FARIBAULT, Minn. (AP) — The attorney for a Minnesota man accused of trolling the Internet for suicidal people and encouraging two to kill themselves told a judge Thursday that his client’s online conversations had no direct effect on the victims because they already planned to die
Prosecutors say William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, was obsessed with suicide and got a thrill from preying on people in their most desperate hours. They say he posed as a suicidal female nurse to win his victims’ trust, then entered false suicide pacts and offered detailed instructions on how people could take their own lives.
“He knew exactly what he was doing,” Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said in court Thursday. “The defendant specifically targeted vulnerable individuals.”
Melchert-Dinkel, of Faribault, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of aiding suicide. He hasn’t disputed the facts presented by prosecutors but says he did nothing illegal and his conversations are protected free speech. He waived his right to a jury trial, and a judge who heard arguments from attorneys Thursday will decide whether he’s guilty within 20 days.
Prosecutors say Melchert-Dinkel acknowledged participating in online chats about suicide with up to 20 people and entering into fake suicide pacts with about 10, five of whom he believed killed themselves.
He’s charged in the 2005 hanging death of Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, and the 2008 death of Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a frozen river.
Beaumaster said the two deaths had one thing in common — Melchert-Dinkel.
“These individuals were fragile people,” Beaumaster said. “It was the defendant who was suggesting a long-term solution to a short-term problem.”
Defense attorney Terry Watkins said the victims were indeed troubled: Drybrough had been ill for years and went online seeking drugs to overdose, while Kajouji had a miscarriage after drinking heavily and was depressed, he said. But, Watkins added, they were both intelligent people who wouldn’t be swayed by his client’s online “babbling.”
Watkins said that legally, his client’s actions would only be a crime if they directly incited the victims to commit suicide. Instead, he said, the two already had plans to die.
Beaumaster said Melchert-Dinkel broke the law because he clearly meant to encourage or help them kill themselves.
“It’s not free speech to fraudulently convince someone that taking their life is the best thing to do,” he said.
According to court documents, Drybrough posted a message in a chat room, asking whether anyone had instructions on how to hang oneself without access to something high. He began receiving e-mails containing detailed instructions from Melchert-Dinkel, who used the name “Li dao.”
Beaumaster said that in Drybrough’s last communication with Melchert-Dinkel, Drybrough said he was scared and “holding on to the hope that things might change.” That shows Drybrough wasn’t ready to take his life, yet he was found dead four days later, the prosecutor said.
In the Canada case, evidence showed Kajouji went online March 1, 2008, saying she wanted to commit suicide but was afraid of failing. Five days later, she participated in online chats with Melchert-Dinkel, posing as “Cami.”
Kajouji said she planned to jump into a river the following Sunday, and “if drowning doesn’t get me, hopefully hypothermia will.”
Melchert-Dinkel replied as Cami, saying if the jump didn’t work, they would hang themselves together the next day. Kajouji disappeared March 9, 2008. Her body was found six weeks later.
Watkins said Drybrough didn’t hang himself in the method described by Melchert-Dinkel and he refused the ex-nurse’s request to die together or set up a webcam so Melchert-Dinkel could watch.
“Except for the fact that he had a noose, there is no similarity,” Watkins said, noting that two other people also responded to Drybrough’s request for information on hanging, including one with details on how it could be done.
And in Kajouji’s case, Watkins said, Melchert-Dinkel tried to talk her out of jumping and suggest hanging instead, but she could not be swayed from her plan.
Watkins called his client’s actions “creepy” and “abhorrent” but said: “That minimal communication did nothing — did nothing — to change the acts that had already been put in motion.”
Mothers of both victims told The Associated Press by e-mail that they believe Melchert-Dinkel influenced their children.
Elaine Drybrough, Mark’s mother, said Melchert-Dinkel “put in a lot of effort to be persuasive and to give instructions.” People with clinical depression might think about suicide, but they don’t necessarily go through with it, she said.
Deborah Chevalier, Kajouji’s mother, said her daughter wasn’t fragile overall but was having a hard time in her life and Melchert-Dinkel “picked her out as prey.”
Melchert-Dinkel knew he had an impact because he had been prowling suicide chat rooms for years and “derived a sick pleasure from it,” she said.