Their other lives, the ones they had invented in the cold glow of computer screens, the ones they made forbidden and thrilling late at night over the clippity rhythm of their keyboards, those lives died with Sharon Lopatka.

In the end, the electronic alter egos were ethereal. What was left was the common reality of a sordid killing, and Robert Glass wondering what to do with Lopatka's limp, heavy body.

Sharon Lopatka, 35, left Maryland's Carroll County to find her death in rural North Carolina at the faded, ramshackle trailer home of a man she had met on the Internet. Her death -- the police call it murder, the attorney for Glass calls it an accident -- exposed the fanciful second lives victim and killer had created for themselves on the computer network.

Both were known by their friends and co-workers -- those who saw them in the flesh -- as solid citizens, respectable neighbors, if a bit hooked on computers.

But others, scattered about the world and peering through computer screens, would see Glass and Lopatka only as "Slowhand" and "Nancy," whimsical aliases with wild, even dangerous electronic personae.

"I don't know about this Internet," mused David Flaherty, the genial Caldwell County, N.C., prosecutor who will try Glass on murder charges. "I think I'm not letting my kids anywhere near it for quite a while."

From Hampstead, Md., to Lenoir, N.C., to the national airwaves last week, the incident was being viewed by critics as evidence of the evils of the Internet. The electronic network lets anyone take on a fictional identity for conversations from mundane to sexual, with virtually no responsibility.

"If you want to be tortured and killed, you can. Go to the right place on the Internet," conservative talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh opined on the air.

But others, such as Al Cooper, director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre, cautioned against "demonizing" the Internet when it "has done so much to help people with their sexuality."

For those who have trouble making the first move, "the Internet can be a good first step" toward communicating with other people about difficult subjects such as sexuality, said Cooper, who has an online advice column.

Sharon Lopatka did more than that. A Berkeley, Calif., woman said she and other bondage enthusiasts corresponded with Lopatka and concluded that the woman was seeking someone to kill her.

"Want to talk about torturing to death?" asked one message posted Aug. 22 to a "chat room" dealing with necrophilia. "I have kind of a fascination with torturing till death. . . . Of course, I can't speak about it with my family."

Tanith Tyrr, a self-described sex rights advocate, said in a telephone interview yesterday that she and others corresponded with the sender, who revealed herself to be Lopatka.

"She was going into chat rooms and asking to be tortured to death, for real," Tyrr said. She said several men corresponded with her but stopped when they concluded that she was serious.

Investigators said Glass engaged in raw, sexual and violent conversations with Lopatka by e-mail. Police say the two exchanged messages describing the violence Glass would inflict on Lopatka. In court papers, they say Lopatka left her home Oct. 13 to meet Glass, expecting to act out those descriptions of her death.

She told her husband, Victor, that she was headed to visit friends in Georgia for a week, according to police. When he called Maryland State Police to file a missing person report, troopers read a letter, left behind near Sharon Lopatka's computer, saying she wasn't coming back:

"If my body is never retrieved, don't worry. Know that I am at peace."

If Sharon Lopatka wanted a degrading place to die, she found it in the dingy home of Robert Glass.

There is no shame to living in a trailer. The patchwork of rural life puts fancy brick homes next to mobile homes, neighbor by neighbor.

But even by tolerant standards, the home of Bobby Glass six miles into the countryside from Lenoir was a blight. Rusty toys and rotten rubbish littered the lawn. Four puppies of promiscuous breeding chewed anything in sight. The investigators who went inside said dirty dishes were amid jumbles of computer disks and computer magazines.

Every time he drove from his cluttered trailer, Glass passed a reminder of how far he had fallen: the stately house of his late father, on Glass Road a half-mile away. Joe Glass was a beloved civic figure who helped bring to the area the Ruritan Club, a fire station and the ambulance service. He lived in an antebellum mansion with huge white columns and "G" carved in each wooden shutter. Since his death, the place has fallen into disrepair, guarded by an immense wasp's nest hanging on the front door.

Robert Glass, 45, is more quiet and introverted and is not the public figure his father was.

Every workday morning, he drove 42 miles one way to the modern government complex in neighboring Catawba County for a $38,281-a-year job as a county computer programmer. He sat in the locked basement with eight others and helped program the tax rolls and the voter tabulation system and tracked the gas consumption of the county vehicles. Over 16 years, he had a "good work record," said a county spokesman.

"He knew his computers." said his estranged wife, Sherri Glass, 35. They were his passion at home, too. "He had an IBM-compatible with 66 megahertz, 8 megabytes RAM, a gigabyte hard drive -- things that some people would drool over."

Investigators say Lopatka arrived in North Carolina on Oct. 13, at least six weeks after she first started corresponding with Glass and 12 hours after she left her car at Penn Station in Baltimore and boarded a train. Glass met her in Charlotte and drove her the two hours to his home.

They passed through a place defiantly rural, where convenience stores advertise ammo and chicken feed, where serpentine roads have wonderful names such as Greasy Creek, and where most stop signs carry holes from target practice.

In some ways, Lopatka had been trying to get away for years. Her home in exurban Carroll County was not far, in miles, from the place where she grew up, the predominantly Jewish enclave of Stevenson in Pikesville, just outside the northwest boundaries of Baltimore. Culturally, however, she had moved far away from her Orthodox upbringing.

Her father, Abraham J. Denburg, was the longtime cantor for the Beth Tfiloh Congregation. When a 29-year-old Sharon, the oldest of four daughters, married Victor Lopatka, a Catholic from Ellicott City, in 1991, she considered it an act of rebellion, friends said, but her parents considered it an embarrassment.

"It was her way of breaking away," said Sara Weinberg, who said she knew Sharon Lopatka in high school.

Hampstead feels like a onetime farming community awkwardly retrofitted as a 1990s suburb. New convenience stores and a dusty clock shop share a stretch of its narrow main road, and new patches of development interrupt broad fields.

The Lopatkas' small tract home is at the end of a cul-de-sac, down a long rutted dirt driveway outfitted with a prominent and new "No Trespassing" sign.

Several merchants and some of Lopatka's neighbors said they knew the nice, heavyset woman by sight but didn't get beyond generic pleasantries.

"She came in once a week to make copies and receive faxes. They all had to do with her business," said Ann Lloyd, of the Pack 'n Ship.

Her business ideas came from a $39 "Making Money" kit advertised by an Arizona company outlining ways to profit by running Internet advertisements and by leasing 900 numbers. Lopatka leased two and wrote ads for a fee, advertising her business on the World Wide Web as "Classified Concepts Unlimited." She had four Social Security numbers.

Promising "phenomenal results," she told visitors to her Web page that she would rewrite their ads for $50: "Sit back, and then literally watch the orders pour in."

On another Web page, she advertised a psychic hot line, proclaiming "Vilado -- America's favorite warlock, will cast a spell for you!" Vilado Dion, the ad says, is "from a small town in Manila where magic and the mystical sciences are commonly used in everyday life."

Vilado, it appears, was invented.

Lopatka's other uses of the Internet were not so whimsical. Tyrr, who frequents the electronic "chat rooms" for bondage and discipline enthusiasts, said she exchanged correspondence with a woman who gave her name as Gina108. Later, she said, the woman gave her name as Sharon and provided a telephone number. That number is the telephone number to Lopatka's house in Carroll County.

Tyrr said she is gathering information on Lopatka in an attempt to make clear that her fellow bondage enthusiasts declined Lopatka's entreaties to participate in her death. "I hope I can mitigate at least some small portion of the outcome by making it possible for more people to understand why, and hopefully learn from the mistakes that were made here, including mine," Tyrr wrote on an electronic bulletin board Friday.

She said in the interview that her attempts to counsel Lopatka over the Internet were rejected.

Tyrr said Lopatka responded: " I want to surrender completely. I want to die.' She was trying to get into the {bondage} community to find someone who would do it for real. I wrote her and even sent her information, trying to show her there is a difference between fantasy and reality."

"I want the real thing. I didn't ask for you preaching to me," Tyrr said Lopatka responded.

The Caldwell County coroner concluded she died Oct. 16, of asphyxiation. A rope was found with her body and may have been the means of her death, according to the district attorney. What happened during the three days she was in North Carolina is yet unrevealed.

Neil Beach, the attorney for Glass, said his client went to work during those days as usual. Beach said Glass told investigators the woman died when a rope they were using during sex strangled her.

"He said it was an accident," Beach said Thursday, before a judge imposed a gag order on the lawyers.

Lopatka was a large woman, a burden for the short and paunchy Glass to carry. If he had hauled the body to the woods behind his home, "we would have never found her," said Caldwell County district attorney investigator D.A. Brown.

Instead, he did not get her off his lawn. He dug a hole a dozen or so yards from his children's swing set, along a path to the spot where he dumped and burned garbage.

When Victor Lopatka came to Maryland State Police, they moved quickly to track the e-mail messages on his wife's computer to Glass in Caldwell County.

But by then, she was already dead.

On Oct. 25, when Glass was at work, the Caldwell County sheriff's department descended on his property with a search warrant. As investigators sorted through the trailer's jumble, Capt. Danny Barlow strolled the lot and stumbled on the fresh grave.

"Anybody could see it had just been dug," he said. When they unearthed Lopatka's body, they radioed the go-ahead for Glass's arrest. Investigator Brown caught the computer analyst coming out of the men's room at the Catawba government center. Glass said nothing when they put on the handcuffs. "Very cool," observed Brown.

The next very day -- a Saturday -- the county fired him and took the computer analyst's picture off the Catawba County's "home page" site on the Internet.

One person who has a key to the secrets that led to the killing is Sherri Glass, the defendant's wife of 14 years and mother of their three children, girls ages 10 and 7 and a boy, 6.

She is a polite, soft-spoken woman with a vulnerable air. She just wants to do right, she said. She went to church, tried to get herself an education and still struggles to keep from slipping into country slang.

It hurts her, she said, that people in town -- even some of her family -- are somehow blaming her for the killing. They say if she hadn't left her husband in April, hadn't taken the children, he would not have fallen victim to his secret vices.

"They don't really know everything," she said grimly.

"I left . . . this is hard to say . . . but I left because he said he was no longer attracted to me. I still loved him. But when I went to hug him, he would push me away. When I said I loved him, he said it back in a way that he really didn't mean it. The final straw was when the kids asked me why Daddy didn't love me anymore," Sherri Glass said.

She is scrupulously balanced in describing her husband. She talks admiringly about how good he was at his job, how intelligent he is, how he urged her to take on challenges even when she had no confidence in herself.

Ironically, computers were one of those challenges. Whereas Robert Glass was largely a self-taught whiz, Sherri Glass learned about the machines in the community college where she got a business degree. She wanted to have something in common with him.

"Computers became his life. He ate, slept, everything about computers," she said. "He would stay up almost all night on the Internet. I'd have to drag him out of bed in the morning."

One day when he was away, Sherri Glass began snooping in her husband's computer, curious about what kept him up so late. With some tinkering, she found e-mail "chat sessions" he had saved and was alarmed.

"I don't know why he logged {recorded} those chat sessions. I don't think he thought I could get in here and find them," she said. "He was always . . . I knew he had some magazines around. I just thought men were like that. As long as he kept them hidden from the kids, I didn't say anything."

Her husband had never been abusive, she said. But the messages were disturbing. She refuses to say what was in them. She is not sure who wrote them or whether there was more than one correspondent. But she needed to discuss them with him.

"One night, I cooked him all his favorites. He was in a mood to talk, for a change. So I asked him about it. I quoted something he had said on the chat session. All the color drained out of his face. He knew then that I knew. I guess he underestimated my abilities on the computer.

"I have been confused by this. He's such a nice, gentle person," she said. "If he did do it . . . I really can't see him doing something like that, killing someone, or meaning to, even after all I read. But there's this other side to him, a side of him I didn't know."

There's not much to Lenoir, a town of 14,000 at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Daughters of the Confederacy monument in the town square watches over another losing battle, this one economic. The downtown slips silently into the embarrassed embrace of loan companies, storefront churches and used clothing stores. The stagnant center is skirted by highways, busy chain stores and fast-food outlets. It would not be quite right to say people in Lenoir are surprised at a killing in their midst, even if they could not have dreamed up this scenario. Rural America no longer is -- maybe never was -- quite so sheltered as its apple-pie image suggests.

"People think that because this is a small town, these things don't happen. It's not true. We have people here no different than the big cities," said Brenda Watson, who owns the Carolina Cafe. "I wouldn't let my kids walk alone here at night."

Indeed, district attorney Flaherty has prosecuted a half-dozen murders already this year -- "most of them love triangles," he said. And western North Carolina has long had a reputation as a major drug route.

Nor has rural America missed the information superhighway. When Paul Greer started Wave Communications in nearby Hickory to offer Internet access a year ago, he expected a few hundred customers. He got 3,000 and competitors.

Robert Glass used Wave to access the Internet, according to affidavits in court; Greer will not say, guarding customer confidentiality. But if Glass used his service, Greer said, he has records of when Glass was on it and what sites he visited.

Some of his customers do use the sex chat rooms, Greer acknowledged.

"You would consider me uninformed to say that's not going on," he said. "But so are Mom and Dad communicating with their kids in college, and furniture makers here transferring their data in a spreadsheet to Saudi Arabia, and older folks on the geriatric network. . . . It's a superhighway. It's a new day."

That new day brings new challenges for law enforcement and new opportunities for crime. Five years ago, it would have been harder for Robert Glass and Sharon Lopatka to have met. Now, on the exploding Internet, like-minded individuals easily can connect.

"It used to be you were limited by geography and transportation. The Internet broadens the potential for contact," said Ron P. Hawley, who heads the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation division probing computer crimes. "It's another place to hang out' for people predisposed to commit a crime."

One Internet hangout -- a public bulletin board named alt.sex.bondage -- leaves no doubt of the topic it takes on -- and it was abuzz last week with talk of the Lopatka case.

"That she found someone to do it under the guise" of bondage or sadomasochism "is going to be the rallying cry of those who would condemn our lifestyle," complained one communique to the group, and another likened Lopatka's and Glass's sexual activity to the thrill of taunting mortality by bungee jumping.

Another visitor typed: "You stupid sick perverts finally killed someone!"

The lure of electronic relationships is the ability to invent yourself, said a Northern Virginia computer programmer who asked not to be identified. He said he was obsessed with online dominant-submissive role-playing and broke away because it "wasn't bringing me any happiness. But it has this tantalizing quality of promising to."

Sexual dialogue "is there on the Internet if you're looking for it, but that's not what everybody gets on for," Sherri Glass said. "The Internet can be good or bad. It depends on what you want. People try all the time to hit up on you. I have hundreds of names on my ignore' list" to electronically block their messages.

Sherri Glass has given up her Internet account, and she left with the children for a few days. In Maryland, the husband and family of Sharon Lopatka remain silent, and most of her friends are tight-lipped. In Lenoir, Robert Glass sits in the county jail, awaiting trial. A block away, his only sister, Joan Glass, sits red-eyed and stares at the computer in the medical office where she works.

"I don't consider my brother an animal, and I don't consider him violent," she said. She never saw a hint of such behavior, she said, and is as puzzled as her neighbors.

"There's no understanding to be had here," she said, shaking her head slowly. "There's no understanding of the taking of any human life. That's God's place. If my brother did anything, that's between him and God." Staff writer Paul W. Valentine, Metro Resource Director Margot Williams and researcher Mary Lou White contributed to this report. CAPTION: Sharon Lopatka's computer is stored in a Maryland police evidence room. CAPTION: The body of Sharon Lopatka was found in a shallow grave near the trailer home of Robert Glass in Lenoir, N.C. CAPTION: Sharon Lopatka had an Internet business writing classified ads. CAPTION: Robert Glass, left, has been charged with murder in the death of Sharon Lopatka. His attorney says her death was an accident. Police said the two had exchanged sexually explicit messages on the Internet.