A former Minnesota nurse who told police he went on the Internet and encouraged dozens of depressed people to kill themselves for the "thrill of the chase" was charged Friday with helping a Canadian woman and a British man commit suicide, authorities said.
After nearly two years of investigation, William Melchert-Dinkel, 47, was charged with two felony counts of aiding suicide under a rarely used decades-old state law that legal experts say could be difficult to prosecute on freedom-of-speech grounds.
Melchert-Dinkel is accused of encouraging the suicides of Mark Drybrough, 32, who hanged himself at his home in Coventry, England, in 2005; and Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Brampton, Ontario, who drowned in 2008 in a river in Ottawa, where she was studying at Carleton University.
Prosecutors claim Melchert-Dinkel posed as a female nurse - using the online names "Cami," "falcongirl," "li dao" and others - then feigned compassion for those he met in suicide chat rooms, while offering step-by-step instructions on how to take their lives.
The criminal complaint filed in the case said he told investigators he encouraged "dozens" of people to commit suicide and "characterized it as the thrill of the chase." He also estimated that he had actually assisted five or fewer people kill themselves.
Kajouji's mother, Deborah Chevalier, said she was overwhelmed when she heard the news. "My insides were shaking, I was crying and laughing at the same time," she wrote in an e-mail, adding that the charges were long overdue.
Reached at his home in Faribault on Friday, Melchert-Dinkel told an Associated Press reporter he had no comment and ordered her off of his property. His attorney, Terry Watkins, also declined to discuss the case in detail, saying he hadn't received all the evidence yet.
Melchert-Dinkel, whose first court appearance is scheduled for May 25, told police in January 2009 that he stopped the Internet chats shortly after Christmas 2008 for moral and legal reasons. He said he "felt terrible" about the advice to commit suicide he provided to others.
An e-mail found on Drybrough's computer from Melchert-Dinkel showed him giving technical advice on how to hang yourself from a door, "you can easily hang from a door using the knob onw (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," the complaint says.
The investigation tied Melchert-Dinkel to Kajouji through searches of their computers. Canadian authorities determined she had online discussions with someone named Cami and entered into a suicide pact with her. A search of his computer revealed a photograph of Kajouji and correspondence between him and other suicidal people.
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster declined to comment on the case on Friday. A message left for Dybrough's mother in Coventry was not immediately returned.
Some experts say prosecuting the state law, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine, could be difficult because Melchert-Dinkel didn't physically help kill them, just allegedly encouraged them and gave technical directions. The state law does not specifically address situations involving the Internet or suicides that occur out of state.
"I believe a compelling argument can be made that not only are the charges unconstitutional but the underlying statute is unconstitutional," said George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley, who follows the issue of physician-assisted suicide.
However, Richard Frase, a criminal law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said the charges may stick because while advocating suicide over the Internet in the abstract may be protected speech, encouraging a specific person in how to do it "probably puts it over the line in terms of free speech," he said.
In order for Melchert-Dinkel to be convicted, the jury would have to decide that the victims would not have killed themselves if not for his specific actions, said Phebe Haugen, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
"He's right on that line between being an advocate without thinking about the particular persons and somebody who was directing the actions of specific victims," said Haugen, who is also a former Hennepin County prosecutor.
Minnesota authorities began investigating in March 2008 when an anti-suicide activist in Britain alerted them that someone in the state was using the Internet to manipulate people into killing themselves.
That woman, Celia Blay, 65, of Maiden Bradley, first tried to persuade police in her own country to pursue Melchert-Dinkel, but charges were never filed. In an e-mail Friday, she said the process took too long but "the important thing now is that the message is sent out that vulnerable, suicidal people can't be preyed on with impunity."
Melchert-Dinkel worked at various hospitals and nursing homes over the years and was cited several times for neglect and being rough with patients, according to the Minnesota Board of Nursing, which revoked his license last June.
After his license was revoked, Melchert-Dinkel said he didn't think he'd be criminally charged. "Nothing is going to come of it," Melchert-Dinkel told the AP in October. "I've moved on with my life, and that's it."
Associated Press writers Amy Forliti in Faribault, Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)