A UW student and two men may find out today if they'll remain in custody in the investigation of a British woman's death

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In an online world where “friends” are strangers and rumors from a small Italian city are accessible with a click, Madison Paxton found herself in a MySpace maelstrom.

For six hours Wednesday, the University of Washington student fielded phone calls and e-mails from national and international media clamoring for an interview.

She hadn’t done anything particularly newsworthy. Instead, she was in demand simply because she was listed as a “friend” on a MySpace.com page belonging to Amanda Knox, a fellow UW student suspected of being involved in a sensational murder in Italy.

Knox, 20, who was studying in the city of Perugia, was expected to learn today whether she will continue to be held in connection with the slaying last week of her roommate, 20-year-old British student Meredith Kercher. Police have questioned and detained Knox, as well as Raffaele Sollecito, 24, an Italian man she was said to be dating; and Lumumba “Patrick” Diya, 38, a Congolese man who ran a bar where Knox occasionally worked.

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The Seattle Times generally does not name people suspected of a crime until they have been charged. But Knox is being named because her friends have spoken openly to reporters at The Times and other media about her situation.

If the judge at today’s hearing confirms the detentions, the prosecutor will likely ask that the suspects remain in custody while the investigation continues, said Italian attorney Valerio Spigarelli, who is not connected to the case but is an expert in Italian criminal law. At a later date, depending on the course of the investigation, prosecutors may ask a judge to formally indict the suspects and put them on trial, Spigarelli said.

Details of the slaying, including allegations that it may have been sexually motivated, have helped push the story into the realm of international sensation. It has been played and replayed on CNN and the BBC, in mainstream daily newspapers and in tabloids around the globe.

Because Knox had posted information about herself, along with diarylike entries and short stories on MySpace and other sites, the story began to mushroom even more. Some news reports included links to YouTube.com video in which Knox appears drunk. In any other context, it might be viewed as a rather ordinary, if foolish, college stunt, but the reports suggest it is evidence of her depravity.

“Inside the twisted world of flatmate suspected of Meredith’s murder,” screamed a headline in a British paper, The Daily Mail of London. The story honed in on one part of Knox’s MySpace site — a fictional short story that included a rape accusation which she wrote for a college assignment — to paint a sensational portrait.

In a flash, Paxton and others were drawn into the Internet’s house of mirrors.

They found themselves not only turning to the Internet for news on their friend and classmate. They themselves became part of the story thanks to a media hungry for details on a young, attractive U.S. student accused of a ghastly crime in a foreign country.

Knox, like many MySpace users, had designated dozens of people as “friends” on her Web page, meaning they were allowed to post comments and create links, among other things. As is typical, many of these friends barely knew Knox, and instead were more like Internet acquaintances.

No matter. In this sensational story, each “friend” can become a media target.

Dominick Balsoma, who went to Seattle Prep with Knox and remained friends when they both went on to the UW, was one of Knox’s MySpace friends. He said he learned about the slaying via e-mail from a British reporter — who had found him through Knox’s MySpace page. The reporter wanted to know more about Knox. Balsoma wonders how many others were contacted.

“When you have hundreds of ‘friends,’ it’s hard to know who’s been contacted and who hasn’t,” Balsoma said.

It wasn’t just the media that went to Knox’s site, however; the news frenzy has led many to log on. One friend was threatened by a stranger on MySpace. Hate mail has scattered throughout other people’s pages on the site and a similar site, Facebook.com.

Paxton said she believes people have used MySpace to “misconstrue” her friend’s character.

She and others describe Knox as smart, caring and a joy to be around. Knox did well in school, even while working two jobs and playing varsity soccer in high school at Seattle Prep. Yet some news reports focused only on things like the disturbing short stories Knox had written for college assignments and posted on her site. The international media have “taken words of hers and photos and given no context … and that has hurt a lot,” Paxton said.

Indeed, a number of people initially posted supportive comments on Knox’s MySpace page, expressing disbelief about the accusations and telling her to “be strong.” But by Wednesday, the tone had changed.

Postings included obscenity-laced accusations and calls for her execution.

Paxton says they’re wrong.

“I strongly believe this is a circumstance in which a good person got swept up in something they didn’t even know was going on,” she said. “This is not something she would do.”

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

Christina Siderius: 206- 464-2112 or csiderius@seattletimes.com

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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