Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A modern Romeo and Juliet story gets foiled (updated yet again)

Original Post (June 9):

This story is just unreal.... a 16 year old American girl from a small town in Michigan tricked her parents into getting a passport for her, under the ruse that she was planning a bus trip to Canada with one of her friends. This past Sunday, her parents found out the whole bus trip story was a lie, and the next day, they found their daughter missing. The parents called the police, who tracked her to a flight from Detroit to Amman, Jordan, en-route to Tel Aviv, Israel.

Their daughter was en-route to meet up with a 25 year old Palestinian guy from Jericho, who she had met on, and who had apparently bought her a plane ticket.

More from CNN (along with a picture of the girl):

DETROIT, Michigan (AP) -- A 16-year-old girl who flew to the Middle East to see a man she met on was detained in Jordan and was headed home Friday, an FBI spokesman said.

U.S. officials persuaded Katherine Lester to take the return flight from Amman, FBI Special Agent Robert Beeckman said from the agency's Detroit office.

Katherine had disappeared from her home in Gilford, in eastern Michigan, on Monday and apparently planned to visit a man whose MySpace account describes him as a 25-year-old from Jericho, said Tuscola County Undersheriff James Jashinske.

The sheriff's department contacted the FBI, which traced the teen to a flight from New York to Amman, Jashinske said. On Thursday night, her family received word from U.S. officials that she had been stopped as she arrived in Amman en route to Tel Aviv, Israel.

The Saginaw News adds even more:

Investigators learned that she boarded an airplane bound for Amman at JFK International Airport in New York, said Tuscola County Undersheriff James E. Jashinske. The craft was to continue from Amman to Tel Aviv, Israel, on Thursday.


Shawn Lester said her daughter vanished from home Monday, a day after she exposed a lie about planning to travel to Canada with a longtime best friend.

With two bags packed, Lester drove her daughter Sunday to a Bay City bus station, where the friend's family was to meet them. When they didn't show, her daughter demanded her mother leave her there to wait.

Suspicious, Shawn Lester called the family and learned there was no trip. She brought her daughter home.

Katherine Lester was sleeping when her mother left the house Monday morning. When the mother returned at 2 p.m., the teen was gone -- and so were her bags.
This story has a few interesting elements. It seems this girl was leading a double-life for a long time. The girl's parents probably had no idea she had a MySpace account (or perhaps even what MySpace is), or who she was talking to online. The girl's mother Shawn Lester described her as never having had a boyfriend, but for her to want to go off on such a long trip to meet the man from Jericho, she must have known him for a long time, perhaps even a year or two. Perhaps she had no interest in a boyfriend in her small Michgan home-town because she already had one online. Evidently, she knew her parents would object to the relationship - the fact she hid it from them for so long, and created such a complex façade to conceal her trip abroad suggests she suspected she knew what her parents would think and chose to conceal it from them.

The story also exposed an interesting legal situation. The police confiscated the family's computer to conduct an investigation, and are probably trying to see if the guy from Jericho had done anything illegal - chatting online with a 16 year old is perfectly legal (at least in Michigan), but soliciting her for sex is not. If the police do find evidence on the computer's hard drive, the issue gets more complex - if he was in Jericho at the time he was chatting with her, the big question would be whether it violates Palestinian rather than Michigan law. Another interesting legal situation is that there is apparently no law barring a 16 year old with a valid passport traveling internationally without her parents' consent. The Jordanian authorities detained Katherine Lester in Amman and were successful in convincing her to return to the US, but if she had insisted on continuing to Israel, it is not clear whether there would have been any law that could have stopped her.

Perhaps the most interesting element in the story will be what happens next, as Katherine Lester is on her way back to Michigan. Will she continue her online relationship with the guy in Jericho? And, what will happen in a bit over a year from now, when she turns 18 and is old enough that her parents can no longer stop her?

An interesting story indeed...

Update (June 12):

After a long search for links, I hit pay dirt today. Here is what appears to be the link to Katherine Lester's friend's MySpace profile, a man who goes by the screen name "Abdullah Psycho" on MySpace (the "Psycho" part seems to be in reference to his music). If you see the entries in his Friends column, you'll see what appears to be Katherine Lester's own profile.

Update 2 (June 14):

Like a good wine, this story seems to get better with age. Here is a bit more detail that came out today:

NABLUS, West Bank (AP) - The mother of a West Bank man who invited a 16-year-old American to the Mideast to get married says she is distraught that the teenager has returned home and hopes to bring the couple together.
Sana Jinzawi says she was waiting at the airport in Tel Aviv to pick up Katherine Lester, who met her 20-year-old son Abdullah on the popular Web site.

``She was going to sign a marriage contract as soon as she got here,'' the mother said, adding she told Lester to ``bring a pink dress for the engagement party and a white dress for the wedding.''
``She wanted to convert to Islam and wear the head covering and live with us and adopt our culture,'' Sana Jinzawi said.

Sana Jinzawi was also quoted as having "no idea" that Katherine's parents didn't know about the wedding plans.

For the past few days, I'd been curious if those two had been communicating online since Katherine got back to the States after her aborted trip. Both of their "Last Login Date" fields in their MySpace profiles had stayed current, suggesting they were both coming online every day. Then, earlier today, Katherine left this public comment on Abdullah's profile:

Hi baby!!! I MISS U!!! I swear you are so adorable. I love you and noone will change that ever. You are my hero baby, life and i will always be here for you. You are my husband and no matter what ppl say nothing will change that. You are My habibi, ..and u will aways be my habibi. I love you so much...I cant wait to be with you and to hold your hand and to whisper in your ears that i love you, ...I want to be with you forever and ever, .I love u, .. MWAH

I am sure Katherine knows full well that her family know about Abdullah's profile (after all, they were the ones who provided it to the news media). And, she obviously knows full well that whatever she writes there in public will be seen by whatever news organizations are monitoring that site, and various bloggers (a few open-minded ones like me, and several more not-so-open-minded ones too). It seems like a public message to the world that she is still just as determined as she ever was, and she doesn't care who knows it, or what they think of it.

As for me, the more I read about this story, the more genuine it seems. Abdullah (at least from his site) seems like a decent person. As for Katherine, from her picture you can see she likely could have her pick of almost any of the guys in her school if she wanted to, and thus it's obvious to me Abdullah was not any kind of "last resort". They're both a bit young to be thinking of marriage, but it's not unheard of. If they're still that serious about it in a year when Katherine turns 18, I would not be surprised to see them follow through with it.

Speaking from my own experience, a friendship or romance that starts on the internet can be very strong. My wife and I got our start in a long-distance Internet relationship before we got married, and I know others who have done the same. It can work, and in many cases, it is a recipe for a good relationship, since you first get to know each other without physical attraction clouding your judgment.

I wish Katherine and Abdullah all the best in their current relationship and in deciding what to do for their futures.