I've been wanting to post this up here on RI since I read it, just because it sheds some light on the depths of evil dark trollfuckery on the Internet, but this thread suits the article well, considering the direction it is taking.
Are You Sure You Want To Quit The World?
If you were desperate and hopeless enough to log on to a suicide chat room in recent years, there was a good chance a mysterious woman named Li Dao would find you, befriend you, and gently urge you to take your own life. And, she'd promise, she would join you in that final journey. But then the bodies started adding up, and the promises didn't. Turned out, Li Dao was something even more sinister than anyone thought
By Nadya Labi
"Check Your E-mail"
The three innocuous words seemed to offer Mark Drybrough the relief he sought. At 32, Mark was beyond tired. Life had long ceased to be the fun it once was. He had been a mischievous kid, an outgoing teenager who would make classmates laugh, leaping the school fence to freedom. At college in Coventry, England, he started out in high spirits, studying computer engineering and finding a girlfriend.
But after a year, the girl came down with a viral infection and then Mark did, and he never really recovered. Though he wasn't formally diagnosed, he felt certain that he'd developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Whatever he had—whether it was in his body or his mind—he couldn't summon the energy to get out of bed. Eventually he got dumped, stopped attending classes, and dropped out altogether.
For the next decade, Mark struggled to find the laughs. He lived in a small house in Coventry that his great-uncle had left him, but he couldn't maintain a job. He battled depression, going through dark periods when he refused to take medication, and he suffered psychotic fits. His mother, Elaine, paid his bills. He had no money, no car, no social life. He knew he was a disappointment—most of all to himself.
In July 2005, under the handle "spooky," Mark posted a request on the Web site alt.suicide.methods: "Does anyone have details of hanging methods where there isn't access to anything high up to tie the rope to. I've read that people have taken their own lives in jail, anybody know of inventive methods, the ones you don't get to read in the paper."
Li Dao knew. She directed Mark to check his e-mail. When he opened her message, he found guidance. She wrote, "Depending on how tall you are, preferable under 6 ft. tal [sic], you can easily from a door using the knob on [the other] side to tie the rope to, sling it over the top of the door, attach the noose or loop to yourself then step off and hang successfully..."
A few weeks later, Mark's older sister, Carol, drove down from Leeds to visit the family. At dinner Carol arranged to meet her brother at a nearby park the next day. They confirmed the plan the following morning, but by four that afternoon he had still not turned up.
Carol drove to her brother's home and knocked on the door. No answer. She let herself in and found a note on the inside door in block letters: Please call the police. Do not go upstairs, go home, hand this note to the police.
Carol rushed upstairs anyway, but the bedroom door was blocked. She forced her way in and found her brother hanging from a white nylon rope attached to a ladder propped by the door. She tried to hold him up, hoping to save him, and immediately called for help. She stood there supporting his weight while she waited for the paramedics, but they would soon pronounce him dead.
Shortly after, Carol returned to her brother's room and logged on to his computer. She learned that he'd spent a significant amount of time in suicide chat rooms, researching an effective way to kill himself. She also discovered that he'd entered into a suicide pact with a nurse named Li Dao. In fact, the nurse had sent her brother a note the day he died.
Her e-mail was brief: "Are you alright, Mark? Li"
Suicide chat rooms can save lives. The very act of logging on to a site like alt.suicide.methods (ASM) or alt.suicide.holiday (ASH) offers a potentially suicidal person the chance of finding support, redemption, or relief from the loneliness that led him there in the first place. Or logging on could be the first step a suicidal person takes to find the expertise, the courage, even the companionship, to go through with it. These chat rooms can provide a lifeline, or they can amount to a death sentence. It all depends on who's online and what they're doing there.
ASH began as a Google discussion group about why suicide rates increase over the holidays, then grew to become a regular destination; ASM bills itself, unapologetically, as "discussions about how to do yourself in." Members consider themselves pro-choice (choice being the right to suicide), and the forums host a range of people—not just those intent on committing suicide. Many do go there specifically to gather information on surefire ways to "catch the bus," or CTB, as suicide is known. But others may be recovering from a previous attempt or feeling down and looking for support among the like-minded. Still others may be there to offer a connection to those in need. Suicide is, for the most part, a solitary act; the majority of the 35,000 or so individuals who kill themselves in the United States every year are isolated and withdrawn from society. Simply accessing a world outside their own heads, as they do on ASH or ASM, might improve their chances of survival.
Mostly, members are supportive of one another, querying those who declare their intention to CTB to make sure they've explored other alternatives. But chat rooms are also places where a person can forge a connection that makes it easier to take that final ride. Some even form suicide pacts, promising to kill themselves at an appointed time, either virtually or in person. Who knows just how many follow through? But it does happen.
In Japan, where suicide has traditionally been considered an honorable act, the pacts have proven contagious. Teenage girls hook up online with like-minded partners whom they then meet in person, taking their lives together. In 2003, according to Japan's National Police Agency, online suicide pacts resulted in at least thirty-four deaths there; the number jumped to fifty-five in 2004 and ninety-one in 2005, but many experts say even those figures are underestimates. As hard as it is to fathom, not everyone who makes a pact is sincere. Disturbingly, some get off on witnessing, even encouraging, the despair of others.
Celia Blay stumbled upon ASH through chance and persistent curiosity. Blay is a 65-year-old grandmother from southern England who takes a kind of childish delight in exclaiming that she "makes whips and thongs for a living." (The implements, she clarifies, are for carriage horses.) In 2006, Blay was on a site devoted to medieval research—looking for charters to prove that some roads in her village should remain open to carriage horses—when she began poking around a member's profile, which somehow led her to ASH. "I thought, My goodness, a news group for suicide," she says. "It never crossed my mind that there would have been such a thing."
And Blay being Blay—which is to say, something of a compassionate busybody—once she logged on to ASH, she quickly made friends. One of them was a 17-year-old Central American girl who'd been sexually abused and was considering suicide. Blay conversed with the teen online for a few weeks and thought the girl was improving.
One day the teen told Blay that she'd entered a suicide pact with a nurse she'd met online. The nurse had been helpful and knowledgeable, telling her exactly how to position a knot for a partial-suspension hanging. "I said, 'Surely this nurse is not going to travel to Central America to hang herself alongside you,' " Blay recalled. "And she said, 'Oh no, we're going to watch each other by Webcam.' "
Blay managed to persuade the teen not to go through with it, but as chat logs show, soon she and others on ASH began to wonder about this nurse the girl had befriended. Her name, they discovered, was Li Dao, and she seemed to go to great lengths to maintain a low profile on the sites, only rarely commenting in the main forum, where all the members could read her posts. And when she did comment publicly, she emphasized her background as a twentysomething nurse from Minnesota. She seemed to be drawn to posters who spoke English as a second language or who seemed particularly naive, and she was fond of endearments like "hun" and the sign-off "**hugs**."
Li Dao was unfailingly sympathetic and unusually well-informed but maintained a conservative worldview that bordered on the self-righteous. She reprimanded one member for suggesting that the suicidal should try cocaine as an alternative to death. And on a site where members often express hostility toward religion, she was unapologetic about insisting that "the hope of eternal life…is promised to those who believe." She seemed most comfortable, however, dispensing advice, and she was an ardent proponent of hanging. Unlike other methods, hanging offered "very fast and certain death."
On the sites, she usually lurked in the background, initiating a private correspondence if a post in the forum caught her attention. The more desperate the post and resolute the poster's intention to CTB, the more likely Li would respond. In March 2006, "halfjacket" pleaded, "please someone help me die some way that is quick and/or painless directly. I'll do anything please I just need help."
"Check your e-mail," Li wrote back.
And in July, "Jim" wrote, "Think I'm going to be left with no option but to hang myself. I'm a big guy (420 pound) so making sure the rope don't break is vital to me, so I have been looking at climbing rope.… Can anyone shed any technical info on this to make sure I get the right stuff?"
"Check your e-mail," came the reply.
Within two hours of posting suicidal thoughts on ASH, Nikola Trifunovic, a 22-year-old researcher in Zagreb, was directed to his e-mail. Li told him that she understood how he felt and wanted to help him feel better. She said she lived with her parents and had struggled with bipolar disorder and depression for eleven years. Nothing worked—not therapy, drugs, or prayer. Li wrote, "Im really tired of living a false life of pretending everything is ok when it is not and I can't do it anymore." After exchanging e-mails for six months, Trifunovic says he began to care deeply for her. He recalled, via e-mail, "She made me feel I was not alone and that there were many others who feel the same way."
Li said she planned to CTB by hanging from a beam in her basement, once she found the time to be alone. She said she'd practiced hanging herself.
Li coached Trifunovic to hang himself, and the two made weekly suicide pacts, but he couldn't quite bring himself to end it. Strangulation wasn't the pain-free method he'd hoped it would be—"I kept doing it wrong, and it hurt like hell," Trifunovic reported to the ASH forum—but he feared more than the pain. "I was scared that after, there is nothing," he said. "Infinite nothingness." When he shared this fear with Li, she tried to get Trifunovic to believe in God. It was an odd position for a Christian, as Li seemed to be, since the religion discourages suicide.
Then, in September 2006, Li suddenly disappeared. "Li where are you? Get in touch if you're still living this thing," one member posted on ASH.
"Oh fuck…that must explain why I haven't heard from her, either," responded another.
Trifunovic assured the forum that Li had to be alive, because he'd corresponded with her only two days earlier. Besides, Trifunovic added, "we kind of promised to each other to do it the same day, she is ready to die she is just waiting for me to be ready."
"She told you that, too?" another poster responded. "Oy."
The next day, however, Trifunovic received an e-mail from a woman claiming to be Li's mother, Xao Pi Zeng, from Li's e-mail account. She reported that her daughter was "found hung in outbasement [sic] at approximately 6:40 this morning.… Of course we be so sad but am Gratefull to God that her pain is now over."
When he learned of Li's death, Trifunovic became determined to try to end his life. Then, to his surprise, two months later, a miracle occurred—Li was resurrected. Someone on ASH reported that he'd heard from her.
It was then that the forum began to realize that Li was not what she seemed. "It's not Li, not Li we know, she doesn't exist, it's some perve fucking with us," Trifunovic posted. "Mawkish" agreed, revealing that he'd IM'd with Li and that she kept trying to persuade him to hang himself. Mawkish tried to talk to Li on the phone, but she would come up with excuses about why she couldn't. He told the forum, "I believe Li Dao got some kind of 'high' or 'rush' from trying to convince people to die."
By now Celia Blay had reached the same conclusion—that Li had encouraged more than a dozen individuals on ASH to commit suicide. (She'd noticed that members often disappeared from the site after exchanges with the nurse.) Then she received a tip that Li was using a new handle, "falcongirl." She immediately searched online and found traces of Li's familiar m.o. When "retardstoner" announced on ASH, "I need to die. Tonight. Period," falcongirl responded: "Check your e-mail box."
Blay had seen enough. She took the evidence she'd gathered to the police in nearby Maidenhead. "Look," she told them, "this person is trying to get people to kill themselves." But the man in charge of investigating online crimes wasn't impressed. "His attitude was that this was somebody who was trying to wind up middle-aged women and shock them," Blay recalled, indignant. As Blay left the station, she says an officer gave her a piece of advice: "If it bothers you, look the other way."
But Blay wouldn't look away. She tried to alert the FBI via e-mail about the online nurse but received no reply. She began posting warnings about Li Dao on ASH's general forum and sending e-mails to anyone she thought might fall victim to the nurse's charms. The ASH community rallied behind her, and Blay became the point person for the growing list of complaints about Li.
In many ways, Blay was the perfect Miss Marple—assertive and curious while appearing wholly unthreatening—but she had little cred on the site. Though she'd made herself known on the forum, she wasn't convincingly depressed or suicidal. She'd never experimented with drugs or had a run-in with the law. She was, in a word, respectable, and respectability didn't interest Li Dao or falcongirl.
But at the end of 2007, Blay got help in the form of Kat Lowe, a luckless 35-year-old in Wolverhampton, England, who frequented ASH and e-mailed Blay to offer her assistance. Lowe got straight to the point: "I know you are aware that li dao grooms youngsters to let her watch them hang on webcam." A friend of Lowe's had nearly committed suicide after entering a pact with Li. Separately, Li had contacted Lowe on ASM, promoting the benefits of hanging. In fact, it seemed that every time Lowe logged on to her ASM chat list, falcongirl would turn up to instant-message her. Lowe offered to go undercover to gather information on the nurse.
Lowe emitted the kind of despair that Li couldn't resist. She shared custody of her two children and saw her kids only on school holidays. She had long been depressed, and though heroin offered solace in the short term, she'd begun considering checking out for good. As she sat in a pub in Wolverhampton this spring, enjoying a rare full meal, Lowe resembled an overgrown teen. Wearing a hooded green sweatshirt and black sneakers with thick platforms, she had dyed reddish pigtails and two silver nose rings. On her neck hung a gold crucifix that she says Blay gave her when they met in person the first time; as long as she wore the crucifix, Lowe promised Blay, she wouldn't put a rope around her neck.
Though falcongirl seemed eager to assist in Lowe's suicide, Lowe emphasized that most of the members are supportive and recognize the finality of the act that has brought them together. "Most people say, 'Have you spoken to anyone? Seen anyone? Tried medication?' " Lowe explained. "They're trying to do damage limitation—to help you do it in a way that you're not going to end up messed up—and supporting you if that's the decision you've come to after trying everything else," Lowe said. "There's a difference between what they do and what falcongirl did. With her, there was never any alternative."
In January 2008, in her new role as amateur detective, Lowe turned the tables, taking the initiative and sending an e-mail to falcongirl. She told falcongirl that she'd lost her job and was looking for a "good place to swing" but that she needed advice. Someone named Cami D was ready to provide it. Cami D (using the falcongirl account) told Lowe she'd had good results placing the knot behind her left ear, with the rope under her chin and across the carotid. "I think u said you have a web cam that would help a lot too," Cami added.
Ever attentive, Cami e-mailed back a few days later offering help. Lowe told her that she was hearing voices and trying to find a mental-health worker to help her. "If they don't offer me the help i need," she wrote, "i can't see any other option than to end it." Cami D responded, "i CARE and always will.… i wish we could chat?" She signed off **hugs**—the same signature Li Dao had used with Mark.
That's when Lowe began documenting their chats.
Cami had told Lowe earlier that she'd helped people hang themselves, so Lowe asked, "the 4 people who you think hang themselves…did they do it while you were online? Are you worried about any comeback from that?"
Cami: no just one he asked me to watch as he was all alone i didn't want to thinking it was some perverted ploy of his but after many hours of talking i agreed and watched him die so he would not die alone.… no not worried as ill be dead soon
Lowe: personal question…did he get a stiffy when he died?
Cami: probably but he had pants on and i really didn't notice. He hung from a door
Lowe: was he young?
At first Cami seemed to miss the question, telling Lowe that she had the next day off and that she hoped to be dead before having to return to work. As an afterthought, she added, "he was 32"—the same age that Mark was when he committed suicide.
Lowe told Cami that she was also ready to hang but that she needed to buy a rope. She was pressing Cami to get an audio cam so that the two could hear and see each other just before death, when Lowe saw Cami move in front of her Webcam.
"You're a bloke," Lowe wrote. And hardly twentysomething. Li Dao, a.k.a. falcongirl, a.k.a. Cami D, was a middle-aged white man.
By now, Blay believed Li Dao had encouraged at least fifty people to commit suicide, including some minors, like the 17-year-old Central American girl whose suicide pact first drew her in. "She wasn't just going for those who were terminally ill or suicidal adults," Blay said. "She was preying on depressed teenagers who were suffering from normal teenage angst and giving them a shove in the wrong direction." Desperate to stop her, Blay got into her two-decade-old Rover and headed north to Wolverhampton, where Kat Lowe lives. Blay used Lowe's apartment as a base as she paid a visit to police headquarters in the West Midlands, whose jurisdiction included the area where Cami recalled watching a suicide online, as well as nearby Coventry, where Mark Drybrough had lived. When Blay reported what she'd learned about the online nurse to the West Midlands police, she says an officer called her husband to check whether he knew where she was. "I thought, For goodness sake, what century do we live in?" Blay says, her laugh lines crinkling at the memory. "I suppose they were checking to see whether I was sane." The police wanted the evidence on floppy discs, but Blay didn't have one. She enlisted her son's help in burning the e-mails on a disc, but the police told her that the disc she'd sent was blank. Sensing their apathy, Blay gave up, frustrated: "I was stymied."
Around the time of Blay's visit to the West Midlands police, an 18-year-old in Ottawa was finding support and guidance from a new friend she'd met online.
Nadia Kajouji, a freshman at Carleton University in Ottawa and a relative newbie on ASH, complained that she was depressed and sleepless. She'd stopped attending classes and had holed up in her dorm room, staring at the snowfall outside her window. It was one of the most severe winters on record in Ottawa. In early March, Nadia instant-messaged her new confidant:
Nadia: When are you going to catch the bus? I would like to soon. I am planning to attempt this Sunday.
Cami: Wow. You want to use hanging too?
Nadia: I'm going to jump.
Cami: Well that's okay, but most people puss out before doing that. Plus, they don't wanna leave a terribly messy mess for others to clean up.
Nadia: I want it to look like an accident. There's a bridge over the river where there's a break in the ice. The water is really rough right now, and it should carry me back under the ice so I can't really come up for air. And if drowning doesn't get me, hopefully the hypothermia will.
When Nadia set off to Carleton that fall, she was on the cusp of the great adventure that many a teenager senses her life could be. She'd studied hard, gotten good grades, and been accepted to Carleton, McGill, and Queens, among Canada's best colleges. It was an easy call for Nadia. Each year, only one hundred students were accepted into Carleton's public-affairs and policy-management program, and ever since seventh grade, when she shadowed a member of parliament, she'd been interested in politics.
But when you're 18, the great adventure can spiral into something darker and do so with whiplash speed. Nadia met a guy and fell into an intoxicating, all-consuming kind of love. She was ecstatic—until the condom broke, the morning-after pill didn't take, and suddenly she was pregnant. Worse, just when she'd begun to wrap her brain around that reality, she had a miscarriage. All the choices she might have made were gone. Poof.
As if on cue, the guy disappeared, too.
For the first time, she was isolated from her friends and family as she went through the toughest period of her life. She'd always been a star student, and now she feared that she would lose the semester because she couldn't drag herself to class.
Feeling suicidal isn't a permanent state. Some lifelong depressives take that final step after years of struggle, but there are many others who flirt with the idea when they're suffering from what turns out to be a temporary case of despair. Many suicidal people emerge from their hopelessness by tapping into newfound resilience, enough to sustain them until their situations improve. But at that moment of intense vulnerability, most people don't meet someone wholly understanding and compassionate, a stranger whom they come to trust as a friend, someone to encourage their most self-destructive impulses. Most of them never meet someone like Cami.
By the time Nadia came home for a spell that February, her parents knew something was wrong, but they didn't know that she'd stopped sleeping, that she was seeing a psychiatrist at Carleton or logging on to chat rooms to talk with strangers about how to end her life.
Kat Lowe was rapidly homing in on Cami's identity. Even after Lowe revealed Cami to be a man, he didn't log off. So Lowe pressed him to explain why he'd posed as a woman, asking if his motivation was sexual. Cami's answer surprised her. He wrote back, "Mostly cause IF and only IF there were any legal consequences for my helping anyone they would come looking for a 'girl.' " Whatever revelations Lowe uncovered were turned over to Blay. Blay knew the lives at risk and understood that the more time Li Dao lurked in the chat rooms, the more people would be in danger. Their posse of volunteer investigators grew: To work the technological angle, Blay turned to Robert Griffin, a retired Australian businessman in his midforties who'd turned to ASH during a dark period. Toward the end of 2007, Blay posted a note on the ASH forum, asking if anyone in the United States could help her reach the authorities there. Griffin, who was now living in the Midwest, responded. "A lot of people on ASH came in under the guise of being do-gooders but were really quite predatory," Griffin said. "Li Dao was one of them, except she operated particularly under the radar."
Griffin had worked in telecommunications and, in a matter of days, was able to trace Li Dao's and falcongirl's e-mails to a server in Faribault, Minnesota. And then Cami made a basic mistake. In the header of an e-mail sent to Lowe was a name: Bill Melchert-Dinkel. Blay forwarded the e-mail to Griffin, who discovered that there was a William Melchert-Dinkel who lived in Faribault. They seemed to have found falcongirl, Cami, and Li Dao at last.
Growing up, Nadia had shown few signs of depression. Her mother, Deborah Chevalier, and friends describe her as cheerful and playful. In a video diary that she made at Carleton that fall, she modeled outfits for the camera, saying, "I thought I'd make a blog that was upbeat and not mopey and weepy."
But by March, Nadia was struggling. "I can barely string together a cohesive sentence or two," she told the camera, looking haggard. "I can't function. The doctor said we should focus on getting me to function."
As the snow beat against her window, she sat at her computer, spending hours online with Cami, Cami trying to persuade her to hang herself instead of jumping, so that they could die together.
Nadia: It's a big relief to be able to talk to someone.
Cami: Cool. I'm no [sic] trying to tell you how to do it. Just my experiences and opinions, that's all.
Nadia: I understand. We want what's best for each other.
Cami: Yes, very much so. I don't want you to fail ever! And end up messed up.
Nadia: That would be the worst.
Cami: Oh, my God, yes, I see that happen a lot.
Nadia: What sort of stuff have you seen?
Cami: I'm not trying to scare you. Don't get me wrong. I've seen tons of failed overdoses and bad wrist cuttings and some failed jumpers. In seven years, I've never seen a failed hanging. That's why I chose it.
Blay knew nothing about Nadia; she only knew that she was racing to prevent the man behind Li Dao and the other alter egos from adding another suicide to his count, another pact made good. She sent the information she'd gathered to Papyrus, a charity dedicated to preventing suicides in Britain, but they could do little in the States. Finally, Blay got lucky. She was chatting with one of her customers, an accomplished carriage driver and lawyer in Minnesota, and inevitably she steered the conversation to her favorite topic—the threat Melchert-Dinkel posed and the unwillingness on the part of the authorities to do anything about it. The customer lived just twenty miles from Faribault and promised to contact a friend of hers who was a deputy sheriff in an outlying Minneapolis county.
Within a few weeks, through her friend, Blay got word from the deputy sheriff. Faribault was out of his jurisdiction, but he suggested that she contact the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, a new federally funded initiative aimed at combating the sexual exploitation of children. Blay managed to get through to Sergeant William Haider, who was detailed to the task force from the St. Paul police. She told him she feared that someone named Bill Francis Melchert-Dinkel in Faribault was encouraging teens, among others, to commit suicide online.
The very next day, the Faribault police were surprised by a call from the Ottawa police, who asked them to check on, of all places, the Melchert-Dinkel residence. They were investigating the disappearance of Nadia Kajouji, who hadn't been seen at Carleton University for two weeks. The police had found chat logs on the girl's computer between Nadia and Cami D, an online identity whom the Ottawa police say they had traced to Melchert-Dinkel's Faribault address. Their fear was that someone at the residence had entered a suicide pact with the 18-year-old student and would soon act upon it. They wanted to be sure everyone in the house was okay. At the time, Melchert-Dinkel was on vacation with his family, so they left word. When he returned, he called the police. Everyone in his family, he assured them, was just fine.
Melchert-Dinkel lives in a crisp white-shingled house with contrasting black shutters and a perfectly manicured lawn in Faribault, population 22,000. He is 48 years old, married to a nurse, and has two teenage daughters.
In his online conversation with Kat Lowe, after she'd discovered he was Cami and falcongirl and Li Dao, William Melchert-Dinkel sent a family photo of himself and his wife sitting on a piano bench, flanked by their two daughters. In the background, a ray of sunlight glints from a landscape painting.
Li Dao, along with her alter egos, positioned herself as an expert on nursing—an ER nurse whose experience with a range of calamities had persuaded her of the benefits of hanging. Melchert-Dinkel was indeed a nurse, a resident nurse whose career was distinguished only by his incompetence, at best, and possibly something much more sinister.
In 1994, according to the Nursing Board of Minnesota, he administered the wrong medication to a resident while working at a nursing home in Minneapolis. In another instance, he failed to document the deteriorating condition of a resident who later died en route to the hospital. The next year, he moved to the ortho-neuro unit at a St. Paul hospital, but he showed no improvement. According to his supervisor, he "continually demonstrated difficulty retaining information." When reprimanded, he said, "I have problems at home, too. It just spills over into everything." He was later diagnosed with a learning disability and attention-deficit disorder, among other problems, and put on medication. He resigned soon after, reportedly saying that he "got in over his head."
But Melchert-Dinkel kept nursing, and with grim results. At a nursing home where he worked in Faribault, he was fired for the alleged abuse of two residents. Only then did the Minnesota Board of Nursing limit his license, but he was still allowed to practice, with supervision.
Melchert-Dinkel didn't perform much better for his next employer in Faribault. One of his co-workers said that he was often rude to residents, "hollering at them" if they wanted to go to the bathroom. At one point, the co-worker, who didn't want her name published, asked Melchert-Dinkel to wrap the foot of a resident whose toes had been amputated. "He got done wrapping the foot and came out and said, 'She's ready to go.' " After entering the room, the co-worker scratched her head and asked an aide to take a look. The aide "looked and said, 'Oh my God. He's wrapped the good foot.' " In July 2008, Melchert-Dinkel resigned and moved to a third nursing home in Faribault.
A few months later, Sergeant Haider and a colleague caught up with him at his home. After introductions, the police told the nurse that they wanted to talk to him about Internet-related issues. According to the officers, Melchert-Dinkel responded, "I think I know what you mean." When asked to elaborate, he said that he and his wife worked in health care and had had discussions with people online that had gotten inappropriate. Police say Melchert-Dinkel then told them that his wife wasn't involved in the discussions but that using the online monikers Li Dao, falcongirl, and Cami, he'd advised people online about suicide methods.
He admitted that he would instruct them on how to hang themselves by placing the knot behind the left ear, because "that would be the most effective position for compression of the left and right carotid artery, which would cause unconsciousness in ten to fifteen seconds, brain death, and total death in ten to twenty minutes." According to the coroner's report, Mark Drybrough's neck had a deep ligature groove that rose toward the left and back of his neck. Melchert-Dinkel admitted that he claimed online to have watched via Webcam as someone in England hanged himself. Despite his repeated requests to watch victims by Webcam, however, he insisted that he'd never done so. According to the police, they have no evidence that Melchert-Dinkel watched his victims. The investigating officers say Melchert-Dinkel estimated that he'd made about a dozen suicide pacts with people around the world and encouraged dozens more to commit suicide, though he knew of no more than five who'd actually gone through with it. At one point, he characterized his motivation as the "thrill of the chase." But he also said that he told his victims that "it was okay to let go, that they would be better in heaven."
He said he felt terrible about what he'd done and that his daughters had told him that his discussions weren't right. At Christmas, as the police were narrowing in on him, he said that he'd stopped advising people about suicide.
By then, it was too late for Nadia Kajouji.
Six weeks after her disappearance in Ottawa, the sun had warmed the Rideau River, and her body washed up on its banks. She had ignored Cami D's requests that she hang herself with a Webcam rolling. Instead, she stuck to her plan. She told her roommate she was going skating and jumped into the frozen river, with skates on her feet so that it would look like an accident.
On the spot where she was found is a rickety iron bench with flowers painted along the top and the words You will never be forgotten. Though he had a hard time recalling Mark Drybrough, Melchert-Dinkel said he did remember making a suicide pact with "a woman from Ottawa."
The day the police interviewed him, William Melchert-Dinkel walked into a Faribault emergency room, telling nurses there that he was under investigation for assisting suicide. According to a report by the Minnesota Board of Nursing, which had opened an investigation of Melchert-Dinkel, he was later transferred to a different hospital, where his unprompted confession continued. He informed the staff that he was "dealing with an addiction to suicide Internet sites" and "feeling guilty because of past and present advice to those on the Internet of how to end their lives."
Finally, in April 2010, three years after Blay had first alerted the police in England, Melchert-Dinkel was charged with "advising and encouraging" the suicides of Mark Drybrough and Nadia Kajouji, which carries a maximum term of fifteen years or a $30,000 fine. It's a novel use of a law that has been on the books in Minnesota since 1963—long before the Internet existed. It appears to be the first time in the United States that criminal charges have been brought against an individual for assisting suicide over the Internet. The morality of his actions aside, can he be held legally culpable? Had Mark or Nadia never had the misfortune to meet him online, would they have killed themselves anyway? Would they have followed through on their own self-destruction if he hadn't vowed to do the same? Would they be alive if the compassionate and knowledgeable nurse they knew as Li Dao were revealed to them to be a middle-aged Minnesota man?
Melchert-Dinkel, who refused to be interviewed for this story, could be tried as soon as this fall. The prosecutor, Paul Beaumaster, insists the law is clear. "The statute specifically talks about 'advises, encourages, or assists another,' " he said. "It's not specific about what instrumentality you use—telephone, fax, smoke signals." But the instrumentality in this case may make a difference: Melchert-Dinkel is accused of encouraging suicidal individuals to kill themselves on sites that are strenuously pro-choice about suicide. How much encouragement did Mark and Nadia really need? Even if Melchert-Dinkel is convicted or he pleads guilty, he is not likely to serve much time.
The friends and families of Mark and Nadia and others have nothing but time, to wonder what might have gone differently, to question what might have happened if their son or daughter or friend had never met Li Dao or Cami or falcongirl—if they'd never come in contact with William Melchert-Dinkel. When Elaine Drybrough cleaned out her son's room after his death, she found a blank notebook with a single page of poetry that he'd scrawled:
Face facts, I'd rather live than die.
So what's it worth, why is it worth
There is nothing but this very life
Here and now.
Mark was torn. He wrote, "Please give my life meaning and love each and everything else too…" and circled the passage three times. In the end, though, his cynicism won out. At the bottom of the page, in big capital letters, he wrote: "BULLSHIT COMPLETE FUCKING CRAP." And then he was gone.