In some posts, students who were not involved were accused. And there were allegations — which one school official told The Washington Post were false — that the girls were drugged and had not consented to the sex. None of the three suspects were charged with forcible sex crimes.
“There’s no accountability for that,” Petrovich said, “and when you start throwing kids under the bus, I don’t think anybody would want their kids subject to that.
Wiedemann said that he has monitored the West Springfield discussion thread and that when he identified one Internet provider address repeatedly posting false material under different user names, he appended a note to all of them: “Malicious user spreading misinformation. His 30 posts in this thread will be marked with this message.”
Petrovich scoffed. “Everyone goes right to those posts,” the lawyer said. “That exacerbates the situation.”
But to Wiedemann, a thoughtful, animated computer-systems manager, it’s all about transparency and freedom of speech. He removes posts only if they violate his basic ground rules: No personal attacks, no complete garbage, no impersonation. He will try to eliminate racist or extremely vile content if it appears to originate from outside Fairfax, and he has blocked all posters from Europe and Asia. But if you’re local and you want to say something, you can pretty much say it on Fairfax Underground.
Wiedemann first had the idea for a local site that would attract users and chatter by collecting Fairfax arrest data and making it searchable. The site went live in 2005 with the goal of being “completely honest, open and accessible to everybody.” No registration. No moving images. No up-or-down voting on posts. Just raw peer-to-peer chat, not sponsored by any corporation and free of advertising. Wiedemann makes no money and maintains the server himself.
“Fairfax Underground is a cesspool primarily because anonymous, unregistered users are allowed to post,” Wiedemann said. “But it’s a cesspool that accurately reflects the inner thoughts and motives of the community at large. Previously private prejudices can be exposed, and challenged, with impunity. The Internet is about peer-to-peer communication, without an editor’s lens or filters. My role is strictly to keep order and to dispel misinformation.”
In the case of the Fairfax school grades, there was no personal information such as addresses or Social Security numbers, so the data were merely embarrassing, not dangerous, Wiedemann argued. In the West Springfield episode, Fairfax police had not reported anything, so people came to Fairfax Underground for answers, he said.
Officer Eddy Azcarate said Fairfax police’s public information office “didn’t find out about the arrests until two weeks after they happened. We made the decision, because it’s an ongoing investigation and it’s juveniles, not to do a [press] release. With juveniles, there’s very little we can say anyway. We did respond to all inquiries as they came in.”
Various police officials monitor Fairfax Underground, if only to take the temperature of the community, but sometimes officers post requests for help or tips on an investigation. They recognize the power and pitfalls of the site. And so does its creator.
Over the years, Wiedemann has been a target for Fairfax Underground posters, whether for the unfettered nature of the site or his nearly 2,000 “edit by Cary” modifications or deletions of various postings. Some postings point out his own arrest record for traffic and marijuana-related offenses (one possession plea at age 19, one distribution charge dropped in 2010) ; he does not touch those.
“I have to have a thick skin, and I do,” said the Northern Virginia native and former Chantilly High student. “I don’t want people to think I treat myself any differently. But ultimate transparency is the key to everything, for our society to learn.
“I’m not trying to be a troublemaker. I’m legitimately trying to inform the community of what’s going on.”