By Chloe Morrison
Since Walker County 911 dispatcher Theresa Parker disappeared, her case has drawn local and national media attention, and some have taken to the World Wide Web to discuss the investigation and speculate on her whereabouts.
Mrs. Parker disappeared on March 21. She was being divorced from former LaFayette Police officer Sam Parker, who has been called a "person of interest" in the case by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Mr. Parker was fired from the police department for having explosives in his locker. Authorities have searched Mr. Parker's home at least five times. In a statement given through his sister, Carolyn Wooten, Mr. Parker said he did not harm his estranged wife.
Online discussion forums, called message boards, allow people anonymously to discuss the case, organize search efforts, spread the word about scheduled vigils and play crime scene investigator, officials said. But the real investigators said they do not rely on what is written online, although they don't totally disregard the information either.
"(Discussion forums are) kind of a new development as far as law enforcement is concerned, and there are agents that do pay attention," said GBI spokesman John Bankhead. "Discussion forums provide an opportunity for people to voice their opinions about what's going on (and write) their theories about things."
Barry Hollander, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, said message boards have different rules and expectations of behavior, but they all provide a sense of community. Users of a board often police it themselves, Mr. Hollander said.
"Certain people often emerge as leaders, or at least as opinion makers," he said.
On message boards about Mrs. Parker, users speculate about who is reading the posts.
"Does anyone believe that Sam Parker is reading these posts," wrote one user who goes by the name of "Tigerfan."
Mrs. Wooten said she does not look at the online message boards.
Other users wonder whether authorities are reading the posts.
GBI investigator Gary Rothwell has been working on the case of Tara Grinstead, who disappeared from Ocilla, Ga., in 2005. Mrs. Grinstead's disappearance sparked online discussions, which Mr. Rothwell said he monitors. Officials also said that message boards seem to pop up more for cases involving white females.
"You don't want the message board to drive your investigation, but I believe it is worthwhile to monitor," he said. "It doesn't mean you subscribe to every word."
Mr. Rothwell said investigators who monitor the message boards must have a thick skin, because authorities are often criticized in posts. On a message board about Mrs. Parker there is speculation about cover-ups by the "good ol' boy" system. Some posts have suspected agencies from the GBI to the LaFayette Police Department of looking the other way during the investigation.
Mr. Hollander and Mr. Rothwell also said message boards sometime stray from the topic, and users begin to bicker and argue, which has occurred during discussions about Mrs. Parker.
Mr. Hollander said message boards can be reliable sources, but he said it is important to read them with a "skeptical eye."
"A lot of professionals in areas have boards, and I'd certainly look at their posts as being more authoritative. There are an awful lot of smart people out there who post to these boards," he said. "There are also a lot of idiots who post. Bulletin boards and blogs are really cases of reader beware ... Buy into a post at your own risk."
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