One of the region's nightmares — the kidnapping and murder of an 11-year-old girl on Maryland's Eastern Shore during Christmas 2009 — came to its public conclusion Tuesday morning at the Elkton courthouse. The accused killer, a 31-year-old convicted sex offender named Thomas Leggs, pleaded guilty and received life in prison without the possibility of parole. The family of the victim, Sarah Foxwell, had asked the state not to pursue capital punishment.
"The Foxwell family has told me that they do not want a lifetime of anguish and appeals, due to the extreme stress, havoc and grief the death of Sarah has caused them and their need to begin healing from this horrible, despicable crime," the Wicomico County state's attorney, Matthew Maciarello, told reporters. "And because they wished to protect Sarah's sister, a 7-year-old material witness in the case, they have unanimously requested that we withdraw our notice to seek the death penalty."
Mr. Maciarello made that statement outside the courthouse in Cecil County, where the case had been moved because of extensive pretrial publicity. He then stepped aside to allow members of the Foxwell family to comment, and that's when the girl's maternal grandmother issued a battle cry.
For 10 minutes, Roberta Wechsler ranted angrily — not against the man who had killed her granddaughter but against a man who was standing nearby and listening, Joe Albero. Mr. Albero blogs at SBYNews.com under the motto: "The pulse of Salisbury. Either you love us or you hate us!"
Even if uninitiated to Mr. Albero's brand of commentary or to the Delmarva blogosphere and the small-town gossip that is its daily gruel, you had to assume from her fiery words that Roberta Wechsler had been profoundly offended by Mr. Albero, and repeatedly, since her grandchild's murder. This was the battle cry of the blogospherically beleaguered.
In her prepared remarks — available on the website of WBOC-TV — she used words to describe Mr. Albero that standards of newspaper practice forbid me from repeating, but which, ironically, are common in the anything-goes, defamatory blogosphere that Ms. Wechsler decried.
While not specific about his alleged offenses, she said Mr. Albero had "tortured and pillaged," had conducted "a terroristic reign over" and had "intentionally caused emotional distress to" her family. She claimed he had used the tragedy "to line his pockets," an apparent reference to the numerous advertisements for Delmarva businesses on Mr. Albero's blog.
During her courthouse rant, Roberta Wechsler said Joe Albero had "inserted himself into this nightmare" by frequently blogging about the case in order to attract readers. But apparently, in Ms. Wechsler's view, SBYNews went beyond mere exposition on the Foxwell tragedy to hurtful commentary. And according to a rival blogger, Jonathan "The Salisbury Grinch" Taylor, Mr. Albero published anonymous comments that disparaged the Foxwell family.
"When do you let it go?" Mr. Taylor says, citing the frequency of Mr. Albero's blogs about the Foxwell tragedy as one of the main sources of the family's complaints. Mr. Taylor refers to the practice of frequent blogging about a subject of intense local interest as "hit-whoring," the objective being to drive viewers to SBYNews.com.
Mr. Taylor was once a contributor to Mr. Albero's blog. Now, he says, "people around here see me as the yin to Joe's yang." Indeed, Mr. Taylor's blog makes many negative references to Mr. Albero, particularly because of his focus on the Foxwell tragedy. "As much hatred and disgust we all feel for Albero, I could have a field day with comments with the subject for the next 6 months," Mr. Taylor wrote on his blog Thursday. "But by doing so only keeps him going."
As for Ms. Wechsler, she said Mr. Albero is "squarely in my headlights" and is vowing to seek legal remedies. "We're not the first to be victimized by this man, but we will be the last."
According to The Daily Times in Salisbury, Mr. Albero has been sued for defamation by, among other public officials, former mayor Barrie Tilghman. Mr. Albero won each case. "I will say what I feel like saying," he told WBOC after the Tilghman ruling.
The First Amendment gives him that right. But saying nasty things about public officials is one thing; directing potentially defamatory words at private families, particularly those grieving the loss of a child, could be another. That would be the test if Roberta Wechsler follows through. "I'm a blogger," Jonathan Taylor says, "and even I don't like that we get away with so much."