Perfect Stranger

Joshua Alexander looked at all the lonely women in internet chat rooms-- and saw nothing but opportunit

Alexander met his third wife, whom we'll call Bev, at a poker game celebrating his brother's release from prison in 1990. At the time, Bev was his brother's girlfriend, and she had two children from a previous marriage besides. Wary of the mistake he had made rushing into his second marriage, he did not begin seriously dating her until the following summer, when her relationship with his brother had soured. They waited another year, until June 1992, before exchanging wedding vows.

Not long after that, Alexander was one of dozens of people who received a court settlement in a class action suit against the church where he was sexually abused. Part of the settlement included two free counseling sessions, which served to stir memories of what had happened to him. While paying for further counseling out of his own pocket, he began testifying about his ordeal a couple of times per week in a series of civil trials brought by individual victims against the offending pastor. All this dredging triggered vivid, recurring nightmares related to the molestation.

Alexander's own civil case against the man he says abused him went to trial early in 1994. During the proceedings, the judge ruled that anyone the pastor had already acknowledged molesting was ineligible to testify. Since Alexander was one of the last of the alleged victims to have his case heard, this deprived him of nearly all of his supporting witnesses. In retrospect, searching for answers, he believes that his large physical stature made it hard for the jury to imagine him as a vulnerable child. He thinks the "hippie-style" appearance of his therapist also didn't play well in the conservative venue where the trial was held. For whatever reason, his was the only one of more than 20 cases in which the pastor was absolved of abuse charges.

The resurrected memories and nightmares Alexander had been battling were now exacerbated by the lack of vindication for what he endured. He fell into a prolonged depression that affected his marriage to Bev and his work as a supervisor at a firm that engraved signs and name badges. In 1998, the frequency of his medical absences caused him to be fired from his job.

Before he met Bev, Alexander had frequented Internet porn sites and dabbled in chat rooms--"mostly to goof around and cause mischief, provoke a confrontation or something," he says. After he was fired, Bev worked two jobs to make ends meet while Alexander stayed at home and spent more time on the Internet. At first Alexander told his wife, and himself, that he was spending so much time online searching for a support group to help him with his depression. In fact he made only a cursory effort to connect with other abuse victims, gravitating invariably to porn sites. But the strictly visual charge he got from porn was quickly superseded by a growing fascination with more interactive sites offering adult personals and chat rooms.

"The anonymity of the chat rooms was a big pull because I was very unhappy with who I was in real life. I was extremely depressed and unhappy with my marriage, where I wasn't contributing anything financially and having problems in the sexual department," Alexander says. "In the chat rooms, nobody has to know who you really are; you can be anything you want to be. I could be a 25-year-old biker stud, even call myself BikerStud. Or I could even be a woman, which happened a lot in the beginning when I was going into lesbian chat rooms, mostly to get pictures. When you do what they call picture swapping, they want to see more than one picture because they have a tendency not to believe you are who you say you are. If you go to the adult personals, a lot of them have a series of very provocative naked pictures. So I would just take the pictures from there."

Not surprisingly, Alexander discovered others, most of them other men, doing the same thing. "You could tell who the women were because they were more suspicious. They'd ask what I'd call female questions, like what my clothes size was. Or they'd talk about some female surgery they had a couple of years ago and ask if you'd heard of it. Sometimes they were making things up, and if you agreed with them, they caught you that way. They were very clever, and I guess they had to be. You could tell they had been duped so many times by men."

Alexander learned the rules of the game, rapidly becoming an assiduous sexual con artist. A few weeks after being fired, he began to amass his "catalog," eventually storing thousands of photos of naked women on a series of computer discs. He was masturbating a couple of times a day by now, sometimes stimulated by photo-enhanced cybersex or phone sex. Phone sex was nothing very special. You got it by using photos of younger, more virile men; quite possibly the person on the other end of the line was being similarly deceptive. Before long it felt tawdry and shallow. Alexander craved something that involved more connectedness, more romantic resonance, but he wasn't prepared to cope with the risk of rejection. His solution was to start preying on the most emotionally vulnerable women he could find.

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