False light? Would-be killer wants vampire stories removed
When Kurt Kroboth was tried for a vampire mask-assisted attempted murder of his estranged wife on Halloween night in 2004, the details of an upper-income couple's bitter divorce-turned-horror movie rocked Charlottesville. The former financier went to prison for six years, and now that he's released, he's ready to make a fresh start. The only thing he believes is standing in the way of "a reconstructed, normal life," he writes in a June 10 email, is the Hook's website, which contains "lurid" details of his case.
Now living in retirement in the Arizona community of Green Valley, the 56-year-old Kroboth says that due to the Hook's "ongoing attack on my reputation," he may pursue a legal remedy, including "monetary damages."
Kroboth's warning comes in a December 16 registered letter, in which he claims that a defamation lawsuit filed in Arizona doesn't require the plaintiff to prove false information, only that it creates a false implication.
Kroboth notes that online articles can be hidden from search engines by adding a line of code, and that the Hook should cloak the stories dated February 16, 2006, May 11, 2006, and February 21, 2011, "a simple and acceptable corrective measure that would not require removing anything."
In a phone interview, the Columbia-educated Kroboth says the overall impression created by the articles is inaccurate– although he declines to specify how.
"Since this may be heading to litigation, I'm not going to elaborate," says Kroboth. "I didn't intend my communications with you," he adds, "to be the subject of an article."
This isn't the first time the subject of an unflattering story has attempted to clean up the online record. In 2007, former Charlottesville School Superintendent Scottie Griffin, who endured a tumultuous stint heading city schools, hired a company called ReputationDefender to scrub her image.
Kroboth says he's not interested in the larger issues of privacy in the age of search engines.
"I'm only interested in my case," he says. "It's only one publication that comes up, and it's yours."
Kroboth claims that someone Googling his name got him disinvited from a current-events club in Green Valley. He says he's aware that an attempted murder conviction is something that he should disclose to potential employers– but he wants to do the revealing.
"I'm willing to disclose it myself," says Kroboth. "The difference between that and the articles is considerable. Your reporter made an attempt to spectacularize that incident and the circumstances."
He declines to specify how the case was spectacularized. "I don't think it's necessary to go into that," he says.
According to the court file, Kroboth– allegedly thwarted by a friend's refusal to kill his estranged wife for $10,000– hatched a plan of his own. Prosecutors contended that he donned a vampire mask, severed phone and electric wires, crept into his sleeping wife's house with a bottle of chloroform, and planned to incapacitate her to stage a bathtub suicide.
Bob O'Neil thinks Kroboth would face an uphill legal battle. The founding president of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, O'Neil says a landmark 1964 Supreme Court libel decision, New York Times v. Sullivan, forces public figures to prove "reckless disregard" for the truth to win a libel suit.
Sometimes, says O'Neil, a person can become a limited public figure, like Richard Jewell, the security guard wrongly accused of planting a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Given the extent of publicity surrounding the trial of Kroboth, "He is almost certainly a public figure," O'Neil opines.
"This isn't like a juvenile offender where you wipe away the record," says O'Neil. "If the conviction was valid, the fact that you wish it never happened doesn't make it go away."
UVA law professor Fred Schauer, who stresses he knows nothing about Kroboth's situation, says in an email that the law can be murky.
"Here we are dealing not with defamation, and not with falsity, but with invasion of privacy by disclosure of (true) embarrassing facts," writes Schauer. "In a 1965 case called Time v. Hill, the Supreme Court held that if the action is for so-called false light invasion of privacy– disclosure of facts that may not be defamatory, but create a false impression about the subject– more or less the same standards applied as for defamation."
Still, Schauer contends that court rulings make it difficult to punish news organizations.
"Again, what is or is not newsworthy has been the subject of much litigation, but it is a basic premise of the First Amendment that publication of the truth is to be valued," says Schauer, "and thus the scope of possible liability for publications that publish true facts is very, very narrow."
Hook editor Hawes Spencer says he gets occasional requests to remove material from the newspaper's website.
"I respond to those who say there are inaccuracies," he says. "[Kroboth] wasn't asking for a correction. He's asking for expungement, which I think is anathema to freedom of the press and openness."
As for Kroboth, in his December 16 letter, he gives the Hook 30 days to hide the three news stories from search engines and to notify him when that's been done. Will he sue?
"Unless such a response is forthcoming," he says, "I will consider such action."