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
Update, March 16, 2011:
Back in October, GQ correspondent Nadya Labi took us into the shadowy cyber-world of "Li Dao," a seemingly sweet nurse doling out advice in suicide chat rooms on how to best end one's life. With the investigative sleuthing of a few people from all over the world, that nurse—who turned out to be a middle-aged man named William Melchert-Dinkel—was charged with assisting in two suicides. Yesterday, a Minnesota judge found Melchert-Dinkel guilty on two counts of assisting the suicides of 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji and 32-year-old Mark Drybrough.
"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.