FARIBAULT, Minn. — A former Minnesota nurse accused of going online and encouraging depressed people to kill themselves was ordered to stay off the Internet while his criminal case is pending.
A judge on Tuesday also forbade William Melchert-Dinkel, 47, of Faribault, from leaving the state except for work assignments as a long-haul trucker, the career he took up after being stripped of his nursing license.
In his first court appearance since being charged with two counts of encouraging suicide, Melchert-Dinkel said almost nothing and left afterward without talking to reporters.
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.
The rarely used state law carries a possible sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.
An investigation took nearly two years before charges were brought, and some experts have said Melchert-Dinkel might find protection by citing free speech. His attorney, Terry Watkins, brushed aside questions from reporters about the constitutionality of Minnesota’s law, which doesn’t specifically address Internet communications. He said those would be settled before a trial.
“My belief is that Mr. Melchert-Dinkel will be acquitted,” Watkins said.
Watkins also said Melchert-Dinkel had “good support in terms of the community.” The only apparent supporter at Tuesday’s court hearing was the defendant’s wife.
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster declined to comment.
Prosecutors say 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 said he told investigators he encouraged “dozens” of people to commit suicide and “characterized it as the thrill of the chase.” He also estimated he had actually helped up to five people kill themselves.
The complaint said Melchert-Dinkel 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 offered him technical advice on how to hang himself from a door, “you can easily hang from a door using the knob (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.
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.
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. His license was revoked in 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 Associated Press in October. “I’ve moved on with my life, and that’s it.”
His next court date was set for June 29.