Back in March 2011, a then 46-year old American ex-nurse William Melchart-Dinkel from Minnesota was convicted of persuading two people he met online to commit suicide. Melchart-Dinkel was accused of having a “suicide fetish” because he got his kicks from frequenting online suicide chat rooms. Posing as a female nurse, he would chat online and feign compassion to depressed individuals and encourage them to commit suicide.
More specifically, a US court found him guilty of aiding the suicides of 18-year old Canadian student Nadia Kajouli (who jumped into a river and drowned), and 32-year old British IT technician Mark Drybrough (who hanged himself). During the trial, Nadia’s mother shared extracts of the online chats that took place between her daughter and Melchart-Dinkel (who was using various aliases including ‘Cami’, ‘Falcon Girl’ and ‘Li Dao’). A Minnesotan Internet crimes task force forensically examined Melchert-Dinkel’s computer and located online chats that he had with the Canadian teenager. The online conversation demonstrated that Melchart-Dinkel had urged Nadia to hang herself (rather than kill herself by drowning) and provided detailed instructions on how to kill themselves:
“If you wanted to do hanging we could have done it together online so it would not have been so scary for you…Most important is the placement of the noose on the neck…knot behind the left ear and rope across the carotid is very important for instant unconsciousness and death…I’m just trying to help you do what is best for you not me”.
Melchart-Dinkel even urged Nadia to kill herself while they were chatting online. A few hours after chatting with Melchart-Dinkel, Nadia emailed her roommate and told her she was going to “brave the weather and go ice skating” (in an effort to make it look like an accident). Nadia jumped into a frozen river (but her body was not found until 11 days after she had jumped in). In Mark’s case, Melchert-Dinkel replied to a question posted online by Mark about how he could hang himself if he didn’t have a high ceiling. Following a long email conversation, Melchert-Dinkel instructed him on what to do and convinced Mark that ‘she’ was suicidal too. Melchert-Dinkel wrote:
“I keep holding on to the hope that things might change. Caught between being suicidal and considering it. Same old story!…I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. If you want someone who’s suicidal, I’m just not there yet…Sorry. I admire your courage. I wish I had it”.
Mark killed himself a few days later. Mark’s mother Elaine called Melchert-Dinkel her son’s “executioner”. She also told the Daily Mail in the UK:
“Mark had had a nervous breakdown and he was depressed and incredibly susceptible. [Melchert-Dinkel ]was there whispering in his ear every time he logged on. In the last email, [he] claimed to be a nurse, saying he had medical training, and proposed a suicide pact”
With the help of Celia Blay (a youth worker from Wiltshire in the UK), Mark’s mother managed to track Melchert-Dinkel. It was during their own investigation they discovered dozens of people had received similar emails to Mark’s:
“We found out everything about him on Google, including where he lived in Minnesota. He befriended them using a female identity, was very loving and sympathetic, but never suggested an alternative to death, even when they were only teenagers. He’d tell them that he intended to kill himself too, and said they should set up a web camera and he would do the same thing so they could watch each other die over the internet”.
During his testimony, Melchert-Dinkel admitted that he had asked between 15 and 20 people to commit suicide on camera while he watched (although when he was first caught, he said the online chatting must have been his teenage daughters). One report on Melchert-Dinkel’s case noted:
“While he never actually witnessed a suicide, he did believe that at least five of the people he had talked to were successful in taking their own lives. He also entered into around 10 ‘suicide pacts’ where he promised to kill himself simultaneously with the person he had been chatting with…Melchert-Dinkel was admitted to a hospital where he told doctors he had a ‘suicide fetish’ and an addiction to suicide websites”.
Before the trial, the Associated Press had interviewed Professor Jonathan Turley (George Washington University Law School), an expert on doctor-assisted suicide. It was reported that:
“[Professor Turley has] never heard of anyone being prosecuted for encouraging a suicide over the Internet. Typically, people are prosecuted only if they physically help someone end it all – for example, by giving the victim a gun, a noose or drugs. Last month, a Florida man was charged in his wife’s suicide after allegedly tossing several loaded guns onto their bed. Turley said if prosecutors file charges against Melchert-Dinkel, convicting him will be difficult – especially if the defense claims freedom of speech. The law professor said efforts to make it illegal to shout ‘Jump!’ to someone on a bridge have not survived constitutional challenges. ‘What’s the difference between calling for someone to jump off a bridge and e-mailing the same exhortation?’ he said”.
This line of defence was used by Melchert-Dinkel’s legal team. His behaviour was described as “abhorrent” by his own lawyer (Terry Watkins) but argued in court that his client’s actions were protected by the freedom of speech. Watkins said in court that:
“Freedom means you have to allow things to happen that some would find disgusting and completely unacceptable from a community or moral standpoint”.
However, the presiding judge (Thomas Neuville) said that the accused had “imminently incited the victims to commit suicide” and described Melchart-Dinkel’s online written comments as “unprotected speech”. He was sentenced to almost a year in prison (360 days) but was delayed until a ruling from the Supreme Court (SC). Earlier this year, the SC in Minnesota overturned Melchert-Dinkel’s conviction, and ruled that Minnesota’s law prohibiting the “encouraging” of suicide was unconstitutional and (as Professor Turley claimed) violated a person’s freedom of speech. However, the case (as far as I am aware) is still continuing because the original state prosecutors are trying to argue that Melchert-Dinkel “assisted” (rather than “encouraged”) people’s suicides.
My own take on this case is that Melchart-Dinkel committed a criminal act and that his claim to medics that he was “addicted” to encouraging people to commit suicide was made as a way of absolving responsibility for what he did. There was nothing about his online behaviour to suggest it was in any way addicted (at least not by my own criteria). Also, his own use of the word “fetish” is inappropriate in this instance. Although he did appear to get some kind of kick from his activity, there was nothing sexual in it. Again, his use of the word ‘fetish’ to describe his behaviour also appears to be another linguistic device to distance himself from taking the blame for his actions.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Associated Press (2011). Nurse William Melchart-Dinkel had ‘suicide fetish’, went online to provoke two people’s deaths: cops. New York Daily News, October 17. Located at: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/nurse-william-melchert-dinkel-suicide-fetish-online-provoke-people-deaths-cops-article-1.388085
Caulfield, P. (2011). ‘Suicide fetish’ nurse found guilty of provoking people he found online to kill themselves. Daily News, March 16. Located at: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/suicide-fetish-nurse-found-guilty-provoking-people-found-online-kill-article-1.122996
Firth, N. (2010). Revealed: The suicide voyeur nurse who ‘encouraged people to kill themselves online’. Daily Mail, March 20. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1259379/The-suicide-voyeur-nurse-encouraged-people-kill-online.html
Guariglia, M. (2014). William Melchert-Dinkel: 5 Fast facts you need to know. Heavy News, March 19. Located at: http://heavy.com/news/2014/03/william-melchert-dinkel-suicide-minnesota-nurse/
Murray, Rheana. (2008). A search for death: How the internet is used as a suicide cookbook. Chrestomathy, 7, 142-156.
Yount, K. (2014). Minnesota Supreme Court turns its back on mentally ill. (i)Pinion, March 27. Located at: http://ipinionsyndicate.com/minnesota-supreme-court-to-suicide-predators-party-on/