The Web site www.geocites.com/ravdirt features a counter indicating that the site has received over 400 “hits,” but who actually created and maintains the site remains a mystery. The Web site encourages its viewers to “check back often for updated nitty gritty details of a local government gone bad,” and is sponsored by a group titled “Cutting Edge Folk for a Bit Better Ravalli County,” though no phone number for such a group can be found. Clicking on various links leads to unattributed reports of widespread corruption and malfeasance in Ravalli County law enforcement and government (all the while, the theme from the “Mickey Mouse Club” drones on, accompanied by pictures of the famous cartoon character). Among the claims the site makes: a covered-up assault case in Corvallis, mistreatment of inmates and rumors that a Ravalli judge uses methamphetamines.
“To me, most of it is just disgruntled complaints that don’t bear a lot of truth,” says Ravalli County Undersheriff Kevin McConnell.
Another of the claims made on the site is that inmates in Ravalli County detention centers have been restrained from making contact with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“That’s ludicrous,” says McConnell. “I can’t even fathom how anybody would begin to dream we would do something of that nature.”
When the Independent e-mailed the Web master of the site, a return e-mail was sent stating that he or she would be happy to answer questions. The e-mail was signed “Lieutenant Powell.”
Lieutenant Cathy Powell serves in the Ravalli County Sheriff’s office, and is, in fact, one of the officers maligned on the Web site. In an interview, Powell said that she had not written any e-mails to the Independent, nor had she created a Web site in which she denounces herself and her co-workers.
“It is not me,” says Powell. “I guarantee you that.”
The Independent again e-mailed the Web master to determine his or her true identity, but was met with no response. Currently, the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department has several detectives working on unmasking the Lieutenant Powell impersonator, and both Powell and McConnell say that they have a good idea who the imposter is, but declined to disclose the name, as the investigation is ongoing.
McConnell says that the mystery crank could possibly be charged with criminal defamation or impersonating an officer, but the guidelines for conviction of these crimes via the Internet are not as clear as those for, say, dressing up in a police uniform with the intent to deceive.
In order for Ravalli County to prosecute a criminal defamation charge, the city would have to prove that the allegations on the Web site are false, which would require intensive inter-departmental investigations. Which, in turn, is about all an anonymous cyber-griper could ask for.