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Nikki Catsouras Tragedy: Bad Cops, Trolls and the Porsche Girl

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Perry enjoys writing on diverse topics and has a wealth of knowledge about politics.

The "Porsche girl" Nikki Catsouras died in a violent highway accident.

The "Porsche girl" Nikki Catsouras died in a violent highway accident.

Typical Day Turns Into a Nightmare

For the Catsouras family, October 31, 2006 started off as a normal day: eating lunch together, family squabbles, affectionate farewells as Dad leaves for work. But that Halloween would end in horror. And it’s a family's ongoing nightmare that still resonates almost two decades later.

Nikki Catsouras

Nikki Catsouras

Lunchtime Quarrel

Nikki Catsouras was an 18-year-old college freshman living with her parents and sisters in Ladera Ranch, California, a city located in Orange County about 50 miles south of Los Angeles. Pretty and shy, Nikki had a free-spirited creative side and was studying photography, and she also worked with children in special education.

On that Halloween afternoon, she and her parents were having lunch together and an argument ensued with her father about Nikki being denied use of her car as punishment for breaking a house rule: no smoking.

But when her father left for work shortly after lunch, he and Nikki exchanged knowing winks and “love you” farewells. It seemed like the lunchtime discord had blown over, like it would in any family.

But once her father had driven off, in an uncharacteristic move, Nikki stole the keys to her father’s prized possession, his Porsche 911 Carrera. She had never been behind the wheel of this vehicle before (in fact, she was forbidden from driving it), but Nikki got in the Porsche and blasted off at high speed.

Her mother saw Nikki leave and immediately notified her husband that Nikki was on the road somewhere in the Porsche. Her father changed direction and started looking for her, while simultaneously calling emergency 911 services.

He was put on hold; when the 911 dispatcher returned, Nikki's father was informed of what had just happened to his daughter.

This Porsche is similar to what Nikki was driving.

This Porsche is similar to what Nikki was driving.

Reckless Driving

Nikki was long gone. She left her residential neighborhood at top speed and ended up on a local toll road, Highway 241 in Lake Forest, at around 1:45 p.m. Once on the highway, she took this opportunity to drive in excess of 100mph through traffic.

As she did, she accidentally sideswiped a slow-moving Honda Civic and lost control of her high-performance vehicle. Nikki crashed headfirst into an unmanned concrete tollbooth. She died instantly and was partially decapitated.

The 911 Porsche after the accident.

The 911 Porsche after the accident.

Crash Reconstruction

The video below is a graphic CGI reenactment of how Nikki's fatal crash could have happened. While the content is computer-animated, including the narrator's voice, it is still an eerily accurate reconstruction of the accident and may be disturbing to some viewers.

Cops Break Protocol

The California Highway Patrol (CHP) was immediately at the crash site. They came across an unimaginably gruesome scene of Nikki’s remains in the twisted wreckage. Even the jaded CHP officers were horrified by what they saw.

Perhaps it was the horror and surprise, or perhaps they thought it was funny in some macabre way. But in the process of taking routine accident scene photos, officers Aaron Reich and Thomas O’Donnell violated policy and forwarded the sensitive photos to their colleagues in the CHP.

That one lapse in judgment by these officers is how Nikki Catsouras became posthumously famous on the internet as "the Porsche girl."

The Porsche Girl

It was sadly inevitable that the graphic pictures would go viral. Nikki became “the Porsche girl”—not only were the leaked pictures redistributed and mocked widely across the internet, but trolls began emailing the images directly to the Catsouras family while taunting them and making fun of Nikki’s memory.

The Catsouras family eventually had to withdraw themselves from all internet use to avoid the anonymous trolls.

The CHP was sued by the Catsouras family. The case was eventually settled.

The CHP was sued by the Catsouras family. The case was eventually settled.

The Lawsuit

The CHP and officers Reich and O’Donnell were sued by the Catsouras family for leaking the photos. The case lasted for several years and was eventually settled out of court in 2012, with the CHP paying the Castsouras family around $2.37 million in damages. Here are some takeaways from the legal battle:

  • The lawsuit was originally against the CHP and the two officers, Reich and O’Donnell. The officers were eventually dismissed from the case; the judge called their actions “utterly reprehensible,” but they had not violated any law that existed at the time. An appeals court judge called the actions of Reich and O’Donnell “vulgar” and “morally deficient.”
  • O’Donnell was suspended for 25 days without pay and Reich quit the CHP not long after the incident “for unrelated reasons.”
  • In 2010, a state appeals court ruled that the Catsouras family could sue for invasion of privacy on behalf of their deceased daughter. This established new legal precedent in California, and has been followed in other courts.
  • As part of their mea culpa, the CHP sent out cease and desist notifications to thousands of websites that were displaying the images of Nikki's accident. The family also hired a company that specialized in tracking down online images and having them scrubbed from the internet. While many images were removed, all parties agreed that it would likely be impossible to remove them all.

Will the Family Ever Have Peace?

A few facts about the accident should be considered. Was there an element of road rage? Is it unfortunate that toxicology reports found traces of cocaine in Nikki's system? Was she driving recklessly?

Yes to all of these questions—clearly Nikki was at fault and caused her own accident. But why did the family and loved ones have to endure the most hateful, vicious trolling while trying to grieve the loss of their daughter, sister and friend?

In her case study "Porsche Girl: When a Dead Body Becomes a Meme," academic writer Nadia de Fries makes the observation:

"At the time, journalist Rick Rojas covered the court case for the Los Angeles Times and reported that the terms of the settlement 'might finally allow [the Catsouras family] some closure.' Although the legal victory was a relief to the Catsouras family, it did not change the fact that images of their daughter’s dead body were—and still are—widely available in online image databases and search engines."

Grieving families may take some comfort in knowing that their departed loved ones are remembered. But not like this.

Sources

Comments

perrya (author) on December 28, 2013:

Yes, even though it happened years ago, I am sure the wound it horrible to deal with.

Charlie remark is on December 28, 2013:

Please remember the good things this poor girl was teaching her sisters we were all 18 at one point let her family heal and worship there beautiful girl and all the sick people that find humor in torchering this family will one day lose someone close to them or will never forgive themselves it's so sad please accept my sympathy my heart breaks for this family people are so sick god bless her family and Nikki peace be with you

perrya (author) on February 05, 2013:

The CHP photo of her body after the crash is horrifying, so much, it makes one sick to see it.

CarNoobz from USA on February 04, 2013:

Oh man, how tragic. We just had a bad crash here a few months back. My son's friends had ditched school, were drinking, and flying it through a neighborhood near the school. Two people died; one was the driver's girlfriend.

And yet, they're still in denial. Kids these days, they just don't get it that alcohol and drugs is a problem.

Voted up

Jayfort on June 18, 2012:

There is an ongoing debate about emergency services personnel taking and releasing images/videos at emergency scenes, sometimes before the emergency is mitigated. While the CHP personnel may have been trying to use the images to get young people "scared straight," they should not have done so without receiving the parents' permission to do so.

perrya (author) on June 17, 2012:

Some would say that the gruesome photos that were on the website showing after the wreck are educational for the shock effect. This wreak as horrific as it was can be used to teach teens that a car is a killer and anger and driving do not mix. I would tend to agree with that, although, I also understand the privacy issue.

tbarton on June 17, 2012:

I think besides the fact that they lost their daughter which is tragic . I am reading this story 6 years later. people look at this family they know their faces but yet they must continue to work and live in this world as cruel as people have been to them. I'm sure 2 dollars or 3,000,000 dollars would not bring me joy or closure to a leak this significant. I will use the story for my 18 year old son in hopes to understand how quickly we are taken and how fragile life is. valuable lesson the police have learned is to protect and serve that includes protecting evidence. I am glad that they were able to fight and win this case as they have done a valuable justice for future families whom may have their family member shown an undignified protected crash scene photos.

Marla J Neogra from Parkersburg, West Virginia on February 22, 2012:

I understand the concept of being upset and having emotional distress, but I have seen some pretty gruesome sites including incidents involving close family, and I can not fathom the 2.37 million number. That is what is wrong with society today. Inflated sense of injustice. Had the CHP made her crash and then sent pictures to friends I would possibly condone the monetary equivalent assigned, I believe a better scenario would be wage garnishment of 15% for five years from the CHP's involved given to the family. This way their sense of injustice would be salved and at the same time actually punish those involved rather than an already strapped state.

perrya (author) on February 22, 2012:

Well, the worse photo hubpages forced me to delete was showing how this beautiful teen looked after the wreck. It was shocking and she was unrecognizable. if you google the name you can find it.

ManlyPoetryMan from (Texas) Boldly Writing Poems Where No Man Has Gone Before... on February 22, 2012:

How tragic...in a few minutes you can be gone! So sad to hear this story. Feel terrible for her family. It is so hard to see a young person go so young!

Philip Cooper from Olney on February 22, 2012:

Gruesome story but has a point. Well written.