Does the operator of a telephone "chat line" bear any responsibility for what happens after its customers start talking?
That question emerges from Oklahoma, where a man is charged with raping two women he met through a chat line based in Seattle.
Some legal experts say the company that runs the line, Newscope Technology Ltd. of Seattle, could successfully be sued for maintaining unsafe "premises:" the virtual "chat room" itself. Others think such a case, which is likely, would be a loser.
But all agree the Oklahoma cases may open a new legal frontier: accountability in the age of digital dating. Services that put people together by telephone or computer abound, and their operators are watching this case closely.
According to police, Jeffrey Hunsaker of Midwest City, Okla., is a telephone predator. In April, the 28-year-old medical technician was charged with making obscene and threatening anonymous phone calls to a 16-year-old girl.
Then, police say, Hunsaker found another avenue to women: Newscope's "Nightline Service."
As is normal for such services, Newscope didn't probe Hunsaker's background before it signed him up for its Oklahoma City chat line.
Men typically pay about 50 cents a minute for time on the line; women participate free of charge.
Hunsaker called himself "Jazz" as he cruised for women on Nightline. He charmed Renee, a 21-year-old who cleans houses for a living. (The Times does not routinely fully identify sexual-assault victims.)
Renee says she dialed the line after seeing a TV ad inviting women to call free. She says she talked with Hunsaker repeatedly over the course of about two weeks.
"He seemed nicer than the other guys on the line," she says.
On June 30, Renee says, she went to Hunsaker's apartment in Midwest City, an Oklahoma City suburb.
There, she says, he raped her.
That night, Renee went to the hospital and to police to report the incident. She says detectives initially told her she wouldn't have a strong case, given that she went to Hunsaker's home voluntarily, so she hesitated in deciding whether to press charges.
But she went back on the chat line a week later to warn other women about "Jazz."
Meanwhile, Hunsaker continued to cruise the line to meet more women.
On July 19, Tricia, a 19-year-old cashier, came to his apartment. She, too, was allegedly raped.
A third woman says she was also raped by Hunsaker that night. But she told police she had also had consensual sex with him.
Hunsaker was arrested Aug. 8 and charged with the rapes of Renee and Tricia. He is being held on $176,000 bail and has pleaded not guilty.
Police suspect there may have been other victims.
"We don't know how many women he may have preyed upon," said Midwest City Police Lt. Ed Foreman.
His alleged victims fear for other women callers, and blame the chat-line company for their painful plight.
"There are a lot of creeps out there," said Tricia. She thinks Newscope should do a better job policing the line and protecting its customers' safety.
It's not clear whether Nightline Service monitors here in Seattle heard Renee's online warning. But one employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of being fired, said some employees knew about the alleged rapes soon after they were reported to police.
Newscope takes up much of the 16th floor of the 1000 Second Avenue Building in downtown Seattle. Its offices are filled with high-tech telephone-monitoring and computer equipment.
Founded in 1994, Newscope operates Nightline Service and another service, called Thrillseekers, in 17 cities including Seattle. The firm advertises aggressively in newspapers to entice men to pay to speak to the lonely or curious women who call in for free.
Locally, in Seattle Weekly, Eastsideweek and The Stranger, Nightline Service invites callers to "Meet America's Most Wanted. Over 2000 Women Call Daily."
Newscope president and co-owner Charles Power of Kirkland refused to comment on the Oklahoma City alleged rapes or his company's role, beyond saying: "There's nothing to indicate that Nightline Services is connected with the incident."
If Newscope knew about the alleged crimes, or reasonably should have known about them, it had a responsibility to remove the danger and to warn its customers, some attorneys assert.
Leonard Schroeter of the Seattle firm Schroeter, Goldmark and Bender likened telephone chat rooms to motels with poor security and called them "fertile fields for sexual predators."
Singer Connie Francis won a $1.4 million judgment from the Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge chain after being raped in one of its motels in 1977.
"You may not find any law squarely on point because it's too new, but I'm sure there are all kinds of situations that are analogous, Schroeter said.
Personal-injury attorney Jan Peterson of Peterson Young Putra Fletcher & Zeder agrees.
"When they know a rapist is in there, they have a duty to warn you," he said. "I don't think that's too much to ask. There doesn't seem to be a lot of law on this. But the law of reasonable behavior is universal."
Other lawyers disagree that Newscope bears any responsibility.
"I don't think there would be a case," said Tom Chambers, incoming president of the Washington State Bar Association. "We have too many doctrines where you assume the inherent risk of the activity. And I guess, unfortunately, dating, at least today, can be a contact sport."
Chambers said the victims would have to prove they relied on Newscope to screen callers or vouch for them. Quite the opposite appears to be true: On its phone line, a pleasant recorded disclaimer says, "The Nightline Service does not pre-screen its members, and assumes no responsibility for personal meetings that result from using its services. We advise caution and your personal discretion when dating."
The disclaimer was in place before the alleged rapes.
But Al Gidari, a telecommunications-law expert with the Perkins Coie firm, said, "Once the company has notice that a rapist has been in their club, that changes the equation."
Gidari called the case a harbinger, "a warning shot."
"The world of cyberspace and telecommunications is starting to look a lot more like the terrestrial world," he said. "And our notions of safety and security start to look a lot more like what we expect from hotel and mall operators than telephone companies.
"These cases highlight a flaw in the system," he said. "It's a medium for rapists to identify targets, a place for child molesters to rope in kids."
The Association of Trial Lawyers of America in Washington, D.C., keeps a computerized database of tens of thousands of court decisions applying to personal-injury situations but has no record of a case such as this one.
The alleged victims in the Oklahoma case say they're talking to lawyers and are planning to sue Newscope. Meanwhile, they warn other women against using chat lines.
"There are more creeps like Jazz out there," said Renee. "And there may be more women who were raped who are afraid to come forward, who are afraid to say anything.
"This is a very dangerous way to meet people."