A Minnesotan's possible ties to a suicide may test the reach of the law online.
FARIBAULT, MINN. - A curving street of tidy, pleasant homes in this small, southern Minnesota town sparkled Friday with fresh snow under a clear blue sky.
But behind one of those doors, a 46-year-old licensed practical nurse ignores the ringing of his phone. He abruptly shuts the door to inquiries about police allegations that he went online and encouraged a young Canadian woman to commit suicide last year.
Without an arrest or charge, the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force took the unusual step Thursday night of releasing the man's name (the Star Tribune does not name suspects before they are arrested or charged).
The Minnesota Board of Nursing took similarly unusual steps last week in suddenly suspending his license -- moving more quickly than it has on any case in more than a decade. Their records detail years of problems during jobs in Faribault, and at United Hospital and a nursing home in St. Paul.
Some incidents involved patient abuse, while others involved medical practices. The board would not say whether their action was taken in concert with the police investigation.
Precisely how he came to be in contact with Nadia Kajouji, a depressed 18-year-old college student in Ottawa, Ont., last year as she considered suicide is not yet clear. Kajouji's body was found last spring in the Rideau River in Ottawa.
But in the shadowy online world of suicide chat rooms, there is much talk that this man's approach, detailed in a police transcript of his text messages to Kajouji, is similar to what happened in a case in the Midlands in England last year, and in other suicide chat rooms where people around the world considering suicide discuss their reasons and various methods.
Police are focusing on cases based in other countries as their scrutiny of the Minnesota man stretches to a year, according to Peter Panos, spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department, where the task force is based. But they are unsure which law would apply to the situation -- and some say the burgeoning suicide chat rooms are creating the need for a law making it illegal to encourage suicide online.
A career of problems
On Feb. 19, the Minnesota Board of Nursing suspended the man's nursing license, saying there was probable cause that he had violated state law and posed "a serious risk of harm to others."
The board didn't disclose any more details, saying it's an ongoing investigation. But it was the first time in more than a decade that the nursing board imposed a "temporary suspension," used only in extraordinary cases, Rene Cronquist, an assistant director, said Friday. Typically, it can take months or years of investigation and hearings before a nurse is disciplined. In this case, she said, the first hearing will be scheduled within 30 days.
Nursing board records show a history of problems in the nurse's career dating back to 1994, when he worked as a licensed practical nurse at Ebenezer Luther Hall in Minneapolis and later at United Hospital in St. Paul.
Records show he was reprimanded repeatedly for sloppy care, unprofessional behavior and "poor critical thinking skills." In 1996, a supervisor at United told him "his practice was unsafe" because of his difficulty retaining information and following directions, the records show. That same year, he was found to have a learning disability and anxiety disorder, records show.
In 1997, he was accused of yelling and swearing at patients at Pleasant Manor nursing home in Faribault. A coworker reported that he held one woman by the hair when she tried to remove a bandage, and yelled in her ear "you can't take that off." Shortly after that, he was fired. He later said at a hearing that he didn't intend to mistreat or injure anyone.
Then, in 1998, he was disciplined by the board for "numerous incidents of poor nursing practice and incidents of abuse of nursing home residents," according to board records. The board allowed him to continue working, but fined him and required him to provide detailed reports from supervisors about his work.
In 2002, he was disciplined again for failing to provide updates from supervisors on his work. The board also found that, while working for a temporary staffing agency, he was asked to leave a St. Paul nursing home, Lyngblomsten Care Center, because of "multiple complaints from staff, residents and families." He was barred from working for temporary staffing agencies.
In 2003, those restrictions were lifted after he completed 1,000 hours of supervised work, board records show.
In both discipline cases, the nurse consented in writing to the disciplinary actions. But this month he did not show up for a hearing when the board moved to temporarily suspend his license, board records show.
Suicide chat rooms
Transcripts of the nurse's online chat with Kajouji resemble Internet conversations that have occurred with others considering suicide.
In Internet newsgroups devoted to chatting about suicidal thoughts and methods, anonymous posters have warned of a predator who uses the names Falcon Girl and Li Dao, who targets the vulnerable and wants to watch them die on webcam. They warn that although Falcon Girl poses as woman, he is actually a male Minnesota nurse.
Last August, one person posted a copy of a chat she had with Li Dao, who not only gave advice on what type of method to use and how much rope to buy, but also indicated that they could die at the same time on webcam. Those suggestions also were made to Kajouji. Panos, the St. Paul police spokesman, would not confirm what screen names the man may have used.
Falcon Girl was not the only one posting to suicide newsgroups who encouraged and advised others. One group with about 3,200 subscribers had more than 60,000 messages posted to it last year.
Limits of law online
Like most other states, Minnesota has a law that punishes anyone who "intentionally advises, encourages, or assists" others with suicide. But Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education, says the laws are rarely used and nearly impossible to enforce.
"At the end of the day, people will say whatever they want to say on the Internet," said Reidenberg.
Although he supports a proposal in Congress to prohibit using the Internet to advise others on how to commit suicide, he doesn't think it has a good chance of becoming law.
"We need to raise awareness that there are those predators that will put out this information and that will lead vulnerable people suffering from mental illness in the wrong direction," he said. "That can be lethal." He said more needs to be done at a community level to prevent suicides.
"We are losing lives every day while people are talking about it -- 89 people a day die by suicide" in this country, he said.
The Ottawa Citizen newspaper contributed to this report.