LENOIR, N.C. -- She was a former FBI employee, the cantor's daughter who grew up in Baltimore's Orthodox Jewish community and ran a pair of fledgling businesses on the Internet.
He was a computer specialist for Catawba County, N.C., a father of three who lived on the family farm and loved to cultivate vegetable gardens with his children.
Sharon Rena Lopatka, 35, and Robert F. Glass, 45, lived a world apart and probably would never have met, if not for the Internet. But in the anonymous realm of cyberspace, the two lonely hearts found each other and began what police say was an electronic-mail fling that delved deeply into fantasies of sexual torture and murder -- and ultimately came true.
"All of this strikes us as weird," says Capt. Danny R. Barlow, a veteran investigator with the Caldwell County Sheriff's Department.
Glass is charged with killing Lopatka, who apparently died of asphyxiation, and burying her body near his broken-down, blue-and-white mobile home. Glass' attorney, Neil D. Beach, says Lopatka died accidentally during consensual sex, and that Glass will plead not guilty to the murder charge.
Investigators say it appears Lopatka orchestrated her death over the Internet. They say hundreds of sexually explicit e-mail messages culled from Lopatka's home computer show that she agreed to take a twisted sexual fantasy a step further at the hands of someone she met face-to-face three days before her Oct. 16 death.
The secret Glass and Lopatka shared stunned Baltimore's insular Orthodox community, which held tight to details of her life -- and was reluctant even to acknowledge the date of last week's funeral.
And it brought the national news media and tabloid television shows to the town of Lenoir, population 14,000. The case has generated so much publicity that a judge issued what longtime courthouse lawyers are calling the county's first gag order in at least 30 years.
Despite their vastly different pasts, Glass and Lopatka had a few things in common, according to court records and investigators, family members and friends. They felt alone. They were secretly obsessed with sex. And they found solace on the Internet.
Long before he became known in cyberspace as slowhanave.net, Glass was fascinated by computers. He parlayed that fascination into a career, working as a county data analyst.
Born on Valentine's Day, 1951, Glass grew up in Lenoir in the state's western foothills, where his father worked for a furniture maker and his mother taught elementary school.
The town is home to Broyhill, one of the nation's top furniture makers, and the scent of freshly cut timber fills the air. It's a place where the theft of a jack-o'-lantern from someone's front porch makes the local newspaper.
A burly, bearded, bespectacled man, Glass lived what was from all appearances an uneventful life. He graduated from Lenoir High in 1969. Among his hobbies were computing, music and model railroads.
Sherri Glass, a sweet-faced, soft-spoken woman with brown hair and glasses, was 19 and working the register at a Burger King in Lenoir when she met him. He ordered a steak sandwich, medium fries, a medium Dr Pepper. Six months later, he found the nerve to ask her out.
In 1982, Glass married Sherri, now 35 and a part-time secretary at the local community college. They lived in town before moving five years ago to the farm, where they planned to build a house.
But there was trouble in the marriage that would lead to a separation in April. She says he didn't love her anymore, and Glass was becoming more intrigued by the world that was
opening up on the Internet.
She says her husband sat before the screen of his 486 IBM-clone personal computer and often stayed late into the night.
"I knew he had a computer interest when I married him," she recalls. "But it got so that he was totally into computers. He didn't care about anything else."
She says her husband was never violent; she saw no sign of kinky sex habits. Once, she found a magazine with drawings and photos of nude women. She chalked it up to "normal guy stuff."
But what Robert Glass was doing was far from normal guy stuff.
It was the last week of August when he met someone calling herself nanconcentric.net on the Internet. It was Lopatka.
She grew up as Sharon Denburg in the shadow of Beth Tfiloh, a Pikesville synagogue where her father, Abraham J. Denburg, was a cantor for nearly three decades. Friends say she kept kosher and she kept the Sabbath.
Between November 1985 and May 1987, Lopatka worked for the FBI in the Washington-based unit that helps identify fingerprints and other clues to criminal cases. Last week, the bureau wasn't talking about Lopatka's short tenure there or why she left.
Lopatka's apparent rebellion against the restraints of her religion culminated in her April 28, 1991, marriage to Victor Lopatka, a man outside her faith who is a construction supervisor for Gilligan Development Inc.'s Diamond Hills community in Westminster.
Overweight and awkward, she stood in stark contrast to her tall, thin husband. He wore tight biking shorts while peddling the hilly streets surrounding their Hampstead home in Carroll County, or running with his black Labrador retrievers, first Hank, then Zeke.
Sharon Lopatka drove around the neighborhood in an electric-blue Honda Civic, rock music blaring. And she began experimenting with the Internet, trying out a series of get-rich-quick schemes.
Lopatka had big plans when she came to computer whiz Michael Hughes about a year ago to find out about setting up Internet ads, says Hughes, a former "webmaster" at Baltimore Resources, an alternative health magazine.
He says she bought two Web pages, costing $50 to $75 per month, to advertise a pair of 900 numbers -- a psychic hot line and a classified ad writing service.
"She was really starry-eyed and taken by the idea of the Internet and having a Web page," Hughes recalls. "She appeared to be very easily manipulated and prone to being swayed by just about anything. It seemed like she was looking for something."
Weeks before her rendezvous with Glass, Lopatka exchanged e-mail messages with another man over the Internet, arranging to meet him in New Jersey to be sexually tortured and then slain, law enforcement sources say. But when she went there, he backed out, the sources say.
Investigators aren't sure how Lopatka found Glass in cyberspace, but hard-core, sex-related Web sites are not unusual on the Internet. And sexual messages -- often with violent content -- are appearing increasingly in "chat rooms" and on "newsgroup" bulletin boards.
In December, for example, someone left sexual and murderous fantasies about actress Jodie Foster in a Los Angeles chat room. The messages were removed, and the author was not found.
In another case, a University of Michigan student corresponded by e-mail with an Ontario man about his fantasies of raping, torturing and killing a classmate. The messages were discovered after the student sent his fantasies to a public Internet file.
And apparently the first Internet-related slaying -- in which a man is accused of luring his victim through a gay chat room on America Online -- occurred in January in East Windsor, N.J.
The hundreds of e-mail messages between Glass and Lopatka -- conversations about sex, torture, bondage and death -- began in late August, law enforcement sources say. They continued until Oct. 12, the day before she drove to Pennsylvania Station in Baltimore and took the Amtrak Crescent to Charlotte, N.C.
She told her husband she was going to visit friends in Georgia. But she left what amounted to a suicide note, telling him "not to go after the one who did this to her" and that if her body is never retrieved, not to worry, because "I am at peace," court records show.
On Oct. 20, Victor Lopatka filed a missing-person report with the Maryland State Police, providing investigators with a few pages of the e-mail between his wife and "slowhand."
Investigators tracked "slowhand" -- also the nickname for rock guitarist Eric Clapton -- to an Internet provider called Wave Communications in Hickory, N.C. They subpoenaed records for "slowhand" and traced Glass to his trailer.
Glass was at work when investigators arrived at his trailer with a search warrant Oct. 25. They noticed a mound of freshly dug dirt about 70 feet from the trailer. Three-and-a-half feet down, they found Lopatka's body.
"We were surprised he would bury the body right there in front of his house," says Caldwell County Sheriff Roger L. Hutchings.
Authorities arrested Glass at his office, where they later executed another search warrant, removing files and computer correspondence. He remains in jail without bail.
The next night, Sherri Glass was preparing dinner, wondering why her estranged husband had not arrived for his weekend visit with the children. The phone rang with the news of his arrest.
"I said, 'What, my Bob killed someone?' I just couldn't believe it," she recalls. "I never thought I'd find my husband in a situation like this. I keep trying to figure it out, but I can't."
Pub Date: 11/03/96