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Did online forum cause family murder-suicide?

In her angst and rage over a pending divorce with a cheating spouse, Amanda Bennett turned to a local message board to vent, and to respond to gossip being spread about the family's sordid drama. Her last post was on Friday. That afternoon, southern Indiana police found her body and those of her three children — ages 14, 9 and 4 — all shot dead. Authorities also found evidence of smoke inhalation in the burned home.

Police are still investigating the deaths. But they will not add to the speculation this was a murder-suicide, although that is the conclusion that has run rampant in online discussion.

The threads that Bennett posted on have since been removed, but the damage is still fresh, with users on the Crothersville Forum hosted by Topix pointing fingers at each other for their roles in accelerating and amplifying an already charged and volatile emotional situation and what they could have done to prevent the tragedy. (Thanks to Gawker's Adrian Chen for guiding us to the site.)

User "Educated Opinion" posted this morning in a thread entitled, "Removing threads does not remove the incident":

I do want to make a quick last comment on this.  Removing the thread was probably the correct decision. It may even have been done at the behest of the police. It is important to note however, that this will have a secondary effect. It will eliminate the visual demonstration of how vicious people in this factory and in the surrounding areas were to this person. In effect, people will forget that they all hounded her, but no one will forget that she killed her children, assuming she is found to have done it. In my opinion, that is unfortunate. I do not expect that people can be brought to trial based off this, but it is still reprehensible actions that shouldn't be swept under the rug.

According to police, John Bennett, Amanda Bennett's husband, recently moved out of the marital home and the couple were in the midst of a divorce. A nasty one, by the looks of it. Gawker reported that Amanda Bennett, 30, had been posting on the Crothersville Forum in a thread dedicated to gossip from Versatech, her husband's employer. Detectives said they are investigating her final post, which allegedly was written under the username "Gone forever." Gawker embedded that post into Chen's story and we're reposting here for you:

Gawker managed to capture more of the conversations that led up to Amanda Bennett's final post, which consisted of Versatech employees (unverified) who gossiped about an alleged affair between John Bennett and another co-worker. There's a lot of back and forth that also includes Amanda Bennett coming online to defend herself against allegations of cheating. As Gawker's Chen wrote, "At every turn she was goaded on by other users basking in the drama."

User "This Town is Nuts" wrote:

I don't have it archived, but to paraphrase it; a few pages of general talk about the factory, then a lot of pages of side conversation while the people involved and friends yell at each other about her husband cheating on her at the factory, some threats back and forth, then a post supposedly from her saying he gets what he deserves and he will need new kids. Then a whole bunch of pages of idiot Christians praying for the kids, never mentioning that maybe god should have stepped in in the first place.

But this user already was in the sights of another, Laura Short, who countered:

You always give yourself away nuts and spamming me..You can cyber bully me all you want 2 you know i don't break easy i dealt with you on here for 6 months and 3 restraining orders..You helped push this girl over the edge..If only i had known her she could have also gotten an order on you..Your sick,,Leave this family alone..You were doing the exact same thing to her you did to me..from your Jeffersonville, In, Vincennes, Worthington,IN to United States names with your mpd..Jeff In always coincedentally follows your United States posts, One playin good guy the other bad, constantly changing names, Times tell all..Don't forget that..

If this is the tenor of the discussions on this board, Amanda Bennett probably didn't know what she was getting into when she joined it. The Daily Mail has a screen grab from the forum that, if it is accurate, shows 570 posts encompassing 23 pages to the thread.

Ok, you could say Bennett opened up a private, domestic matter to the public when she engaged in the postings. But nowadays, that's what a lot of people do. Go over to boards like Surviving Infidelity and you see thousands of people who have poured out their hearts over the years, over the kind of betrayal Amanda Bennett was apparently going through. They even link to news articles about tragedies like this, as cautionary tales for members not to succumb to violence. But more than anything, public, open message boards like Surviving Infidelity (which has nearly 31,000 members) give people in pain a place to connect with others who can help them and who can support them through these difficult periods.

But it doesn't look like the Versatech thread was a place of healing for Amanda Bennett, but instead a place that played out everything that's wrong with unmoderated online discussions and conversations.

Under a Crothersville Forum thread entitled "Funeral Donations and Prayers," user "Word Up" wrote: 

I read the whole Versatech thread thinking that this woman was a psycho and came away convinced that you all drove her to it. You all should be put on trial for intentional infliction of emotional distress. You all tormented this woman, are you satisfied yet? And then you get all indignant? Sick, sick, sick.

Look, I'm not here to pass judgment on anyone. I'll leave that to the people who post on comments, because that's what they do. But maybe it takes tragedies like this to reflect on what you're writing before you hit send. There are real people on the other side, with real feelings that can be affected by the words coming at them. There's always been discussion about the lack of civility online, comments made in this world people would probably never make face to face, or even over the phone. (Whenever I've had the opportunity to face one of my critics over the phone, their anger seems to deflate rapidly.) I don't think that's going to end anytime soon. But at least the discussion should continue. Do unmoderated online forums give users the license to say anything they want? Can we disagree with each other without being disagreeable?

Crothersville Forum user "Know Your Facts" cuts through the clutter to what really matters, at the end of the day:

I don't know what is wrong with people today. A mother and three children are dead...regardless of the hows or whys. Two fathers are without children...and grandparents without grandchildren. I was simply stating that unless you were in this immediate don't know the quit acting like you do. I personally am so sad, for everyone involved, regardless of what they may or may not have done. Even sad for the mother who could take the lives of her children...she must have felt helpless and hopeless. No one should feel that way. The father...helpless as well. God bless all involved.