05/29/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
At first the chat rooms seemed like the perfect meeting place. "People didn't judge you by your looks, they judged you by your thoughts," says Katie Tarbox. A 13-year-old honor student in New Canaan, Conn., when she first logged on to her sister's laptop in 1995, Katie began trading messages with "Mark," a college student (or so he told her) from Southern California, and soon began building her evenings around their conversations. "It wasn't romantic or sexual," she says. "It was just a friendship."
Actually, it wasn't even that. As Tarbox recounts in Katie.com, a chilling memoir of how her online friendship led to sexual molestation, the experience left her shattered. "I truly felt I was guilty for what happened," she says. But as she wrote about the deceptively intimate realm of online relationships, Katie, now 18, emerged with not only a clearer sense of self but also a warning for every teenager blind to the predators lurking in the cyberjungle. "The Internet allows people to be whomever they want to be," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "Kids don't always understand the dangers."
When Katie first clicked into AOL's teen chat rooms in the summer of '95, she was just looking to share interests with kids like herself. Raised by mother Andrea Tarbox, 50, treasurer of a high-tech firm in Stamford, Conn., and stepfather David Gransee, 48, a pharmaceutical company executive (her biological father left the family before she was born), Katie scored high grades in school, spent hours practicing the piano and competed on a national swim team. "She was always more worried about pleasing teachers than her friends," says sister Abby, 21 (a younger half sister, Carrie, is 13).
On a September Sunday morning, Katie met "Vallleyguy," a 23-year-old who impressed her with his well-phrased messages and the sensitive way he listened as she voiced her hopes, dreams and frustrations. By January, she and "Mark"—who urged her not to question their age difference or tell her parents about their relationship-were speaking on the phone almost every night. And when Katie mentioned she would be going to Dallas for a swim meet, he announced he would rendezvous with her there. "Quite frankly," she says, "I was excited to meet him."
Tarbox was shocked when she went to his room at the Harvey Hotel and discovered that "Mark" was actually Frank Kufrovich, a 41-year-old businessman from Calabasas, Calif. He soothed her with conversation, but then began kissing and fondling her. "I sat there, completely numb," Katie says. "I didn't know what to do." Fortunately, Andrea, who was staying in a different room from Katie and her teammates, soon figured out her daughter had vanished and got a teammate to divulge her where-abouts. Within 30 minutes, Andrea was at Kufrovich's door with police and hotel security at her side.
Because Kufrovich and Tarbox insisted nothing had happened, local authorities merely sent him back to California. Within a week, however, the confused teenager filed a complaint with Dallas police that led to an FBI investigation of Kufrovich. "Boy, did that bring up a few things," says Katie. "He'd had several sexual relationships with younger girls and boys."
Kufrovich, who eventually pleaded guilty to two federal crimes related to his pursuit of Tarbox, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in June 1998. (Released last October, Kufrovich declined an interview.) Still, the episode took a toll on the family. "I didn't feel I could trust Kate," says Andrea. Ostracized at school, Tarbox began suffering anxiety attacks. Therapy helped, as did going back to her computer. But this time she kept to herself, pouring her memories of her online nightmare into a journal. When it stretched to 300 pages, Tarbox's parents helped her find a literary agent; by the end of the next school year, Katie signed a deal with the Dutton publishing house to write about her misadventure.
Now finishing her senior year at St. Paul's boarding school in Concord, N.H., Tarbox plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania this fall. "I'm overwhelmed by how positive my life is now," she says. Perhaps because she's traded the virtual world for the real thing.
Peter Ames Carlin
Barbara Surk in New Canaan