Ex-nurse guilty of aiding int'l suicides online

William Melchert-Dinkel, center, leaves the Rice County Courthouse in Faribault, Minn., with his attorney Terry Watkins, right, and wife, Joyce Melchert-Dinkel, in this Feb. 17, 2011, file photo.
AP Photo

Updated at 7:16 p.m. ET

FARIBAULT, Minn. - An ex-nurse accused of seeking depressed people online and encouraging two to kill themselves was found guilty Tuesday of aiding the suicides of an English man and Canadian woman.

William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, was charged in April with two counts of aiding suicide for allegedly advising and encouraging two people to take their own lives. Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, hanged himself in 2005, and 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji, of Brampton, Ontario, jumped into a frozen river in 2008. Melchert-Dinkel declined a jury trial and left his fate to a judge in Minnesota, who issued his verdict Tuesday.

Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, Terry Watkins, said Tuesday evening that they will appeal the conviction to the Minnesota Court of Appeals and that they're ready to take the case to higher courts if necessary.

Prosecutors said Melchert-Dinkel, of Faribault, Minn., was obsessed with suicide and hanging and sought out potential victims on the Internet. When he found them, prosecutors said, he posed as a female nurse, feigned compassion and offered step-by-step instructions on how they could kill themselves.

Prosecutors said he acknowledged participating in online chats about suicide with up to 20 people and entering into fake suicide pacts with about 10 people, five of whom he believed killed themselves.

Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said Melchert-Dinkel told police he did it for the "thrill of the chase." Watkins had argued the victims were predisposed to committing suicide and his client didn't sway them by making statements online.

"I think justice was served," Beaumaster said after learning the verdict on Tuesday. "I think it was a just verdict based on the facts of the case, and convictions were earned on both counts."

Watkins was in court Thursday afternoon, his assistant said, and did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment.

During oral arguments in February, Watkins called his client's behavior "sick" and "abhorrent" but said it wasn't a crime because Melchert-Dinkel didn't directly incite the victims to kill themselves. He said Drybrough had been ill for years and went online seeking drugs to overdose, while Kajouji was going through a rough time in her life, had a miscarriage after drinking heavily and was depressed. Watkins said they were both intelligent people who wouldn't be swayed by his client's online "babbling."

Beaumaster said during his oral arguments that Melchert-Dinkel's intent was to see them die, and the law is designed to protect vulnerable people.

"That's the point. That's who he looked for," he said. "He targeted individuals he knew he could have an influence on. Were they predisposed? Absolutely!"

In February, Melchert-Dinkel agreed to accept the facts against him, but maintained his not guilty plea. He waived his right to a jury trial and agreed that the judge would issue a verdict based on the evidence. The arrangement allowed Melchert-Dinkel to keep his right to appeal.

Watkins lost several pretrial arguments in the case, including the argument that his client's communications were protected speech. Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville scheduled his sentencing for May 4.

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. Authorities found e-mails in which Melchert-Dinkel gave Drybrough technical advice on how to hang himself; and they found online chats in which Melchert-Dinkel tried to talk Kajouji out of her plans to jump into the river and instead hang herself with him.

Melchert-Dinkel posed as a woman in both cases.

Minnesota's aiding suicide law carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine. But the law has been rarely used in the state. Data from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission showed that since 1994, there have been only six people sentenced on that charge: one person was sent to prison for four years, while the rest received either local jail time, probation or both.

Melchert-Dinkel has been allowed to remain free under certain conditions. Among them, he is not allowed to use the Internet without approval.