From The Detroit News: December 22, 2004

Family's Yahoo! fight goes national

Offers pour in to help Wixom family get access to slain Marine's e-mail.

By Jennifer Chambers / The Detroit News


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WIXOM -- People across Michigan and the country are mobilizing to solve the mystery of Justin M. Ellsworth's e-mail password.

From Metro Detroit to Missouri to California, people have offered to play detective by guessing at different passwords to unlock the Michigan man's e-mail account, which his family believes holds hundreds of e-mail dispatches from the 20-year-old Marine who was killed last month during a foot patrol in Iraq.

One man started an online petition Tuesday to pressure Yahoo! to allow Justin Ellsworth's family access to the account so his father and stepmother can compile the e-mails in a scrapbook and have their son's last written words.

"Oh, my God. It's been incredible," Justin's father, John Ellsworth, said from his cell phone Tuesday. "It's an overwhelming response. ... Things are really moving. I'm very encouraged by it all, but I still have my reservations. I feel good that people know what's going on, and I hope no one else gets caught in the same trick bag."

Lawyers have offered free legal services. Working men and women have offered money to help the family pay costs it might incur during its fight. Two computer forensic examiners have offered to crack the mystery of the e-mail password for free.

John Ellsworth, a police sergeant from Wixom, spent all of Tuesday fielding calls from TV, radio and newspaper reporters across the nation, including "Good Morning America," MSNBC and a radio station in Los Angeles.

Yahoo! spokeswoman Karen Mahon said Yahoo! continues to stand behind its policy of protecting the privacy of its e-mail subscribers.

The policy of Yahoo! is to erase the entire account after it has been idle for 90 days. Nobody is sure when Ellsworth last used the account. He died Nov. 3, meaning that at the latest the account would be erased on Feb 1.

"Our hearts really go out to this family and we are saddened by their loss, but this specific issue in our minds is a very complex one and has broad-reaching implications," Mahon said.

"We promise to treat their e-mail as a private communication and every correspondence as confidential."

Ellsworth received at least two offers for free legal services Tuesday. He retained Farmington Hills lawyer Brian Daily, but said the family still preferred to resolve the situation with Yahoo! without litigation.

Daily said the first step toward recovering the e-mails would be filing a petition on John's behalf to open an estate for Justin and name John as its personal representative, which puts John in control of Justin's personal property.

"Then it becomes a matter of collecting the property for the estate," Daily said.

"The agreement isn't going to hold up. ... I think John can waive a confidentiality agreement between an e-mail carrier and his son."

The papers and words and writings of Justin's belong to the estate, Daily said.

"Our position would be just because the bank owns a safety deposit box doesn't mean the contents belong to the bank."

The Detroit News also received an overwhelming response to the story it published Tuesday on the family's battle with Yahoo!

Dozens of e-mails and telephone calls poured into the newspaper's offices with a vast majority sympathizing with the family's wish to obtain access to Justin's e-mail account. Mike Kilburg was one of several Detroit News readers who offered help in solving the mystery of Justin's e-mail password.

"I hope that this family can get access to their son's e-mail. It's not uncommon to hear stories where families have found old WWII letters in an attic and returned them to the original owner or learned something about a lost loved one. They have served as critical links to the past and have provided closure on a missing link for some," Kilburg, an infantry paratrooper in the first Gulf War, wrote in an e-mail to The Detroit News.

Barbara Tabb of Wolverine Lake said she understands that privacy is an important issue for Yahoo! and its customers, yet it seems this case is special and the request should be granted.

"They need to unravel all the final events that took place, including his last messages, to reach acceptance and peace," Tabb wrote.

Still, some readers responded to a Detroit News CyberSurvey with a more cautious view.

"People, think about this for a second. I know I certainly would not want my family reading all of my e-mails if I died, would you? ... If anything, we should be protecting this guy's privacy more because of what he did for our country. I commend Yahoo for sticking to their guns," wrote S. Davis of Lansing in an e-mail.

You can reach Jennifer Chambers at (248) 647-7402 or jchambers@detnews.com.

Last modified date and time: 01/17/2005 8:46