Katie Tarbox was 13 when she met “vallleyguy” in an online chatroom. He said his name was Mark, and that he was a 23-year-old college student in Los Angeles. It was an exciting encounter for Katie, a lonely eighth-grader in affluent New Canaan, Conn.
“I had no idea when I logged on that I was inviting a sexual predator into my bedroom,” says Katie, now 20. “I never thought that 'Mark' could be anyone other than who he said he was.”
Their first online chat certainly seemed innocent enough. Katie said she liked classical music; Mark did, too. Katie said she liked J. Crew and Ralph Lauren clothes; so did Mark. Looking back, Katie says Mark was an intelligent, well-spoken, “kind soul” who seemed to understand her. But Mark — actually 41-year-old Francis John Kufrovich — was angling to sexually molest her.
“I know now that it was a process called 'grooming,' but in my 13-year-old world, I really thought it was fate, and that we had all these things in common,” Katie says. “He really was a genius when it came to his manipulation skills. He knew exactly how to win me over, and it was not by talking about sexual things. He told me things that I needed to hear when I was 13 — that I was intelligent and mature.”
Katie and Mark began exchanging e-mails at least once a day. Katie gave Mark her phone number, and soon, the middle-aged financial adviser was calling her almost every night. They talked about everything from movies to food to politics. Mark asked Katie to keep their relationship secret from her parents, which Katie was happy to do.
“I was smart enough to know that it would not be kosher in our household that I was talking to an older guy I met on the Internet,” Katie says. “And I only told one of my friends, because I thought everyone would immediately assume that Mark was only after sex. I didn't feel our relationship was about that — I felt we had this higher sort of friendship. I felt like he was a good influence on my life.”
Katie and Mark exchanged pictures after about three months, but Katie says she couldn't really tell what her cyberfriend looked like — or how old he really was — because of the poor quality of his photo. Katie says her connection to Mark grew stronger about a month later, when she turned 14. Sensing an opportunity, Mark began to press Katie for a face-to-face meeting. Katie kept him at bay — but she didn't close the door on the idea entirely. Eventually, Mark told Katie that he was 31 — but it didn't matter. Katie was hooked.
“It finally got to the point where I wanted to meet him,” Katie recalls. “We were talking basically every night. I did have romantic feelings for him, but I didn't think he felt the same way.”
About six months into their cyber relationship, Katie informed Mark that she would soon be traveling to Irving, Texas, with her mother, to compete in a national swim meet.
Mark suggested that he fly from California to meet her. Katie was reluctant — but she finally gave in. The two agreed to meet at Katie's hotel.
The day of reckoning arrived on March 12, 1996. Katie and Mark had planned to meet at the hotel around 7 p.m., but he missed his connecting flight. Thinking he had changed his mind about coming, Katie went to bed in the room she was sharing with her best friend Ashley. But about 15 minutes later, the phone rang. It was Mark. He wanted Katie to come to his room, two floors down.
Ashley objected, but Katie insisted on going “just to say a quick hello.” If she wasn't back in 30 minutes, she told Ashley to come and get her. Then she headed downstairs, still wearing her flannel, polar bear pajamas.
“He opened the door, and the first thing I thought was, 'Oh, my gosh, he's an adult,' ” Katie says. “It really hit me.”
After a few minutes of awkward conversation, Mark began stroking her hand. Katie knew she was in trouble. “He started kissing me, groping me, molesting me,” Katie says. “He tried to take off my pajama bottoms.”
Katie says she was too shocked to put up much resistance. “I felt, 'Oh my god, Katie, how could you be so stupid? Of course, he didn't come all the way from California to just talk.' Then I thought, 'Do I owe this to him? Did I lead him on?' ”
Katie says Mark had gotten on top of her when there was a loud knock on the door. It was Katie's mother, who had been alerted by Ashley. A few minutes later, the police arrived. At first, Katie denied that she had been sexually assaulted — even after learning that Mark was actually Kufrovich and that he was 41. Katie felt embarrassed and foolish and stupid — but she still thought of “Mark” as her friend.
Katie Tarbox, now 20, was a lonely 13-year-old when she met a 41-year-old man on the Internet posing as a college student. (Courtesy Katie Tarbox)
Kufrovich went free, and Katie went back to Connecticut. About a week later, however, Katie told her mother — and the police — what really happened. She didn't want Kufrovich to molest any other girls. Kufrovich was arrested and charged with soliciting a minor over the Internet, as well as crossing state lines to have sex with a minor, both felonies. Kufrovich initially denied the charges, but he eventually pled guilty after the government said that three other minors were prepared to testify against him.
In June 1998, Kufrovich was sentenced to 18 months in prison. “I want everyone here to know, especially the young lady and her family, how very sorry I am,” Kufrovich told the courtroom. “I can only tell her that sometimes people lose their way.”
But the tearful apology didn't erase Katie's scars. Her encounter with Kufrovich had catapulted her into a severe depression, and she had lost the respect of her friends.
“I was made out to be a slut. It took two years to see him go to prison. He was sentenced to only 18 months,” Katie says. “It felt like a slap in the face.”
Kufrovich is now out on probation. Katie is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. She has testified before Congress in favor of tougher penalties for cyber-predators, and she travels the country speaking about the dangers of the Internet. She has also written Katie.com, a book about her ordeal.
“I never thought I was putting myself in a dangerous situation,” Katie says. “Looking at it now, seven years later, I know I could have been killed or raped. I was lucky.”