Target 3 Special Report: Stranger Danger

Local News

Americans spend millions of dollars every year on online dating sites. Looking for love is the desire that keeps the online dating industry growing, but not without risk — in 2003 a Wichita Falls woman was killed by a man she had met online.

Now, 14 years after the death of 28- year old Samantha Jo Lezark, a television production company has picked up her story for a major network to produce a documentary on the case to air later this year.

Sharon Keith said losing her daughter in such a tragic, gruesome way was hard and it has now changed the way she views meeting people online. And by having her daughter’s story retold and shared over a major network could save someone else from suffering the same fate.

“They’d taken the one thing in this world that I loved the most,” Keith said.

14 years ago, a Wichita Falls woman, Samantha Jo Lezark, was found dead in her home killed by someone she met online.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her or talk about her,” said Lisa Prine, Lezark’s friend. “She’s missed dearly by a lot of people. It’s still hard to believe 14 years later, she’s not here anymore.”

A few months before Lezark’s death, her mother Sharon Keith said she remembers her daughter talking about a guy she met in an online chat room, 21-year-old MSU student Kristopher Russell.

“The last time I talked to her it was about five o’clock and I asked her what they were doing then and she said they had just got back to the house and they picked out a movie and they were going to watch a movie,” Keith said. “Kris is here and we’re just going to lay back and watch TV, watch a movie for a while. And I said alright well I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

“I asked her if she wanted me to come by before I went home and she said, ‘no I have company,” Prine said. “Kris is here.’ I was like OK. He never wanted to meet any of her friends voluntarily. Then I know another friend had tried to call her after nine and she didn’t answer and never returned his call. So, that’s when we all thought it was weird and out of character for her.”

That was the night of January 5, 2003. On the morning of January 6, Lezark’s body was found.  She had been beaten and strangled to death.

Three years later, Russell was tried and sentenced to 99 years in prison for the murder. He now sits in a prison cell in Abilene. Russell won’t be eligible for parole until 2035.
“I just miss her not being around, not talking to her on the phone,” said Lezark’s father, Joe Butler in an interview from 2006. “Just everything. I miss everything about her.”

“That’s the main thing that’s troubled me during this whole horrible ordeal,” Keith said. “What could she have possibly said or done that would make him do that to her.”

Exactly two months before Lezark’s death, another woman Russell met on line and then married,  Tara Green, was found dead in her home in a small town in Nebraska. The cause of her death was ruled as pneumonia, which family members say they always doubted. And after Lezark’s death, police requested another pathologist’s opinion, and he ruled it highly suspicious, with no evidence of pneumonia.

Keith believes had Nebraska authorities done a better job, her daughter would still be alive today and she wants to warn others who might be looking for love online to be very careful.

“They seem normal to people, I’m sure they seem normal just like he seemed normal,” said Keith. “But they’re not and you have to protect your children, even when they become young adults you still have to protect them. And you try to tell them, just like I tried to tell her. Don’t give them your address. Meet them in a public place.”

“It’s extremely dangerous,” said Tony Fox, the lead detective in Lezark’s case. “You don’t know who these people are or what they may do. I was surprised that that much went on in our city.”

Fox, is now retired from the police force. He said this particular case stays with him, especially now that meeting people online is even more prevalent.

“What we find is that online dating issues as far as criminal, we do see them,” WFPD PIO Jeff Hughes said. “We don’t see a whole lot of them, whether it be that maybe it’s just not being reported, that could be a case.”

Hughes said many dating sites have disclaimers that protect them from being sued in case of criminal acts by those using the sites.

And those who worked the Lezark investigation and all those who knew and loved her say they hope sharing her tragic story will encourage others to be cautious when they log on looking for love.

Hughes said they recommend if you are going  to date online think about doing a background check on the person to see if they have a criminal history or if they are actually a real person. And if you’re going to physically meet someone that you are dating online, meet up at a public place.

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