Some Candy, Little Girl?

So, who here didn't guess the all-too-predictable outcome of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? Who couldn't see that the two-hour courtship and marriage of Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger on this Fox television special would implode during the honeymoon? Or that money, beauty, stardom, even glitzy TV production wouldn't be enough to trigger the warm magnetism of love?Maybe Fox exploited the fragile desires of Rockwell, Conger, and the other 49 female contestants to bump its ratings for sweeps month. Maybe they all just wanted to see themselves on television. But those watching were certainly sold a bill of goods-not the least questionable idea being, to this geek ponderer, that electronic mediation can answer someone's cravings for affection.It's a dangerous deception. The Multi-Millionaire debacle reminded me of an even more dubious contest, run on the Web by a Portland, Ore., family, the Faelan's Sweetheart Contest (www.spiritone.com/~lykion/faelan.html).I first learned of the contest in November 1998, when Faelan showed up on Memepool (www.memepool.com), a frequently updated compendium of curious (intentionally or otherwise) Internet sites. This one was a brainteaser for anyone who stumbled on it. On a black background was a photo of a dark-haired boy, smiling but looking a bit frightened. In luminescent, multicolored letters alongside the photo came the invitation: "Hi! I am a . . . cute (people say) . . . young (eleven) . . . boy (for sure) and I'm going to have a CONTEST to see which GIRL in the whole world will be the best SWEETHEART and GIRLFRIEND for me!"Bizarre, huh? Could an 11-year-old really have designed a Web page as elaborate as this one? Could his parents really have approved of him looking for a girlfriend over the Internet? Could any parents be stupid enough to let their daughter participate in such a thing?The site featured plenty of pictures of the shaggy-haired Faelan, his family, and their home. There was a description of his clan: Father Jonathan Aragorn has college degrees in psychology, education, and computer science; mother Sarah Aragorn is a stay-at-home parent with two education degrees. There were no specific home or work street addresses or phone numbers on the site, only a P.O. box and e-mail address to which applicants could respond.What kind of girl was Faelan looking for? Someone with "nice parents who believe that love and touching are good, and think that you should have the freedom to do all these things." The winner would be visited by Faelan at her home, then she could visit him. Finally, the lucky gal would get to vacation with the Aragorn family in Europe and North Africa.Would you trust these people with your daughter? A lot of people thought not. Notice of the contest made its way around various newsgroups and message boards, including the Wiccan-flavored Celtic Connection: (www.wicca.com/celtic/cc002.htm). The keeper of this site, who goes by the handle of Herne, was so shocked by the Faelan page that he complained to the Web-hosting service that carried it. The server responded that because there was no evidence of illegal activity the site wouldn't be yanked. Herne also reported the contest to Portland District Attorney's Office, and one other Netter claimed to have notified the FBI and sent out a chain letter warning others to steer clear of the site. Nobody who had seen this site seemed to know what its owners were up to.I too was curious about the contest. Were these parents on the level? I sent a series of questions to the e-mail address listed on the site and got back a reply, signed by "Jonathan and Sarah Aragorn." The answers were short and only left me with more questions. Doesn't Faelan have more traditional outlets for finding a sweetheart? I asked. "Many," the supposed parents replied. How many girls have applied? "100-200." How many have sent photos? "30-40." Do you plan to put the winner's name up on the Web page? "No-that would be very disrespectful." My request for their phone number was declined.The site remained up until October 1999, when it was replaced with a page brusquely announcing the end of the contest. So what happened? Was that when some daughter of incredibly unsuspecting parents was chosen to be Faelan's "sweetheart"? No, that's when Jonathan Aragorn was convicted of multiple counts of solicitation to commit sex abuse and criminal conspiracy to commit sex abuse. He was sentenced Feb. 22 to 19 months in prison and five years probation. Sarah Aragorn was found guilty on the conspiracy charge and received three years probation. Evidently, the Faelan Web site was a cover for much darker plans-according to Portland prosecutor Charlene Woods, a jury found that the Aragorns were "soliciting underage girls to have sexual contact with underage boys." ("No sexual contact ever happened" as a result of the site, Woods says, noting that the Aragorns were leading up to it.) The Aragorns were busted after a year-long FBI undercover operation.All of this goes to show, perhaps a bit heavy-handedly, how the electronic media can render motivations transparent. Maybe we're too transfixed by the pretty glow of the screens to think about what goes on behind them. And there are no shortage of people out there to take advantage of our vulnerability. Just ask Rick Rockwell, Darva Conger, or the girls who submitted their photos to Faelan.joabj@charm.net

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