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Man Charged After Net Confession

May 1, 1998

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) _ Jim Shirk has heard many people admit to many things. As a chemical dependency therapist, he’s developed an ear for stories that may not be true.

The words he read on his computer screen, he said, had the ring of truth.

``Amanda I murdered because her mother stood between us,″ said the message posted at 6:09 a.m. March 22 by ``lfroistl″ in an online support group for problem drinkers.

The message, 165 words in all, and a followup explaining how the girl was killed, ``struck me as being real,″ Shirk said. He and two other readers called police.

Larry Froistad, a San Diego computer programmer, was arrested and charged with murdering his 5-year-old daughter three years earlier in Bowman, N.D.

Froistad’s attorneys say he would plead innocent at his arraignment today. They contend the messages could have been sent by someone else and are not admissible evidence.

The case has set off a debate about the confidentiality of online support groups, where some members may assume that the intimate stories they send over the Internet are private.

The original message from ``lfroistl″ provoked two replies, one offering support, the other asking ``What do you mean, you murdered your daughter?″

The second posting, 562 words long, detailed a bitter custody fight over Amanda and how ``I got wickedly drunk, set our house on fire, went to bed, listened to her scream twice, climbed out the window and set about putting on a show of shock, surprise and grief to remove culpability from myself.″

The 1995 fire had been ruled an accident.

Neighbor Ralph Simonson recalled that on the night of the fire Froistad was ``throwing buckets of water on the house and yelling, `Amanda, come to the window.‴

``I know that Larry loved his daughter very much, and at this point we don’t believe he’s responsible _ that this was in fact an accident,″ said Philip Sokol, a San Diego attorney.

Police said Froistad, 29, called and confessed after learning that support group members had notified authorities about his postings.

The messages appeared in a support group run by Moderation Management Network Inc. Subscribers from around the world can send and browse e-mail messages.

Shirk, of Lakebay, Wash., said he was called a ``fink″ and a ``snitch″ by other members for calling police.

``I definitely believe I did the right thing,″ he said.

Shirk said he did not know if the messages were true but he believed they needed to be checked by police.

``The way that he formed everything,″ he said. ``Just the way it read, it struck me as being very real.″

San Diego police traced the messages to Froistad. The department sent a notice to agencies across the nation asking them to check their records of any fatal fires, and Bowman authorities responded.

Bowman Police Chief Donald Huso said Froistad called him March 27 and confessed to setting the fire. He was arrested that day.

``He prefaced it by saying, `The memories I have of the fire is that I set the fire,‴ Huso said.

If convicted of Class AA murder _ the highest murder charge in North Dakota _ Froistad faces up to life in prison without the chance for parole. North Dakota does not have the death penalty.

Bowman County State’s Attorney Steven Wild said he hesitated before reopening the case.

``The e-mail statement alone, there’s questions about whether that by itself would give us enough probable cause to issue the complaint and the warrant,″ he said.

Sokol questioned whether the e-mail messages were admissible evidence and said the confessions could be considered hearsay, coerced and privileged.

And Sokol noted the Bowman fire was ruled an accident.

``Before any statements made by someone can be admitted against them in evidence, there has to be some evidence that there was in fact a crime,″ he said. ``And that remains to be seen at this point.″

Sam Dash, a Georgetown University law professor, said an e-mail confession would be no different than someone confessing to a friend or police.

``I know that there’s going to be a number of cases that the Net is being used for all kinds of things like this,″ he said, ``but a confession is a confession.″

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