A former nurse who stalked suicide chat rooms online and was convicted of encouraging two depressed people to kill themselves was sentenced Wednesday to 360 days in jail by a southern Minnesota judge who said the defendant showed a minimal level of remorse despite admitting his deeds were "dark" and "disgusting."
In a statement read by his attorney, William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, told the judge he was sorry for his role in the deaths of an English man and a Canadian woman, and realizes he might have had the unique opportunity to talk them out of killing themselves _ but he did not. Still, while Melchert-Dinkel admits that what he did was morally wrong, he is claiming his actions were protected speech and were not illegal. His attorney is planning an appeal.
"The court does find that what you did was stalking, or soliciting people to die," Rice County District Court Judge Thomas Neuville said. "I think that what you did was calculated, intentional. It was fraudulent."
"When you use speech in this manner, it's not protected," Neuville added. "It's criminal."
Prosecutors say Melchert-Dinkel was addicted to going to suicide chat rooms and hunting for depressed people. When he found them, he posed as a female nurse, feigned compassion, and gave how-to instructions on how they could take their lives.
Melchert-Dinkel declined a jury trial, leaving Neuville to decide his guilt. He was convicted in March of two counts of aiding suicide in the death of 32-year-old Mark Drybrough, of Coventry, England, who hanged himself in 2005; and 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji, of Brampton, Ontario, who jumped into a frozen river in 2008.
"When Nadia died, the best parts of me died with her," her mother, Deborah Chevalier, said during an emotional statement in court. "What William Melchert-Dinkel did was vile, offensive and most importantly, illegal. He knowingly chose to mastermind the deaths of some and destroy the lives of many."
The sentence was less than the maximum 15 years Melchert-Dinkel could have gotten for each count. Neuville officially sentenced Melchert-Dinkel to six-and-a-half years in prison _ but stayed execution of that sentence, meaning Melchert-Dinkel will go to prison only if he violates terms of his probation, which includes the jail time. He'll be on probation for 15 years.
Neuville said the sentence strikes a fair balance. He said that while Melchert-Dinkel's conduct was directly related to the deaths, he wasn't the sole reason the victims took their lives.
Melchert-Dinkel wiped tears from his eyes as the judge sentenced him. In a statement read by his attorney, Terry Watkins, he apologized and said he felt shame, humiliation and remorse. He also said he felt "regret for actions I took on the Internet."
He also wiped his eyes as members of Kajouji's family spoke, or had their statements read aloud by a representative.
They talked of a bright woman who wanted to become a lawyer and mother, and had only become depressed after she went away to college. Six months after starting school, she disappeared. Some family members at first thought she had been kidnapped, and told the court of the horror of searching for her for six weeks until her body was found.
Chevalier told the judge that even if sentenced to jail, Melchert-Dinkel would not feel the sorrow and misery he caused others.
"William Melchert-Dinkel is a predator. William Melchert-Dinkel is a killer. He is in fact a serial killer and ... deserves to be punished to the full extent of the law," she told the court.
He was ordered to start serving his jail sentence June 1. But his attorney had promised to appeal the convictions on free-speech grounds. If that appeal is filed before June 1, Melchert-Dinkel would remain free as his appeal is pending.
The judge structured the sentence so that Melchert-Dinkel would serve an initial 320 days with work release, then be freed. Over the next 10 years, he would have serve two-day spells in jail on the anniversaries of his victims' deaths. The judge also ordered him to serve 160 hours of community service: eight hours during the month of each of his victims' deaths over the next 10 years. That service could include speaking to groups about the dangers of the Internet, as his attorney suggested.
He may not use the Internet unless it is for work and approved by probation officials, and he may not return to the health care profession or work with vulnerable adults. He also was ordered to pay a fine and restitution to Kajouji's parents. Drybrough's family did not seek restitution.
After the hearing, Chevalier said: "I'm her mother. Obviously I'm disappointed that it wasn't more. I would've liked to see a larger sentence." She praised Minnesota authorities for pushing the case forward.
Elaine Drybrough, Mark's mother, did not appear in court but told The Associated Press she thought the sentence was appropriate "because that gives him the chance to be a responsible citizen again and not do what he shouldn't." She said the requirement that he return to jail every year will remind him of what he did.
Prosecutors say Melchert-Dinkel was obsessed with hanging and suicide. They say he posed as a suicidal female nurse to win his victims' trust, then entered false suicide pacts and offered detailed instructions on how people could take their own lives.
According to court documents, Melchert-Dinkel, a former nurse from the southern Minnesota town of Faribault, told police he did it for the "thrill of the chase." 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.
Kajouji's father, Mohamed Kajouji, was crying as he spoke to the court by phone. He said that Melchert-Dinkel is a murderer and a monster.
"What he did, it's inhuman," Mohamed Kajouji said. "She was very intelligent. She just needed help."
Watkins, Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, said his client suffers from Asperger's syndrome, depression and obsessive compulsive disorders. Watkins said his client doesn't know why he initially started going into suicide chat rooms, but became "strangely addicted to going back."
He described Melchert-Dinkel as a man who was trying to be a good father, husband, son and good Christian. He said his client knew what he was doing was immoral, but couldn't stop. He didn't know he had Asperger's and other issues until after his actions on the Internet, Watkins said.
"He is shamed by it," Watkins said. "No one regrets his actions more than Mr. Melchert-Dinkel does."
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said that while the victims may have been depressed, Melchert-Dinkel's advice helped them finish their lives.
"In this case we have someone who, for sport, for entertainment, for the thrill of chase, sought out people who were depressed, who were suicidal," Beaumaster said in court. "That makes it worse in my mind."
He said afterward that the sentence was well-reasoned and appropriate "given the egregious conduct" of the case. He said he hoped the sentence would stand as a warning to other Internet predators who advise, aid or encourage suicide "that they will be held accountable."
Associated Press Writer Steve Karnowski contributed to this report from Minneapolis.