The Suicide Watcher
Investigators allege that Faribault resident William Melchert-Dinkel posed online as a female nurse, encouraging suicidal individuals to kill themselves. But even if it’s true, was it a crime?
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ON JANUARY 7, 2009, two St. Paul police officers paid a visit to the home of a Faribault man named William Melchert-Dinkel. Forty-six years old, Melchert-Dinkel had a wife, two teenage daughters, and a dog. He was a churchgoer, and worked as a licensed practical nurse at a local nursing home. The investigators believed he spent much of his spare time surfing Internet chat rooms.
But Melchert-Dinkel wasn’t interested in politics or sex or online gaming. He frequented chat rooms where people went for advice on how to commit suicide. And he suggested ways to die.
Online, Melchert-Dinkel always posed as a young, female nurse, using screen names like falcongirl, Li Dao, and Cami D. His alter egos were kind and sympathetic, addressing people as “hon” and always signing off “**hugs.**” They always advocated hanging as fast and painless but seemed unusually obsessed with the details. Tie your noose behind your left ear, they’d counsel. That way, the rope—preferably yellow nylon with a particular test strength—will compress both carotid arteries. You’ll be unconscious in less than 10 seconds, unaware of the moment of death. Sometimes the nurse would volunteer to keep someone company via webcam or to “go at the same time.”
It didn’t take much to get Melchert-Dinkel to confess. When he opened his door, the officers simply told him they were there to talk about “Internet-related issues.” He let them in, saying “I think I know what you mean.”
Melchert-Dinkel let the police search his home and take his computer, and then went on to reveal how he had helped with possibly dozens of suicides. He guessed he had counseled dozens of people to let go. It would be better in heaven, he would promise. He described himself as an angel of mercy whose “caring nature went too far.”
He told the officers he knew encouraging people to kill themselves was “inappropriate” and illegal, but he was obsessed. He kept making suicide pacts even after two people he’d counseled went through with it, even after chatroom visitors started warning one another that he was a predator. He couldn’t give up “the thrill of the chase.”
Last April, prosecutors in Rice County charged Melchert-Dinkel in connection with the two deaths he told investigators he was sure he had a hand in. Whether Melchert-Dinkel violated a Minnesota law forbidding assisted suicide is a decision that will likely be made by a jury in the next few weeks.
ON THE AFTERNOON OF MARCH 6, 2008, Nadia Kajouji was in her dorm room at Carleton University in Ottawa, swapping instant messages with her online confidante, Cami D, about her plans to “catch the bus”—Internet parlance for killing herself. A freshman from a Toronto suburb, Kajouji was in a tailspin: A burst condom, a miscarriage, and a wrenching breakup had plunged her into a dark place.
“I can barely string together a cohesive sentence or two,” Kajouji told a video diary her family would find later. “Like when I’m speaking, I can’t put that down on paper and write a test or an essay. I can’t function and that was what the doctor said we should focus on: getting me to function.”
Kajouji’s family knew nothing of her troubles. The girl they sent to college the previous fall was drop-dead gorgeous and ready to change the world, according to her brother, Marc. She was interested in social justice and politics. “She wanted to be lawyer,” he says. “She had a lot of big aspirations and dreams.”
Instead of confiding in the family who saw her promise, Kajouji turned to Cami D. Ever-sympathetic and seemingly in a similar situation, Cami D had lots of advice. She told Kajouji that the medication she was taking, the Canadian version of Paxil, was bad. And she had concerns about Kajouji’s plan to drown herself by jumping off a bridge. If jumpers didn’t “puss out,” Cami D said, they often maimed themselves. She should know—she was a nurse and had seen the pain caused by botched attempts.
“I want it to look like an accident,” Kajouji messaged back. “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. Is there anything you want to do before you go? I’m trying to get my affairs in order—cleaning my room, paying off my loan.”
Cami D countered. Kajouji should consider the fact that if she succeeded, she’d leave a bloated corpse. “If they find you in the river, they will have to identify you somehow,” Cami D warned. “That can take time for sure. Then they have to find your parents, who have to come identify you—more time. So most likely no viewing due to time and trauma. If you are carried away in the river current, they may never find you. You would be a missing person. That’s why I’m keeping everything here at home. Easy for my mom.”
Cami D said more about her own “bus ticket” but kept guiding the conversation back to hanging.
The two instant-messaged again March 9, a few hours before Kajouji jumped into the Rideau River. “I’m glad things are going to end tonight,” Kajouji told her.
“I wish we could have done it together, but I understand why,” Cami D replied. “Did you get rope in case you need a backup plan?”
Until April 20, when her body was found, Kajouji remained a missing person. Police searched her computer and found 30 pages of conversation between her and Cami D and eventually linked the screen name to Melchert-Dinkel. On March 26, the Faribault police conducted a welfare check on Melchert-Dinkel, but he and his family were on vacation. Shortly thereafter, Melchert-Dinkel called to say he was fine. Police have never explained why the revelation that Kajouji’s sympathetic young female friend was actually a middle-aged man didn’t raise a red flag.