HAMPSTEAD, MD — All varieties of sex were for sale 24 hours a day in Sharon Lopatka's world. She could provide nearly anything anybody desired at any time.

Police thought it almost unbelievable she would board a train with her own murder as her destination. With a tapping of her fingers on a computer keyboard, she became 5-foot-6 and a shapely 121 pounds. A few more taps and she was an aggressive 300-pound dominatrix who promised the love of strict discipline. When she tapped again, she became "Nancy Carlson," a screen actress prepared to star in whatever type of sexual video her fans cared to purchase.

Ultimately, according to police, Lopatka had her own strange desires. To achieve them, she sat at her computer typing furiously for hours at a time until finally she found a man behind her computer screen to grasp.

Several weeks after meeting him on the computer, her last wish would come true. She arrived in the foothills of North Carolina while the foliage was still colored with brilliant oranges and yellows and reds to meet him in person. And, police say, fulfilling her desires, she was bound with rope, made to bleed and then strangled before her nude body was dumped into a shallow grave.

"If my body is never retrieved don't worry," she had written to her husband, Victor, before catching an early train from Baltimore to North Carolina. "Know that I am at peace."

SHARON RENA LOPATKA WAS 35 when she was killed Oct. 16. The man police arrested and charged with murder is Robert Glass, 45, a computer analyst for the Catawba County government who is now in jail with no bond. His attorney maintains that Lopatka was killed accidentally, during rough sex.

But after digging up Lopatka's body about 75 feet from the front door of Glass' mobile home, and after studying messages that Lopatka and Glass had sent each other using their computers, police said the two had carried out a disturbing fantasy in which the man promised to kill her. The two carried out a disturbing fantasy in which he had promised to kill her.

According to police, Lopatka hopped on the train fully expecting to be tortured and killed.

Investigators have not revealed everything about Lopatka's activities before her death. But beyond her correspondence with Glass, it appears Lopatka used the Internet to present herself as many different people, some of them extravagant, some of them isolated, some of them eccentric and most of them with unconventional sexual interests that she was more than willing to share, for a price.

Her former classmates, her friends and her neighbors say that outwardly she was neither a strange loner nor a freakish deviant. They knew her as a kind member of an influential Baltimore family whose patriarch was a cantor at Beth Tfiloh, the Baltimore region's largest Orthodox Jewish synagogue. They knew her as a normal work-at-home wife in Baltimore's outer suburbs whose greatest loves were country crafts, children and dogs.

"I guess some people have some kind of inner thing going on that you just never know about," said Debra Walker, Lopatka's neighbor. "I think we knew them as well as anyone in the neighborhood. She was just like anyone else you know, and that kind of scares me in a way, to think you really never know somebody."

ANYBODY WITH A RELATIVELY INEXPENSIVE COMPUTER and adequate software can travel the Internet, which is not so much a destination as it is a method for communicating with other computer users virtually anywhere in the world. Information can be obtained on almost any topic, and people with like interests can travel electronically to various stops along the computer network to swap messages and post notices.

One attraction of the network, beyond its efficiency, is that users can remain anonymous. Lopatka took advantage of that feature until her death.

"Hi! My name is Nancy," reads a message that Lopatka posted in an area of the Internet where sexual erotica is the main topic.

I am 25 have Blonde hair, green eyes am 5'6 and weigh 121. Is anyone out there interested in buying ... my worn ... panties ... or pantihose..???? This is not a joke or a wacky internet scam. I am very serious about this. If you are serious too you can e-mail me ...

Other messages appealed to those with foot fetishes and to men who get sexually excited by seeing women pass out.

But when Lopatka lost her life she also lost her anonymity, and she was none of the things she claimed to be. She was, in fact, dark haired with dark eyes and a heavy face. She was 5-foot-10 and 189 pounds when she died, according to her autopsy report. And far from the wild video star she claimed to be, she lived her life quietly in a ranch-style home on Indian Court, a cul-de-sac in the quiet, hilly town of Hampstead, where children play tag in front yards, dogs tease mail carriers and where deviancy is a failure to join recycling efforts.

When Lopatka graduated from Pikesville High School in Baltimore in 1979, her name was Sharon Denburg, and she had many friends. She was a member of the volleyball and field hockey teams. Her junior and senior years she was a nurse's aide, a library aide and a singer in the school's chorus.

"She wasn't an outcast or anything of that nature," said Steven Hyman, who attended school with her. "She was about as normal as you can get. I think making her this weird loner is just some media thing."

... ABOUT SIX YEARS AGO SHE MARRIED Victor Lopatka, a handsome and fit construction worker.... Her marriage to a Gentile did not go over well with her family, and according to the newspaper The Jewish Times, her family now refuses to publicly acknowledge that she once belonged to them. They are not talking to reporters, and neither is Victor Lopatka.

Despite the fallout, the couple apparently lived happily, in a home typical of Hampstead.... She started her own businesses on the Internet, including one selling psychic advice and another encouraging people to make money by placing advertisements and leasing 1-900 phone numbers.

Sharon Lopatka made a new friend, Diane Safar, who lived nearby, and the two of them put together a 30-page booklet last year on home decorating and country crafts. It was called "Dion's Secret of Home Decorating Guide."

"Here we were decorating our houses one day and talking to each other for advice, and we just said, 'Hey, we should put this stuff in a book,'" Safar said. "We put it together and then we went around to ladies' groups and churches selling it. It was fun."

"What I want people to know is the woman I knew was not crazy in the slightest," Safar said of her friend. "She was always a happy person, always bubbly even. This person who was killed was not the person I knew."

... From one of Lopatka's postings on the Internet, Oct. 1:

Hi! My name is Nancy. I just made a VHS video of actual women ... willing and unwilling to be ... knocked out ... drugged... under hypnosis and chloroformed. Never before has a film like this been made that shows the real beauty of the sleeping victim ...

On Aug. 2:

DO YOU DARE ENTER ... THE LAND OF THE GIANTESS??? Where men are crushed like bugs ... by these angry ... yet gorgeous giant goddesses.

And again Oct. 1:

Let me customize your most exciting Bondage fantasy for you ... on VHS ... to watch and enjoy privately in the comfort of your own home ... Prices start at $100.

There is no evidence that Lopatka ever made any videos.

In all, over several months she posted more than 50 messages on various parts of the Internet, in areas with addresses such as fetish-feet, amazon women-admirers, sex-bondage, and sex-weight gain. One message was posted to alt.torture, and most were hawking sex videos that she claimed she would either star in or produce.

... "The attraction to the Internet to so many people is you can be whoever or whatever you want to be," said Paul Jones of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia. "If you want to be Walter Mitty, you can be Walter Mitty. If you want to be out of the mainstream sexually, you can find company on the Internet."

... SOMETIME IN SEPTEMBER, while hunting through the Internet, she entered a chat room and became fascinated by a person who presented himself as having a fetish for torture. He was a good lover, according to his messages, born on Valentine's Day and prepared to fulfill Lopatka's wishes.

Police say the man was Glass, whose computer name was "Slowhand."

The two latched onto each other. So far, investigators who have recovered messages from their computers have nearly 900 pages of notes they wrote to each other.

"If you put all their messages together, you'd have a very large novel."

"If you put all their messages together, you'd have a very large novel," said Capt. Danny Barlow of the Caldwell County Sheriff's Department. "It would be very thick, and I think you could say it would have a very sad ending."

On Oct. 13, Lopatka drove her blue Honda Civic about 45 minutes to Baltimore's Pennsylvania station.... She had informed her husband she was going to Georgia to visit friends.

But according to Barlow, she instead hopped on the 9:15 train to Charlotte, arriving there at 8:45 p.m. Police say Glass met her there in his pickup truck at 9 o'clock.... He drove them from the lights of Charlotte to the unlit backroads of Caldwell County, about 80 miles away.

Robert Glass lived alone. His wife, Sherri, had left him about six months earlier, taking their three children with her. He was a computer wizard, always most comfortable in front of a keyboard and screen. But he was far from a hermit. He was a member of the Rotary Club, and his family is well known throughout the rural county. His sister is a church organist.

He subscribed to America Online, which provides access to the Internet, and on his profile he claimed to love photography, music and model railroads. In a space reserved for personal quotes he had written: "Moderation in all things, including moderation."

BACK IN MARYLAND, Victor Lopatka was concerned. After discovering a note from his wife, he filed a missing person report Oct. 20. He provided e-mail messages from Slowhand.

On an application for a search warrant, investigators said the messages "described in detail how Slowhand was going to sexually torture the missing person and ultimately kill her."

Police thought it almost unbelievable that the woman would actually hop aboard a train with her own murder as her final destination, so they kept surveillance on Glass beginning Oct. 22, hoping to find some sign she was alive.

"He went to work every day, just kept up his routine," said Barlow, the detective. We watched him day and night and there was absolutely no sign of her."

On Oct. 25, police obtained their search warrant for Glass' home. They went through his belongings while he was at work, finding items, according to Barlow, that belonged to Lopatka.

One officer noticed newly turned dirt a short distance from the front door of the trailer. Barlow and another officer began digging. About 21/2 feet down, they hit a knee. They arrested Glass at work.

"The cause of death is consistent with strangulation," said Dr. John Butts, the chief medical examiner for North Carolina.

Sleuthing Usenet
Of all digital tools available to reporters, none are quite as rich as the Usenet Newsgroups, one of the Net's most popular features before there was a Web.

Over 20,000 of these forums are scattered on the Net, focused on every imaginable topic. These messages, from millions of users, can at times provide reporters with powerful insights about story subjects and situations.

The Lopatka case is a perfect example. It first seemed like a sad but typical story of an unsuspecting woman sexually abused and killed by a ruthless predator. To create a portrait of the victim, the News & Observer conducted the usual interviews with friends and neighbors.

Knowing that Lopatka and Glass were active online, Brooke Cain, after consulting with Todd Richissin who was covering the story, conducted a series of searches. "I searched for a possible home page [for the victim] and didn't find one. I used a site called 'DejaNews' (www.dejanews.com)." DejaNews is a search engine that treats Usenet as if it were a single database.

The break came when Cain obtained the police request for a search warrant, which included Glass' and Lopatka's e-mail addresses. She then searched DejaNews on those addresses. In seconds she had a list of dozens of messages Lopatka had posted in sex-related newsgroups.

After verifying that "nancyc" aka Nancy Carlson was actually Lopatka, Richissin changed the story's angle in light of the new information.

"This shows how Internet resources can be used to add depth to a story in ways that would take much longer without the Net," said Randy Reddick, editor of FACSNET, an online journalist resource.

Editor & Publisher Interactive News
Jul 18, 1997

When Lopatka's body was dug up, her wrists were bound with rope, as were her ankles. She had scrapes on her breasts and neckline. And there was a rope around her neck.

... Police removed boxes filled with thousands of computer disks from Glass' trailer. They also removed bondage paraphernalia, drug paraphernalia, a pistol, magazines, cameras and videotapes along with Glass' computer, a Cybermax.

Lopatka's father-in-law, John Lopatka Jr., had little comment other than to say that the family has been shattered.

"Too much has come out already about this case," he said. "The respectful thing to do would be to leave us alone.... This is a tragedy, nothing more and nothing less."

AMONG LOPATKA'S FINAL MESSAGES posted on the Internet is a note addressed to people who had sent for the videos, failed to receive them and posted their own notes, calling the advertisements a fraud.

I'm just one person trying to fill all these orders," she wrote. "I don't even have time to HAVE A LIFE.

And elsewhere she posted this:

Let me customize your most exciting TORTURE fantasy for you ... on VHS ... to watch and enjoy privately in the comfort of your own home. A film designed by you ... with scenarios of your choice. Films are shipped in plain envelopes to protect your ... privacy.


Slaughter and Consumption:
Associated Press, Dec 3, 2003
  Internet advertiser finds volunteer good enough to eat.  
Washington Post, Aug 24, 2003
  With help from the internet, suicide's no longer a solo sport.  
The Two Faces of Christina:
Associated Press, May 21, 2002
  The darker half of a model Catholic schoolgirl catches up with her.