Mean Girls

updated 04/28/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/28/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The three-minute video opens on a living room couch in Lakeland, Fla. Brittini Hardcastle, 17, bends over Victoria "Tori" Lindsay, 16, pummeling the younger girl with her fists. As Tori staggers from the couch, she is stopped by April Cooper, 14, who throws punches as Tori covers her head. When Tori gets to the front door, Brittini backs her against a wall, yells, "You're not leaving!" and wallops Tori again. In an escalating cacophony, as Tori pleads to leave, an off-camera voice sing-songs, "Video camera!" and Kayla Hassall, 15, her ribbon-tied ponytail bobbing, wags a finger in Tori's face, shrieking about one of Tori's MySpace posts. Tori shrieks back. Then, Brittini has another go at Tori's face. Of the three minutes of footage, lips flap for 2:30, fists fly for 30 seconds.

But those 30 seconds have made the attack, which took place on March 30, the girl fight seen round the world. The video quickly went viral, triggering millions of hits, thousands of posts—and a slew of unsettling questions about the so-called "ce-Web-rity" culture. Coming on the heels of other posted mean-girl fights—"I go on YouTube and watch girl fights all the time," says one of Tori's friends—the video brouhaha left many parents wondering if Internet violence begets copycat violence. If so, are girls exercising a natural inclination toward physical aggression? Or are they lured by the 15 minutes of fame that online exposure provides? Either way, do such videos blur kids' perception of the line between reality and entertainment?

Crime experts, meanwhile, were divided in their reactions to the media and court's handling of the assault. "If this is not taken seriously, it sends a message," says Dr. James Garbarino, author of several books on juvenile violence. "Violence tends to become depersonalized when it's on the Internet." Dr. Meda Chesney-Lind, an expert on girl gangs, counters, "This thing is the poster child for sensationalism. If boys were doing this, it would not be news."

Instead, three days after the attack, six girls were arrested, along with two males who allegedly served as lookouts. The eight, who range in age from 14 to 18, were slapped with adult charges of battery and kidnapping, a felony that carries a life sentence. At the same time, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who described the incident as "absolutely animalistic," claimed that the girls had "lured [Tori] to the home for the express purpose of filming the attack and posting it on the Internet"—then ensured that very outcome by releasing the three-minute footage to the media himself. After another week, a tape of the 911 call, placed by Tori about a half-hour after the attack, was released. "I just got jumped," she sniffles into the phone. A friend's mother, with Tori when she made the call, said, "She's got blood in her mouth and a big old knot on her left eye."

Gagged by a court order, Tori and the other six girls can't join the heated discussion. But in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Tori talked about life after the beating. "I was in a lot of pain," she says. Though her skin showed no signs of injury 15 days after the assault, she has brain scans ahead. "It feels like something's in my ear," she says. Shortly before the attack, she'd left home because she wasn't getting along with her parents and was staying with suspect Mercades Nichols, 17. Now, Tori has moved back in with her dad, stepmother and three siblings. (Her mother is in prison, serving 10 years for a fatal stabbing.) Tori, a cheerleader, says she has a message for other teens: "Your No. 1 friend is your family. Don't trust anybody."

One of the few friends she still sees, a girl named Megann, 17, says Tori "doesn't want to leave the house. She's very stressed; she's not happy." Megann adds that when she and Tori watched the video, "She cried. Her 3-year-old sister saw it and said, 'That's my Tori, don't beat my Tori up!'"

Parents of the suspects, meanwhile, struggled to strike a balance between their outrage at what they view as ham-fisted handling of the case and their condemnation of the attack. "What happened is disgusting," says Jeff Hassall, Kayla's father. "It made me sick to my stomach." But he and other parents are furious that Sheriff Judd released the video clip, which prompted obscene phone calls and death threats to the families after the footage cropped up on YouTube and MySpace—a site that Tori's father, Patrick, an air-conditioning technician, calls "the Antichrist for children." And the parents are galled by the adult charges. "They've charged them all identically," says Hassall. "It's wrong." Bob Schumaker, father of suspect Stephen Schumaker, 18, says, "Our great sheriff made a mountain out of a molehill." The Lindsays seem to agree. "They're kids, for goodness sakes," says Tori's stepmother Talisa, 36. "I don't want these kids to spend the rest of their lives in prison."

Differences between Judd's statements and those of the suspects are turning the incident into a she-said/she-said dustup. "I feel for the detectives because getting the truth out of one teenage child isn't always the easiest thing," says Hassall. "I can't imagine getting it out of six." In various press statements, the sheriff charged that Tori was summoned to the house by Brittini and Mercades, where four other girls lay in wait. The six, who he said were angered by Tori's "trash talking" on MySpace and in text messages, jumped Tori, "slammed her into a wall and knocked her unconscious," then "continued to beat her and to beat her" after she awoke on the couch. Judd said that the three-minute video did not depict the worst of the 11 minutes captured on tape. (He did not explain why he hadn't made the other eight minutes public.)

Mercades' mother, Christina Garcia, says Tori "was never unconscious." As for being smashed against a wall, Garcia points to the unmarred walls in the home where the fracas took place and wonders why Tori didn't leave a dent in the soft Sheetrock. Garcia also faults Judd for painting the girls' behavior with a single brushstroke. Mercades, she insists, can be heard on the video saying, "Let her run away." Tori's friend Megann still believes they had it in for Tori. "It's a jealousy thing," Megann says. "Tori's very pretty and a lot of guys like her."

After the arrests on April 2, Judd claimed that the six girls "were all laughing" in their shared holding cell. Jeff Hassall counters, "The detective told me [Kayla] had been crying the whole time." Certainly, the eight days spent in juvenile lockup, followed by a day in an adult facility, were sobering. According to one suspect, daytime hours were spent on schoolwork; evenings, the teens could either watch children's TV shows or scribble in coloring books with crayons. The day's highlight? A cookie or muffin before bedtime at 8:00.

Now out on bail, all six girls have been barred by Judge Angela Cowden from having any contact with each other, Tori—or Internet chat rooms. But if recent history is any example, the cyberspace wars won't end any time soon. Small wonder, then, Mercades' grandmother Mary Nichols, 65, calls the Internet "a battlefield for these kids"—then adds emphatically, "I hate the Internet. I hate it."

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