HOLLISTER, Calif. - For two lesbian women who started a small-town weekly newspaper in rural Hollister, it seemed like a simple and sweet idea: Leave the daily grind of the big city behind and take on a slower pace while being your own boss.
But Tracie Cone and Ana Marie dos Remedios hadn't planned on being targeted by an unknown Internet antagonist bent on smearing their names and reputations by linking them to Internet pornography and accusing their columnist of child molestation.
''The worst thing is not knowing who it is and what the risks are,'' dos Remedios said.
The troubles began in October with the emergence of a Web site attacking their publication, the Pinnacle. Three more anti-Pinnacle Web sites soon followed.
Then the couple's horses were mysteriously let out of their enclosure, followed by an odd computer crash in the newsroom. Cone and dos Remedios admit it could be coincidence, but they're getting spooked by the string of bad luck that has hit them, and they think someone is out to get them.
They say they've been attacked because they make no secret they are a gay couple.
''The whole underlying theme of the site is anti-gay,'' dos Remedios told the San Francisco Chronicle. ''The Web site says we are trying to turn this place into Sodom and Gomorrah.''
The San Benito County sheriff's office has investigated, but they say the Web sites, albeit accusatory in tone, do not constitute criminal activity.
Cone and dos Remedios aren't taking the mocking Web sites lightly. They filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Jose last month and are requesting $5 million in damages from their yet unknown detractors, listed as John Does in the suit. The suit alleges libel, copyright infringement and civil rights violations.
Pinnacle columnist Bob Valenzuela joined the suit after discovering a picture of himself on the Web site with accompanying text accusing him of child molestation.
Cone explained that the Pinnacle has extensively covered growth issues in the area and that may have instigated some of the venom directed toward them. City councilman Joseph Felice said Cone and dos Remedios are typical of Hollister's newcomers who want to move in and slow growth by closing the door behind them.
Felice, a vocal detractor of the Pinnacle's stance on growth, says the Web sites appear to be designed to implicate him as their author, and he believes it has likely been posted on the Internet by one of his supporters.
He says the Web sites have every right to coexist in a world with the Pinnacle.
''It's freedom of speech. It's no different than what's printed in the Pinnacle each week,'' Felice said.