John and Debbie Ellsworth got a court order from an Oakland County judge for Justin's Yahoo! e-mail, but the CD they received listed only messages he'd received.

Detroit News
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Family gets GI's e-mail

They win right to see late son's messages
By Jennifer Chambers / The Detroit News


Denis Poroy / Associated Press

Justin M. Ellsworth;


WIXOM -- It was the moment John Ellsworth had waited for, even rehearsed in his head a hundred times.Popping the compact disc out of its case, Ellsworth gingerly slid it into his computer and waited to see the last words perhaps ever written by his only son, Justin M. Ellsworth. But when John inserted the disc at his Wixom home, it wasn't as he had imagined. He found only e-mails his son received, but nothing Justin had written or sent out.

Justin, a 20-year-old Marine, described by his military friends as cheery, uncomplaining and always willing to take on tough jobs, was killed in Iraq on Nov. 13 attempting to defuse a homemade bomb. On Wednesday, after an Oakland County judge ordered Yahoo! to turn over the contents of Justin's e-mail account to his father, John learned there were more than 10,000 pages of e-mail messages and photographs on the disc. Ellsworth's attempts to get access to Justin's Yahoo! e-mail account drew national attention to the plight of a parent seeking to reclaim the property of his son, pitting e-mail privacy rights against the rights of parents or any loved ones who might want the final writings of a deceased loved one. But after seven hours of combing through the more than 10,000 pages of text and numerical gibberish, it appeared the CD that Yahoo! released did not contain any e-mails written by Justin, even those he'd previously sent home. "Maybe that's all he had, maybe that's all he did.

At Justin's memorial service, fellow Marines take down a pair of boots, helmet and rifle meant to represent a fallen Marine.

... I'm not sure what I've got in front of me," Ellsworth said, shaking his head and peering into the text on his computer screen. The family found their own messages to Justin, spam from mortgage companies and online dating services and a few e-mails from people his parents had never heard of. The family contacted Yahoo! on Wednesday night and the company is attempting to resolve the confusion over the CD. The experience left his father fiercely determined and Justin's stepmother, Debbie, disappointed that Yahoo! didn't simply give the family Justin's password. "That's the only way we would have had everything for sure. What are we supposed to do with this?" It had been a long journey to an uncertain and emotional end. The deciding moment in court earlier Wednesday had been brief -- Oakland Probate Judge Eugene Arthur Moore listened to attorneys from both sides and then quickly signed an order directing Yahoo! to produce and deliver the contents of Justin's e-mail account. The decision elated John and Debbie, and for a brief moment, their anxiety gave way to wide smiles and tears of joy. "I'm relieved," said John, a police sergeant with Wolverine Lake, who wiped away tears. "What they (Yahoo!) don't understand about this is by dragging it out, you can never heal. It's an open wound for us," Debbie said outside court Wednesday. "It's been dragging out so long. It's not fair." Yahoo!, which originally refused to hand over account details but did not fight the court order, flew a spokeswoman from California to the court hearing Wednesday to ensure the transaction went smoothly. Asked why the Internet provider eventually turned over the e-mails, Yahoo! spokeswoman Mary Osako said it was simply complying with the court's order. "We are pleased the court has issued an order resolving this matter ... and allowing Yahoo! to uphold our privacy commitment to our users," Osako said. Osako would not disclose the number of requests Yahoo! has received from other families seeking e-mail of loved ones who have died. The question of how the Ellsworths won their case has a simple answer, attorney Brian Dailey said. "As soon as Yahoo! realized John was serious enough to retain counsel, they needed to come to the table and deal with this. The last thing they wanted was a public relations disaster," he said. In the weeks after John's dilemma was made public by The Detroit News, Dailey filed papers to prevent Yahoo! or any agency from destroying anything that was believed to be part of Justin's estate. "Dailey, who performed all legal work for the Ellsworths for free, said he does not think the case sets a legal precedent nor does it require Yahoo! to change its policies.

But in an age in which the written word is increasingly found on computers instead of pen and paper, it brought to national attention the issue of who should have access to a dead loved one's account.

Legal ramifications

While the Ellsworth case won't set a legal precedent, it could be the beginning of a practice other courts may follow, said Jennifer Granick, executive director of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society. "The family got a court order, and that's an appropriate process. Yahoo! is allowed to disclose this stuff under the law," said Granick, an attorney and cyber-law clinic instructor. Josh Ard, an expert in estate planning and a staff attorney with Lansing-based Cooley Law School's Sixty-plus Elder Law Clinic, said the idea of leaving e-mail passwords behind for loved ones has not been discussed a great deal nationally until the Ellsworth case. "It may be unique now, but you know it's going to be more common," Ard said. Ard expects e-mail passwords to be added to after-death checklists used by lawyers to help survivors manage a loved one's estate. Such lists typically include information on life insurance policies and automobile titles. He says his wife knows his passwords, but until recently, he never thought much about it either. "People ought to think about it," he said.

Long battle

In the weeks after Justin's death in November, John Ellsworth began pleading with Yahoo! to grant him access to his son's e-mail account to fulfill the family's wish of reading, seeing and knowing the young Marine's last words, pictures and thoughts from the frontlines in Iraq. But without the account's password, only known to Justin and Yahoo!, the family's request was repeatedly denied. John said he was devastated at the prospect of his son's memories -- what essentially could be his son's last written words -- being obliterated forever. The legal work eventually led the Ellsworths to an early April court date, which they expected to leave with the CD. Together the couple waited in court April 6, holding hands and exchanging anxious glances, looking for attorneys and waiting for their cases to be called. After waiting nearly two hours, their hopes were dashed. The attorney representing Yahoo! could not attend. Debbie -- who said she has experienced seizures from her stress -- began weeping. John became angry.

Great honor

The very next day, John and Debbie were on a different kind of mission. Together with their 10-year-old daughter, seven other relatives and two friends, the Ellsworths flew more than 2,400 miles to San Diego. Their destination: Camp Pendleton, the nation's busiest military base, which covers approximately 200 square miles. On a breezy cool day in southern California, Justin Ellsworth was memorialized and posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with Combat Distinguished Service, just a few feet from his old barracks. Marines in Justin's company recalled a fun-loving guy with positive attitude who didn't hesitate to take on difficult jobs. Justin was known for his love of country music and his ability to see the positive side of life. "Even if you were mad he wouldn't let you stay mad," said Lance Cpl. Paul Abdullah, 21 of Brooklyn, N.Y. "He would say, 'If it's bad, it could be worse.'" Second Lt. Samantha Kronschnabel said Justin was always extremely courteous, cheery and smiling. "You could give him the crappiest job in the whole world and he would do it without complaining," she said. Justin was sent to Iraq as an engineer, a fairly safe job, his family thought. Just a few weeks in Iraq, Justin was attached to the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion. His new job was to locate and destroy bombs. On Nov. 13, Justin received a reading on his metal detector indicating a homemade explosive was nearby. According to witnesses, Justin moved toward the object and discovered the device lacked wires and was likely remote-controlled. He warned his fellow Marines to clear the area. By the time he discovered a cell phone was attached to the device, the explosive was detonated. Justin was directly over the bomb at the time. His effort saved the lives of 11 Marines and spared many others from more serious injuries, the military stated. Kyle Blumenstock, Justin's partner the day he was killed, said Justin spoke of going back home and getting on with his life. In the six weeks Justin and Blumenstock worked together, the pair located nearly 50 I.E.D.s -- improvised explosive devices. "He was excited about his new job, being outside the fence, being with new people, having the rush of 'Oh my God,'" he said. The experience of meeting Justin's comrades filled the family's afternoon with moments of laughter and moments of pain as John and Debbie looked into the eyes of the strong, fresh-faced Marines who stood as a constant reminder of the son they lost. As helicopters buzzed overhead, John held the ribboned medal in his hand, tracing its shape with this thumb. "It's nice that all the guys are back but it brings home that reality that Justin is not coming back," John said, smoking a cigarette under the clear, blue California sky. "If it was another family here, Justin would be doing the same thing, putting off going home to comfort another family."

You can reach Jennifer Chambers at (313) 647-7402 or

Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News
"Maybe that's all he had ... maybe that's all he did ... I'm not sure what I've got in front of me," says John Ellsworth, with wife Debbie, as he tries to make sense of the text from the Yahoo! CD.

Last modified date and time: 04/28/2005 20:01