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.
THE POLICE may have had few questions regarding the online life of Melchert-Dinkel, but half a world away, a 65-year-old grandmother was trying feverishly to interest anyone in a position of authority in the Minnesota man’s digital double-dealings. Celia Blay lives in a village in southern England in a house quaintly named Halfway Cottage, where she makes carriage whips and other horse tack. In 2006, she was doing some research online when she stumbled onto the chatrooms Melchert-Dinkel frequented.
The Internet has long been a perfect meeting place for subcultures with far-flung members. The anonymity it provides allows people to lower their inhibitions and behave in ways that would be socially unacceptable in real life. It’s accessible 24/7, and it tends to isolate users from healthier influences. Small wonder it has spawned dozens of suicide chatrooms.
The most notorious is alt.suicide.holiday, which originated as a forum for debating whether there is any relationship between suicide and holidays. Using the forum’s initials—a, s, h—frequent visitors call themselves “ashers” and describe themselves as “pro-choice” regarding suicide. They say it’s comforting to discussing their dark impulses with others who feel the same way. Outsiders—or “shiny-happys”—don’t respect this choice and might try to take it away by having someone hospitalized.
Possibly the most interesting thing about ashers is how much they have in common with others who spend large chunks of their lives online. Disagreements on seemingly minor philosophical points often lead to profanity, and users trade taunts with the same antagonists in thread after thread. For some, it’s possible, the chatrooms provide a kind of safety valve for disturbing thoughts. Many of those who post comments remain very much alive, coming back year after year and fretting over friends who’ve dropped out.
Blay, however, was frightened by what she read. She quickly found herself befriending a teenaged Central American girl. At some point, the girl told Blay that she’d made a suicide pact with a helpful nurse. Blay talked the girl out of taking her own life and started digging for information about the nurse.
It wasn’t an easy task. Blay began contacting ashers and sifting through the archives. Melchert-Dinkel’s MO was designed to make him hard to ferret out. He mainly lurked, e-mailing or instant-messaging posters who asked for help finding a method or who seemed on the verge. He left enough of a digital trail, however, that Blay was able to uncover his name and learn where he lived.
She also discovered a second suicide by someone he had chatted with online. A man named Mark Drybrough hanged himself at his home in Coventry, England, in 2005. Drybrough’s sister looked through his computer afterward and found he had swapped emails with a young American nurse seconds before mounting a ladder.
Blay went to the police in her small village, and when they shrugged off her findings, she started pestering cops elsewhere, including Minnesota’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which operates under the jurisdiction of the St. Paul Police Department. Finally, someone took notice; Sergeant William Haider asked Blay for more information. For months, she kept officers informed of Melchert-Dinkel’s online activities.
Eventually, Blay unmasked the nurse online by telling the ashers what Melchert-Dinkel had done. Most of them were livid with the nurse; not only had he violated the ethos of “choice,” he had made suicide pacts with lots of ashers. A few even believed he had gone through with it.
“Omg~,” MizJane posted. “I knew this Falcon Girl or Li Dao has a bad intention. I chatted a lot with her/him last year when I was pregnant. Met her in #suicide.bus.stop.”
MizJane was as taken in as the rest. “He didn’t tell me to commit suicide but he just say he will be with me when I decide to do it. And yes she did sound very sweet n caring. She didn’t say bad things about how I thought about suicide like how a mental health profs or other people would say.”
FOR ALL HIS ONLINE BOASTING about his medical expertise, Melchert-Dinkel was not a very good nurse. While working at Ebenezer Luther Hall in Minneapolis in 1994, he was reprimanded numerous times. He gave some residents the wrong medication and gave others the right drugs but failed to note it in their charts. Some never got their medication. According to state nursing-board records, he was “conferenced regarding his disrespect of cultural differences, his unwillingness to help his coworkers, his failure to change a resident’s stoma bag, and his failure to change a resident’s dressing.”
In 1996, while working at United Hospital in St. Paul, he amassed a similar personnel file. He was put on leave after telling his supervisor, “I have problems at home, too. It just spills over into everything.”
Next he went to work for a nursing home in Faribault, where he yelled and swore at residents, grabbing one with enough force to leave bruises. He was seen yanking another by her hair. He told his boss “he knew he needed to work on being patient.” Ultimately, he was fired.
In 1997, the nursing board fined Melchert-Dinkel $150 for abusing residents, barred him from working with any patients receiving services from state health and human services agencies, and said the only way he could continue nursing was under direct supervision. He went to work as a nurse for a temp agency, but in 2002 the state found him working alone, with no one to make sure he delivered appropriate care. He was disciplined again.
Six months after Blay made contact with police in St. Paul, the mother of Mark Drybrough, the British man who committed suicide in 2005, contacted the nursing board and told them about that Melchert-Dinkel had been linked to her son’s death. She sent them copies of the postings where Melchert-Dinkel boasted about his expertise as a nurse. The board terminated his license in June 2009. Melchert-Dinkel went to work as a long-haul trucker.
Last spring, prosecutors charged Melchert-Dinkel with two violations of Minnesota’s assisted suicide law in the deaths of Kajouji and Drybrough. His attorney, Terry Watkins, has petitioned the court to dismiss the case, insisting that the Minnesota statute, passed in 1998, is overly broad. He has asked the judge to throw out Melchert-Dinkel’s lengthy statement to the police on the grounds that Melchert-Dinkel was intimidated into talking. He also has requested that his client be evaluated to determine whether he was mentally ill and, thus, not responsible for his actions. Barring dismissal, the case is expected to go to trial before the year’s end. (Neither Watkins nor the state’s prosecutor, Paul Beaumaster, would comment for this article.)
The reams of chats that Blay supplied to police and Melchert-Dinkel’s lengthy statement to police might make conviction seem like a slam dunk, but prosecutors are venturing into untested waters. It’s the 13th time Minnesota’s assisted suicide statute has been used, but in every other case, as far as anyone can recall, the defendant either supplied someone with the means to kill themselves or stood by in the same place while they did so. What if the predator and the suicidal person aren’t even in the same country—and the only things exchanged are words?
For decades, the Hemlock Society and numerous other organizations advocating assisted suicide for the terminally ill have publicized detailed information on methods. Derek Humphrey’s Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying spent 18 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 1991; still in print, it’s readily available in most bookstores. The same First Amendment protection that allows booksellers to stock Final Exit apply to Melchert-Dinkel’s online chats, Watkins has argued.
Finally, if “encouragement” can be prohibited, there’s the question of whether Melchert-Dinkel’s words actually pushed anyone to act. In Kajouji’s case, Ottawa police ultimately concluded they could not prove Melchert-Dinkel caused her death. Only Kajouji knew what went into her decision.
“It’s a very disturbing conversation,” one of the officers assigned to the case told Kajouji’s mother, according to a recording she supplied to the Ottawa Citizen. “But given the totality of what had happened, given the totality of the evidence that we had seen in terms of her own pursuit, in terms of going to a variety of sites, looking at suicide methods, we couldn’t establish any sort of cause and effect between that conversation and her suicide.”
Outraged, the Kajoujis turned to the Canadian Parliament, which last year voted unanimously to change that country’s law. People can still visit suicide chatrooms, Marc Kajouji notes, but the comments they post there may have legal consequences.
THE INTERNET, with its lack of social constraints and ability to connect strangers, is a particularly dangerous place for adolescents and people whose thinking has been distorted by depression. In the past decade, dozens of suicides by chatroom visitors from all over the world and numerous pacts have been documented.
Still, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, remarkably little is known about them. That’s partly because formal investigations usually end once a death is ruled a suicide.
Mike Gonzales is convinced a lot more depressed people are coached to kill themselves in chatrooms than anyone would like to think. In 2003, after weeks of chatting with a man online, his daughter Suzy posted a last message to alt.suicide.holiday—“Bye everyone, see you on the other side”—checked into a motel and drank a glass of water laced with potassium cyanide.
Suzy was 19 and on a full scholarship to Florida State University. Her confidante gave her advice she’d never get in real life: He helped her figure out how to pose as a jeweler when ordering chemicals online, order several other substances she didn’t need so as not to arouse suspicion, and check the acidity of her cocktail with a pH meter.
The Gonzaleses, who live in California, speak frequently at survivors’ events. “I’ve been amazed at the number of people who’ve come up to us and said the same thing happened to them,” Mike Gonzales says. “Their loved one got involved in the Internet and got in communication with someone who walked them through it.”
In the wake of their daughter’s death, the Gonzaleses have campaigned for a federal law prohibiting the use of the Internet to encourage anyone who is suicidal to kill themselves. They believe they have found a way to ban dangerous interactions without running afoul of the First Amendment, which has long been a shield for the activities of such assisted-suicide advocacy groups as the Final Exit Network and the Hemlock Society (now known as Compassion and Choices). “Suzy’s Law” would essentially make it illegal to use the Internet and tell someone who says they are suicidal, “You should go through with it. Here’s how to do it and where to get the materials.” Lawmakers, however, have been slow to sign on as sponsors.
Whether the bill ever gains traction, remains to be seen. But Gonzales argues that something needs to be done to address the special dangers posed by the Internet chat rooms: “To have people validating those feelings, to have people telling you don’t go to your parents, don’t go to your doctor, don’t take your medications—that’s going to affect anyone who is suicidal.”
In his view, predators like Melchert-Dinkel definitely are culpable: “They keep their targets focused on killing themselves so as not to think of other options.”
THESE DAYS, alt.suicide.holiday isn’t where the most aggressive posters spend their time. Some of the ashers who posted to the chatroom for years say the attention generated by Melchert-Dinkel’s case has given the site a bad rap. Most agree that Melchert-Dinkel violated the group’s “pro-choice” ethos, preying on the vulnerable. He should be dealt with as harshly as other Internet predators, a user named Klyn wrote: “He should be put in prison, it’s terrible. Ash is a last resort for most people and if it’s not safe—as safe as can be—where can we go?”
“The guy deserves more than 15 years. He’s definitely dangerous,” MooOutLoud concurred. “It makes me sick thinking about what he’s doing. It’s no better than a pedophile trolling the Internet to rape children and he should be dealt with just as harshly.”
Many ashers weren’t surprised to learn from news reports that Melchert-Dinkel had a long disciplinary record. Once they started comparing notes, more than a few ashers said he gave bad advice. The hanging method he prescribed often didn’t work and was, in fact, quite painful. If Melchert-Dinkel isn’t convicted of a crime, wrote one poster, authorities should try to have him committed as mentally ill.
The ashers who had contact with Melchert-Dinkel are angry for other reasons, too. He held himself out as an angel of mercy, driven to comfort the vulnerable online in the same way he spent his flesh-and-blood life caring for the aged and infirm. But a good nurse would never counsel death, the ashers say.
In the end, Melchert-Dinkel did exactly what he counseled others not to do. He sought help. When the St. Paul police left his house after that initial interview, Melchert-Dinkel went to the local emergency room and repeated his story to the triage nurse and then—presumably because he was feeling suicidal— was transferred to a hospital in Owatonna.
“Wanted to be caretaker or nurturer…,” an admissions nurse wrote in an assessment for his admission. “Feels worthless, guilty.”
Had Melchert-Dinkel logged onto alt.suicide.holiday, of course, dozens of people would have counseled him not to seek medical help. Chances are someone would have been waiting, poised to offer another way out.
Beth Hawkins, a Minneapolis writer, profiled St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who is suing the Vatican over sexual abuse by priests, in the August issue of Minnesota Monthly.