ELM MOTT, Texas (AP) – A Navy man who got mad when someone mocked him as a “nerd” over the Internet climbed into his car and drove 1,300 miles from Virginia to Texas to teach the other guy a lesson.
As he made his way toward Texas, Fire Controlman 2nd Class Petty Officer Russell Tavares posted photos online showing the welcome signs at several states’ borders, as if to prove to his Internet friends that he meant business. When he finally arrived, Tavares burned the guy’s trailer down.
This week, Tavares, 27, was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading no contest to arson and admitting he set the blaze.
“I didn’t think anybody was stupid enough to try to kill anybody over an Internet fight,” said John G. Anderson, 59, who suffered smoke inhalation while trying to put out the 2005 blaze that caused $50,000 in damage to his trailer and computer equipment.
The feud started when Anderson, who runs a haunted house near Waco, joined a picture-sharing Web site and posted his artwork and political views. After he blocked some people from his page because of insults and foul language, they retaliated by making obscene digitally altered pictures of him, he said.
Anderson, who went by the screen name “Johnny Darkness,” traded barbs with Tavares, aka “PyroDice.”
Investigators say Tavares boiled over when Anderson called him a nerd and posted a digitally altered photo making Tavares look like a skinny boy in high-water pants, holding a gun and a laptop under a “Revenge of the Nerds” sign.
Tavares obtained Anderson’s real name and hometown from Anderson’s Web page about his Museum of Horrors Haunted House.
Tavares took leave from his post as a weapons systems operator at the AEGIS Training and Readiness Center in Dahlgren, Va., and started driving. Investigators say he told them he planned to point a shotgun at Anderson and shoot his computer.
Instead, when he got to Elm Mott – after posting one last photo of a “Welcome to Texas” sign – Tavares threw a piece of gasoline-soaked plastic foam into the back of Anderson’s mobile home and lit a flare, authorities say.
Tavares’ attorney, Susan Kelly Johnston, said his trip to the Waco area was a last-minute decision during a cross-country trip to visit his parents in Arizona. She said he never intended to hurt Anderson and did not think he was in the trailer when he set the fire.
James Pack, an investigator with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, caught up with Tavares after talking to people in several states and Spain who had been involved in the online feud. Tavares’ cell phone records showed he was in the Waco area at the time of the fire, Pack said.
Tavares told investigators that Anderson had spread computer viruses and insulted his online friends for too long, Pack said.
“He lost everything – all over an Internet squabble,” the investigator said.
Tavares was discharged last year from the Navy, where he earned several medals – including the pistol expert and rifle expert medals – in his nine-year career, said Navy spokesman Mike McLellan.
Tavares would not let the feud go even at his sentencing. According to Pack, Tavares took cell-phone photos of Anderson in the courtroom while the judge was hearing another case. Authorities ordered the photos erased.
Anderson, an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam, said he continues to be harassed online, has been startled by people knocking on his window late at night and found bullet holes in a door to his business.
He said he is convinced the harassment is related to the Internet feud and plans to spend $30,000 on more fencing topped with barbed wire.
“Before this happened, the rule was: Nobody messes with the haunted house guy,” Anderson said.