When violent crime strikes a social network, the ghosts of the dead start roaming the machines.
from Wired Magazine
DEANNE BAYS WAS WORRIED about her kid brother, Daniel. His girlfriend hadn’t heard from him for a day and a half. There was no sign of him online, even though he usually spent hours a day on MySpace. And he’d been hanging out a lot with that drug dealer. Bays hoped that didn’t mean young Daniel Varo was back in jail. All day long on February 7, even as Bays crammed for Accounting 211 and Spanish 102 and took her daughter to the dentist, she wondered where he could be. That evening, two hours into her 4-to-10 pm shift at the Norm Thompson catalog company, just outside Portland, Oregon, Bays finally got a chance to check her own MySpace page for messages. There was one from her husband, frantic, telling Bays to phone right away – even though he knew that she wasn’t allowed to make personal calls on the job. Bays’ inbox also had emails from two of Varo’s ex-girlfriends. "What did he do now?" she groaned to herself, clicking on one of the notes: im freekin out i cant stop crying and i dont want to believe its true. he cant be gone … please call me or someone call me please.
Bays, a petite redhead with a broad, smooth face, walked into the Thompson break room. She called her husband. "You have to come home," he whispered.
Varo, 22, was dead – shot in the head as he sat at his computer. Varo’s friend Darren Christian, 28, and one of Christian’s friends, 21-year-old Lindy Cochran, had also been killed in the same gangland style.
In the days and weeks that followed, Deanne Bays followed a path familiar to families involved in a violent crime – she sobbed in grief and anger, numbly arranged a funeral, turned to friends for comfort. But Bays did it in two worlds at once – the virtual and the real. Bays suffered in private, but she also shared her pain on MySpace. The aftermath of the murders resonated through the social network – touching the investigating detectives, the lawyers and even the victims. Daniel Varo was dead, but he didn’t disappear. He had lived so much of his life online that pieces of him lingered on the Web – a ghost in the machine.
PEOPLE DROVE FOR HUNDREDS OF MILES to have Daniel Varo work on their cars. It was easy for him, and he loved it – he’d do it for strangers stuck on the side of the road, in the rain, in the middle of the night. And good luck getting him to charge for the work; maybe instead of cash he’d take parts for his Acura Integra Type R, a street racer he drove on the twisting roads of suburban Portland at five times the speed limit – holding his cell phone against the dashboard so a buddy could hear the engine growl. He was a 6’2", 220-pound overgrown kid, a mile-a-minute goofball talking at hurricane speeds, hoovering up fast food, bopping around raves like a noodle-armed maniac.
But Varo was also a "magnet to trouble," his sister says. "All the cops knew his plates." He rolled with a tough crowd. He had served six months in the Shutter Creek Correctional Institution for intent to sell 76 hits of ecstasy. He had even managed to get busted for jaywalking. The threat of parole violations always loomed. i need to get on the ball, he once posted on his sister’s MySpace page. i am getting old already haha.
Then in January 2005, intent on making a clean start, Varo and his girlfriend – a sinewy, 18-year-old blonde named Ashley Foley – moved from Portland to a secluded suburb 30 miles north of Tacoma, Washington, to live with Varo’s mother. Away from friends, they started spending more and more time on MySpace, uploading their personalities, preferences, and relationships to the social network. She’d post flirty comments and decorated her page in pink, with pictures of herself in garters and thongs; he posted an online kissing test and a picture of a Type R.
They spent the better part of a year keeping to themselves, mostly. Foley danced at Fox’s, a local strip club. Varo delivered pizzas and prepped for computer science classes – he rebuilt computers almost as well as cars. But on New Year’s Eve, Varo and Foley went to a rave called Apocalypse 2 at a club in a trashy little exurb southeast of Tacoma. Varo was excited; he kept telling Foley that he was hoping to run into an old Seattle rave buddy, "DC." They met up with drug dealer and party promoter Darren Christian just after midnight.
Six feet tall, with sculpted shoulders and pale-green eyes, Christian was charismatic, oozing confidence. He’d drop three grand at a bar without blinking and bought a motorcycle before he knew how to ride. One time, about to go snowboarding, he handed a friend a 4-inch wad of beer-soaked cash to hold while he was on the slopes. Christian hadn’t bothered to count it, but his friend did: $28,000. Fueling all this was an ecstasy business with hundreds of thousands of pills in inventory. "He got the most ass, kicked the most ass, drove the fastest car, had the coolest dog and the dopest house," says Sherri Jensen, another Fox’s dancer. "Everything about him made you want to hang out with him, all the time."
Christian and Varo had a bond that was almost chemical. "A little match made in heaven," Foley says. "Both really loud, always going-going-going." The pair partied for a full day after the New Year’s rave. Within days, Varo was crashing at Christian’s rental house, a white stucco place on Sixth and South Union avenues in Tacoma’s emerging-from-seedy Hilltop neighborhood. Foley built Christian’s MySpace page; he used it to promote his parties and hook up with girlfriends. Christian decorated the page like his house, with pictures of Japanese motorcycles and Al Pacino in Scarface. Soon after he started his online life, girls were leaving notes, telling him, I can’t wait to touch you!
Through a fellow car junkie, Varo met Ulysses Handy III. Known on MySpace as Lucifer – he had hellraiser tattooed across his back and 666 on his caramel-brown abdomen – Handy had just finished serving nearly eight years in jail for beating a guy with a baseball bat. Since his release, Handy had been suspected of shooting two people and molesting his 14-year-old cousin. A 1998 hospital psychological evaluation mentioned past diagnoses ranging from "impulse control disorder" to "Jekyll/Hyde personality shifts."
The first time Handy went over to Christian’s house, he figured he’d rob the place; Christian kept a safe in the bedroom, supposedly packed with drugs and money. But Christian was "so cool," Handy told friends, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. In fact, he could barely bring himself to leave Christian and Varo at all.