He was an 18-year-old Marine headed to war.

She was an attractive young woman sending him off from afar with pictures and lingerie.

Or so each one thought.

In reality, they were two middle-aged people carrying on an Internet fantasy based on seemingly harmless lies.

When a truthful 22-year-old was drawn in, their cyber escape turned deadly.

"When you're on the Internet talking, you haven't got a clue who that is on the other end," Erie County Sheriff's Lt. Ron Kenyon said. "You don't have a clue."

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When Brian Barrett was shot to death Sept. 15 outside the factory where he worked to help pay for college, investigators and his family were stumped.

Barrett, 22, was an aspiring industrial arts teacher, an accomplished high school athlete who'd coached Little League all summer and helped his father coach soccer. Quiet and unassuming is how those who knew him described the Buffalo State College student.

But he had clearly been targeted. Barrett was shot three times at close range, in the neck and left arm, after climbing into his truck about 10 p.m. at the end of a shift at Dynabrade Corp. in suburban Clarence. His body was found two days later when a co-worker spotted his pickup in a company parking lot.

"He was just a nice kid, a gentleman," said Starpoint High School Athletic Director Tom Sarkovics, who coached Barrett for two years. "I don't think anybody could say a bad thing about him."

On Nov. 27, Barrett's 47-year-old co-worker and friend, Thomas Montgomery, was charged with Barrett's murder. The motive, said investigators, was jealousy over Barrett's budding Internet relationship with the same 18-year-old woman Montgomery had been wooing since the previous year.

What neither man knew was that the woman was really a 40-something West Virginia mother who was using her daughter's identity to attract Internet suitors. Cyberspace, it appears, was enough for her and it was a near certainty she would never have met either man.

"The game would have been over at that point and time for sure," Kenyon said.

When Montgomery began chatting with the woman in 2005, the former Marine portrayed himself as perhaps a previous version of himself — a young Marine preparing for deployment to Iraq, Assistant District Attorney Ken Case said.

For a time, they communicated strictly through chat rooms and e-mail.

Then the woman began sending gifts to Montgomery's home, Case said. Pictures of the woman's daughter, lingerie and a set of custom-made dog tags arrived at the pale yellow house in the suburbs that Montgomery shared with his wife and two teenage children.

Montgomery's wife intercepted one of the packages, Case said. She wrote back to the woman at the return address, and included a family portrait to make her point.

"As you can see, Tom's not 18," Case said she wrote. "He's married and he's a father of two. He's 47 and I'm his wife." And, believing she was writing to an 18-year-old: "You've obviously been fooled."

The West Virginia woman — whom authorities will not publicly identify — remembered a friend named Brian that Montgomery had mentioned. She recalled enough of his computer screen name to contact Barrett to ask him about what Montgomery's wife had told her.

Soon Barrett was in regular contact with the woman — the only one in the triangle to portray himself honestly. Despite knowing the truth about Montgomery, the woman remained in contact with him as well, Case said.

The woman made no secret of the fact she was chatting with Barrett, Case said, and Barrett talked about the relationship at work. Montgomery, authorities say, became jealous.

Sheriff's investigators believe Barrett's killer wore camouflage and a ski mask when he approached with a .30-caliber rifle and fired at close range.

Montgomery, who has not confessed, is being held without bail after pleading not guilty to second-degree murder. At a recent court appearance, he wore glasses and handcuffs and walked with a limp. He stood silently as a judge set a preliminary trial date for June.

His wife has begun divorce proceedings, Case said. Mrs. Montgomery did not respond to a telephone message or answer a reporter's knock at her home in suburban Cheektowaga, where a minivan sat parked in the driveway.

Montgomery's alleged actions "have impacted everyone else's lives around him for the rest of their lives," observed Internet crime expert J.A. Hitchcock, author of "Net Crimes & Misdemeanors."

"I'm hoping that this case will make people think twice about what they do online and what their actions can cause in the long run," she said.

The high school Barrett attended recently had a seminar to teach parents how to avoid Internet predators, Sarkovics said. "When you think about it, you almost have to do it for adults as well," he said. "It could be anybody."