Caught in a web of death

“One more angel in heaven. One more star in the sky. Rest in peace,” wrote Joanne Lee earlier this month when she learnt that Sherry Pike had died. It was a touching tribute to a friend she had met online.

The site where they corresponded was dedicated to such an outcome. Lee and Pike were both keen users of one of the growing number of websites where those contemplating suicide share their feelings and sometimes encourage one another to take the final fatal step.

Now Lee is also dead. Her body was found last week in the back of a car parked in an industrial estate near her home in Essex. Next to her was the body of Steve Lumb, a 35- year-old lorry driver from Yorkshire. Although they had never met until the day they died, Lumb was another keen user of the same site.

Lee was 34 and lived alone with her two cats in Great Notley in Essex. Her parents — Geoffrey and Jill, who had separated some years ago — described her as a shy, gentle, thoughtful and caring daughter. But they were also aware of her mental health problems.

She had been taunted for being “smelly” as a child and had been bullied at school for her shy awkwardness. She suffered from bouts of depression and anorexia and had been receiving treatment for both.

Still, her family felt that her condition was improving. “She seemed more content than she had been for a long time. She seemed happy,” they said last week.

In fact Lee had been contemplating suicide for some time and had been using a website to share her feelings with others who felt the same. Three weeks ago she posted a desperate plea for someone to die with her, saying that she had “all of the ingredients and I would like to do it ASAP”.

Pike, a 41-year-old former US marine, responded from California: “Maybe your perfect partner is here waiting for you. I hope the best for you and you find what you are looking for.”

Five days later Lee learnt that Pike had succeeded in her own desire for oblivion and wrote her valediction. A few days after that Lee, using her online name, Heaven’s Little Girl, made another plea: “I’m desperately seeking a pact in the UK … my time frame is As Soon As Possible. If you are very serious, please email me.”

Lumb responded. A lorry driver from Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire, he had been extremely upset when his mother died two years ago. His father Melvyn said he thought his son had recovered and spoke of his liking for a beer and watching football. But by last Sunday Lumb had made up his mind. While his father watched Wigan take on Manchester City, he began his final posting: “I’m just saying goodbye.” His online name was Endthis.

He and Lee used household products to create a deadly gas in Lumb’s black Vauxhall Astra. They even left a notice on the windscreen warning those who found them about the poisonous fumes inside.

For the families left behind the shock was compounded by the fact that they had been using such internet sites. “I had never heard of a suicide forum before,” said Brian Chappell, Lee’s father. “Like most people, I knew that there were dark parts of the internet but I had no idea.

“I think those people on there that encouraged them are positively disgusting. Let’s face it, our daughter was of an age where she was an independent person but this came completely out of the blue.”

His incomprehension hints at questions many are asking in the wake of the tragedy. Why would two people who had never met come together to die? What are these websites all about? And, most chillingly, what can be done about the sick people who also frequent these sites, who get their thrills by persuading others to take their own lives?

The first known internet suicide pact was in Japan in 1998. By 2004 the emergence of the phenomenon was recognised in an article published in the British Medical Journal. [ The trend turned traditional patterns on their head. Suicide pacts had been rare and usually involved people in late middle age who were members of the same family.

Internet-related suicide pacts, on the other hand, almost always involve younger people and tend to be between strangers or individuals with platonic relationships. “The internet can be a place to find friendship but sometimes it can also be harmful,” said Catherine Johnstone, chief executive of the Samaritans.

“A distressed person can meet another person online and, instead of finding help, they end up encouraging each other to do something they might not have done alone.”

Paul Kelly, who lost his 18- year-old son Simon to suicide in 2001 and who set up Papyrus, a charity for the prevention of young suicide, agreed. “It’s one thing to think you might kill yourself, but it’s another to have access to the means. All the questions about how to do it are supplied on the net. It also seems to offer people support — because when you have a problem, we tend to believe you should talk to someone with a similar problem. But in this case you have young, vulnerable people asking for help from others who are in a similar condition,” Kelly said.

Alex Shoumatoff, an American writer, has written extensively about this area. “It’s called the contagion effect and copycat suicide,” he said. “One person does it and that lowers the threshold, making it easier and more permissible for the next.” Shoumatoff likens it to a group of people waiting at traffic lights to cross the road with the lights against them. If one person risks it, “this gives the rest of them the go-ahead”.

The number of suicide-pact deaths appears to be increasing, with Lumb and Lee the fifth pair to take their lives in Britain since the beginning of June. Overall rates of suicide have remained fairly steady at about 5,000 a year.

While it is impossible to say for sure whether all the suicide pacts are internet-related, Shoumatoff’s insight suggests they might not have happened without a generally heightened awareness of such pacts.

Certainly there are now so many websites and forums (scores in the English language alone) that they have developed their own terminology. “Catch the bus” or “ctb” refers to the act of suicide and the group is described as a “bus stop”, where several people have decided to stop and chat before choosing whether or not to get on the bus. Newcomers to one popular forum are greeted with: “Welcome. Sorry you’re here.”

The sites also provide information on how to do it. Since April last year about 1,000 Japanese have killed themselves using the same method of inhaling fumes created by mixing household cleaning products. Police have asked internet service providers to shut down suicide-related websites but this has proved almost impossible.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the forums is that some of the people hiding behind pseudonyms are feigning an enthusiasm for joint suicide. Their real purpose is to get a thrill by encouraging others to kill themselves.

British families have been among the victims. In June 2005, Mark Drybrough, a 32- year-old IT technician, hanged himself at his home in Coventry. He had been encouraged to do so by William Melchert-Dinkel, a male nurse from a small town in Minnesota, who posed on a suicide website as a woman proposing a fake pact with him.

Melchert-Dinkel was identified not by police in America or Britain but by two unconnected English women who became suspicious about his motives after following his postings on the site.

Celia Blay, a 64-year-old retired teacher and amateur local historian from Wiltshire, and Katherine Lowe, 37, an unemployed mother of two from Wolverhampton, sent their evidence to the FBI — which did not reply.

Then another of Melchert-Dinkel’s alleged victims, Nadia Kajouji, an 18-year-old Canadian, killed herself. Blay contacted police in Minnesota, who arrested Melchert-Dinkel. In April he was charged under a state law that forbids advising, encouraging or assisting people to take their own lives using the internet.

Meanwhile, there is growing concern about the activities of a Japanese individual who, it is feared, has encouraged large numbers of people — one estimate suggests thousands — to commit suicide. His message of encouragement was forwarded to Lee by another forum user within minutes of her posting.

The Japanese person often poses as a doctor and has been responsible for encouraging many people to use the same chemicals that Lee and Lumb employed. He provides detailed advice and downloadable warning signs to stick on car windows, similar to that used by Lee and Lumb, in Japanese and English. He normally posts several times a day, often opening with the words, “Hello buddy, are you still alive?”

Can such people be prosecuted? Assisting somebody else to kill themselves is illegal under British law and anyone who helped Lee and Lumb could face 14 years in jail.

The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 covers the use of the internet. Guidelines from the Ministry of Justice acknowledge it is unlikely that a writer on a site will know the person who is accessed. But it adds: “If he intends that one or more of his readers will commit or attempt to commit suicide then he is guilty of an offence.”

At the same time the international nature of the phenomenon makes it complicated and Chappell is far from alone in fearing the difficulties of mounting a successful prosecution might be insuperable.

“These people should be identified and dealt with but I do not feel hopeful that this will happen,” he said. “The internet does not have borders and is virtually uncontrolled and an unpoliced entity.

Melchert-Dinkel’s case is complicated by his lawyers’ insistence that he was using his right to free speech, guaranteed under the US constitution.

Essex police are seeking specialist advice over the case of Lee and Lumb, a process, a spokeswoman warned, that was likely to take some time. She added: “We do have a duty of care to the public. If there are internet forums out there that are encouraging troubled people to take their own lives, then we have a duty to have a look at these sites and see whether they are operating within the law.”

1750 words. First published 26 September 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.