June 02, 2008 12:00 PM

In the weeks and months after Tina Meier learned that her 13-year-old daughter Megan had hanged herself after allegedly being bullied online by a neighborhood mom, she had little reason to hope that anyone would ever be held accountable. The prosecutors overseeing Dardenne Prairie, a suburb of St. Louis where Meier lives, reluctantly concluded that no state law had been violated. Yet Meier, 37, never let up in her public demands that justice be done. On May 15 she finally got a break. Using an untested interpretation of federal law, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles announced the indictment of the neighbor mom Lori Drew, 49, on four felony counts, including conspiracy and gaining unauthorized access to a computer. “I am so grateful,” says Meier, who now runs an anti-bullying organization. “We have been waiting for some sort of vindication.”

It is a case that has generated wide notice—and even greater revulsion. In October 2006 Tina discovered her daughter, who was psychologically fragile and had been taking anti-depressants, hanged in her bedroom closet. She died the next day. Megan had recently been flirting on MySpace with, she thought, a handsome 16-year-old named Josh. It quickly emerged that in messages sent just hours before Megan killed herself, Josh had suddenly turned on her, telling her that “the world would be better off” without her. Weeks later Tina and her now-estranged husband, Ron, 38, found out there was no Josh. According to the indictment, Drew, who has a daughter the same age as Megan, created the character in order to “torment” Megan. “This is a case people will focus on,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark C. Krause, who will try the case in L.A., where MySpace is located. “They will be concerned that this not happen to their own children.”

Drew’s lawyer H. Dean Steward says his client, who denies any wrongdoing, was “shocked” by the indictment. Two days later, as she went ahead with a long-planned tag sale at her home, Drew, who sells advertising, politely declined to talk about the case with PEOPLE. Her neighbors, many of whom appear to side with Tina and husband Ron (who separated partly because of the tragedy), were not quite so reticent. “We’re thrilled,” says Kristie Kriss, who lives on the same street, of the indictment. “Ninety-five percent of us want the Drews gone, banished, convicted.”

It is not clear what exactly led to the taunting. Megan, who was popular, had had an off-and-on friendship with Drew’s daughter when they went to the same school in the middle-class community of O’Fallon. But Megan had recently switched to a private school and had developed a new circle of pals. “There was no falling out,” says Ron Meier, a machinist who still lives four doors away from the Drews. “There was no ill will between the families.”

Even now Tina Meier still can’t quite believe Drew’s conduct. “She thought it was funny,” says Tina. “That woman should have thought to herself, if someone did this to my own child, how would I feel?” Krause acknowledges that the case, which centers on the allegation that Drew broke the law by lying to set up the MySpace account for “Josh” and then using it to harass Megan, blazes new legal ground. “This case is pretty unusual,” he says. “I’m not aware of any like this that’s been charged.”

Drew’s attorney says he intends to get the charges dismissed on the grounds that the law she is charged with breaking is designed to punish hackers. Says Steward: “By nobody’s definition is she a hacker.” If convicted on all counts, Drew could theoretically face as much as 20 years in prison, though any actual sentence would likely be far less. But for Tina Meier, the maximum seems more than fair. “I think, personally,” she says, “she deserves every single day of 20 years.”

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