A British woman who has been tracking the Internet footsteps of a Minnesota man for allegedly encouraging or advising young people to commit suicide through online chats and social-networking sites believes he may have played a role in a number of hanging deaths and attempted suicides in several countries over the last three years.
Celia Blay, an amateur historian living near Birmingham, said she has been in contact with Minnesota police, who this week took the unusual step of releasing the name of William Francis Melchert-Dinkel. The 46-year-old nurse and father is being investigated in relation to the suicide of 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji, a Carleton University student who was found drowned in the Rideau River near the Ottawa school in April last year.
Shortly before her death, Ms. Kajouji conversed online with someone posing as a young woman - now alleged to be Mr. Melchert-Dinkel - who suggested that Ms. Kajouji hang herself and urged her to capture her final moments with a webcam, as part of a joint suicide pact.
In an eerily similar case, a British mother has come forward to say that Mr. Melchert-Dinkel allegedly attempted to make the same pact over the Internet with her 32-year-old son, Mark Drybrough, who hung himself in his Coventry home in 2005. After he died, the family discovered two months of online chats with someone going by the aliases Falcongirl and Li Dao. Elaine Drybrough said she has been co-operating with police in Minnesota since last year, after she failed to persuade local authorities to pursue the case.
Several warnings about Falcongirl and Li Dao have been posted to a prominent pro-suicide newsgroup, cautioning members that the person behind the names is a male health-care worker in the United States, and not the depressed young woman he claims to be. In one online transcript - which mirrors conversations released by Ms. Kajouji's family - Falcongirl recommends hanging as a pain-free option, often making references to medical experience to support this view, and proposes the person use a webcam so that she can help with "proper positioning."
"It is really creepy stuff," Ms. Blay says. "If you read the chat logs, it makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck. [This person]certainly knows how to push the right buttons."
Some posts online link Falcongirl's IP address to Minnesota. In Mr. Melchert-Dinkel's hometown of Faribault, the local high school's sports teams are called the Falcons.
Police have not said what online names Mr. Melchert-Dinkel uses. Though named as the subject of the investigation, no charges have been laid against him and he is not in custody.
Various online profiles indicate Mr. Melchert-Dinkle has a wife - a 54-year-old nurse - and two teen daughters. He has been under investigation since last March when Minnesota police seized his computer after a tip about his online interactions with teenagers and adults on suicide-related websites and news groups.
In February, after a long history of infractions, he was suspended from nursing by the state board for undisclosed reasons, with the decision saying his "continued practice would create a serious risk of harm to others."
A former co-worker said yesterday the allegations of an online second life don't seem like the nurse they knew.
"The Bill Dinkel I know wouldn't have anything to do with that [sort of allegation] But that's all I can tell you," said Trent Creger, who supervised Mr. Melchert-Dinkel's work as a nurse for "several years" over a decade ago but hasn't spoke to him since.
"But things change. Fifteen, 20 years ago is a long time ago."
It is unclear what, if any, criminal charges Mr. Melchert-Dinkel may face. While counselling to commit suicide is illegal, the law in North America and Britain has not been successfully used to prosecute someone for promoting suicide online.
With reports from Tu Thanh Ha and Josh Wingrove