbation or solo play. Jay Wiseman of the Society for Human Sexuality says that only a few of those cases resulting in a death, due to strangulation or chokeholds, have involved sexual play with a partner.
There are many theories to explain why some people participate in deviant sexual behavior such as sexual strangulation. One theory suggests that deprivation of normal social sexual contact or childhood trauma cause such behaviors (Nathan, Gorman and Salkind, 1999). There are also theories based on physiological causes of deviant sexual behavior that focus on the relationship between sexual hormones and the central nervous system (Psychology Today, 1999). Currently, there is no evidence that suggests that either Sharon or Bobby suffered from early childhood trauma, abnormal sexual experiences or hormonal dysfunction.
What makes their case exceptional is that Sharon ventured into the relationship with one apparent intention to die. Thus, Sharon was a suicidal masochist. However, she was not the first in history to seek out a willing participant who would fulfill a request to be strangled to death for sexual gratification.
Knud R. Joergensen wrote in 1995 about the 1791 case of composer Franz Kotzwara who enlisted the help of a London prostitute, Susannah Hill, to assist him with his bizarre wish. After paying Hill two shillings, Kotzwara asked her to cut off his genitalia a request the prostitute refused. Yet, Hill did agree to fulfill Kotzwaras sexual wish of strangling himself with a rope. It was the first documented case of death by sexual strangulation. Hill was eventually arrested for Kotzwaras murder, but later acquitted when authorities learned that she was more or less an innocent bystander, unlike Bobby Glass, who more than 200 years later faced first-degree murder charges for the sexual strangulation death of Sharon Lopatka. The charge was eventually reduced to voluntary manslaughter.
The case against Bobby Glass stretched on for three years following several lengthy delays. On Jan. 27, 2000, Bobby pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, as well as six counts of second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor. The latter charges resulted from the pornographic material found on Bobbys computer. Bobby was sentenced to 36 to 53 months in prison for the manslaughter of Sharon Lopatka and 21 to 26 months for the possession of child pornography.
He was sent to Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution in North Carolina. On Feb. 20, 2002, two weeks before his release, Bobby Glass had a heart attack. He was pronounced dead at 1:30 a.m. at Spruce Pine Community Hospital in North Carolina.
By Rachael Bell