Small town: Wicked Words
Jennie Runevitch/Eyewitness News
Austin - A horrific crime has people asking, "What pushed an Indiana mother over the edge?"
Some say words posted online played a part in an Austin woman killing her children, then herself, last month.
Nothing can shatter the silence of a small town like a seemingly senseless crime. In late January in the small southern Indiana town, police say 30-year-old Amanda Bennett shot her three children, set fire to her home and then shot herself.
One month later, teddy bears and trinkets remain on the family's front porch, while questions continue to surround the crime.
"I don't know what was going through her mind at the time. I grieve for her, feel sorry for her and her children. I don't know what happened," said neighbor Jason Turner.
But trouble behind closed doors played out very publicly before the murder-suicide.
"I've heard some things," Turner said. "A lot of gossip."
An Internet message board through Topix.com, especially popular in small towns, that's attracted criticism since the crime. On a Topix discussion board where Bennett's estranged husband was employed, the online conversation was about more than work.
Comments centered on the Bennett's crumbling marriage and accusations of infidelity. There were postings from Amanda Bennett and a slew of anonymous responses. Those posts, neighbors say, often turned nasty.
"I hate to see people do things like that, you know, say things to hurt somebody," Turner said.
Shortly before the shootings, Amanda Bennett made a post using the screen name "gone forever."
"It's time to take the pain away," she wrote. "You got what you wanted, no wife and no kids. He won't have his kids, he'll have to make new ones."
Topix CEO Chris Tolles says the forum in no way fueled the crime.
"Absolutely not," he said. "This woman had a lot going on and I feel deeply sorry that this happened, especially to her children, but I'm not sure that we could have done anything about it and I also don't think if I look through the stream of commentary here, there was nothing that was particularly out of line."
Critics, however, see a deeper issue. They say the forums attract gossip, rumors and cyber-bullying.
"I think the term 'bullying' is perfectly appropriate here, because people are acting like bullies when they go after someone like this," said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College, who is an expert on hazing and bullying. "Almost like a gang mentality."
It's not just one forum post. Other Topix forums contained more comments, one calling someone a drunk child molester and other posts, peppered with vulgar language. Another user, naming names, wrote "I don't care if it's libel."
"These are people in Indiana talking amongst themselves. Who are we to say what is reasonable and what is not reasonable?" Tolles said. "We're essentially just a mirror for the town."
Topix, Tolles says, serves an important function in small towns. It's much like an online diner, where people congregate, find out what's going on and talk about it freely. But while conversations at a diner are face-to-face, online, they're anonymous. Some say that can cause problems.
"Over here, they can unleash real venom," Nuwer said. "The ganging up and the level of abuse, the vitriol, it just is amazing."
Since the murder-suicide, Topix has stepped up its monitoring of forums, pulling some comments more quickly. The site still attracts 20,000 visitors per month.
But while the debate over free speech online continues, in Austin, they're mourning children's lives and wondering what drove Amanda Bennett over the edge.