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South Neighborhoods
Mt. Lebanon police chief weathers storm over exposure of teens' Web site

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

By Laura Pace, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

More than 200 little pink slips -- those familiar phone message forms -- made their way to Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Tom Ogden's desk in just the first 24 hours after news of the notorious Web site hit the media last week.

Now, the site, which showed Mt. Lebanon High School students drinking, barfing and in various stages of undress, has been dismantled. And Odgen couldn't be happier.

"I didn't want everyone in the world looking at the site. I wanted it to stop," Ogden said. An anonymous tipster sent Ogden a letter with the Web address after he and other Mt. Lebanon officials began pushing for curbs to underage drinking in the town.

About 190 of Ogden's first phone messages were positive, thanking Ogden for bringing the site and its graphic images to their attention. About 10 were negative, with one man telling Ogden he shouldn't have brought the media's attention to the site.

"I think I'm doing the right thing, despite the fact that you think I'm the biggest moron ever to hold public office," he said he told the caller. His goal was to get the behavior to stop by drawing parental attention to what was happening at the parties.

The site, which chronicled parties by a drinking group called "Team Ault," contained everything from pictures of kids standing around doing nothing to girls being groped to others passed out on a bathroom floor or vomiting into a garbage can.

Now that the site is down, police hope to get the information on it out to parents whose children are in the photos. Police copied 253 pictures from the site onto their computers. Half of the kids have been identified. Still others will be, through the cooperation of Mt. Lebanon detectives and the school district, whose officials offered to help with identification.

Parents of the children involved will be notified by certified letter, except for participants who are at least 18. In that case, the participants and not the parents would likely be notified.

It's a process that will take several months.

Parents concerned that their children may have been involved may call Ogden at 412-343-4009 to be put on a list. About two dozen have already done so. When the IDs are done, those parents may see pictures of their children, but not the other pictures.

Ogden already has contacted the parents of the students accused of setting up the site.

"One lady said we made the whole thing up and the other parents said thanks for calling," Ogden said of those conversations. The Web master is 17, Ogden said.

Although the chief said his department won't attempt to pursue anyone for underage drinking charges, several local beer distributors, which he declined to name, will be investigated for furnishing the alcohol.

Ogden contacted the district attorney's office about a picture showing three topless 14-year-olds but said it might not be actionable, because they covered their breasts with their arms.

"I think 14-year-old girls pictured in a Web site is close to obscene," he said. He will contact their parents to see if they posed willingly with the knowledge their pictures would be posted online.

At a meeting Monday, Ogden briefed commissioners on the background and commissioners debated the municipality's role in curbing drinking.

"We don't have any more [underage drinking] than any other community," Ogden said, noting what they do have is a large number of alcohol overdoses -- 17 this year. He listed several other Web sites high school kids from other areas have assembled to brag about teen drinking.

"I'd like to see us doing whatever it takes for us to say our problem isn't as bad as other communities'," Commissioners President Keith Mulvihill said.

Ogden said parents have to be smarter. "A number of parents, I don't know how many, have called [police] to ask if it's OK to have their kids drink when they're at home," Ogden said in disbelief. "There's nothing you can do about teaching parents how to be adults. It's a huge problem."

Commissioner Ty Ely said the municipality will never be able to stop all teen drinking and he said children today are more responsible than when he was younger. He said he does not condone the behavior and it's important that kids have enough information to make the right choices.

"They may be more aware," Mulvihill said. "But I don't remember having a problem with 14- and 15-year-olds drinking until they were comatose when I was this age."

"The scary part is the adult participation," Commissioner David Humphreys said.

Steve Feller, Mt. Lebanon's municipal manager and Ogden's boss, said last week he had no problems with the way Ogden approached the issue.

"There's a lot of perception that we created a media frenzy," Ogden said in defense of the way he brought the public's attention to the site. He noted he did not distribute pictures or put up the Web site. But he did tell people of its existence. "The police department's policy is that unless it's an undercover operation, we tell people what's going on."

One parent posted on a local news group to say Ogden shouldn't have provided information on the site to the media. Another defended Ogden's actions, saying he was trying to do something before someone gets killed.

Ogden said his priority is to be proactive rather than waiting until a child dies before he intervenes.

"We are one of the only police departments working with the school district to do something about it," Ogden said.

Laura Pace can be reached at lpace@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.

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