Judge gives former nurse 360-day sentence, $18,000 fine in suicide-chat case.
William Melchert-Dinkel leaves Rice County Courthouse In Fairbault, Mn. with his wife Joyce Melchert-Dinkel , after being sentenced by District Judge Thomas Neuville on Wednesday for encouraging the suicides of two people in Internet chat rooms. Melchert-Dinkel was sentenced Wednesday to serve 360 days in jail for his role in urging two people to commit suicide through online communication. The sentence was stayed pending the outcome of an appeal that his defense attorney plans to file. Melchert-Dinkel, 48, was also ordered to pay $18,000 in fines and about $30,000 in restitution costs to the families of the two people who committed suicide.
FARIBAULT, MINN. - The suicide victim's loved ones spared few words Wednesday in denouncing a 48-year-old former nurse who sat at a courtroom table, dabbing his eyes and awaiting sentencing for encouraging two people to kill themselves.
William Melchert-Dinkel was called a predator, a monster and a murderer by the relatives of Nadia Kajouji, 18, who jumped into a river in Ottawa, Canada, in 2008. Her body was found six weeks later.
"For months afterward, nightmares haunted me," said her mother, Deborah Chevalier. "I would give everything I have to be able to spend just one more minute with my child again."
Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville sentenced Melchert-Dinkel to 360 days in jail under a work-release program, fined him $18,000 and ordered him to pay about $30,000 in restitution. Neuville ordered that the jail time include two-day stints each March and July over the next 10 years, to mark the months in which his victims died.
Neuville told him: "The court finds that you were stalking and soliciting people to die. ... You knew it was wrong."
On March 15, Neuville found Melchert-Dinkel guilty, saying the former nurse had "intentionally advised and encouraged" Kajouji and Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, to commit suicide.
Mark Kajouji, Nadia's brother, said in a phone interview from Canada that the sentence was too short: "I don't think justice was served," he said.
Outside the courthouse, Chevalier, of Brampton, Ontario, praised Minnesota authorities for their work on the case. As for the sentence, she said, "I'm her mother. Obviously I was disappointed. ... Justice can never be served."
Asked by the judge if Melchert-Dinkel wished to speak, his attorney, Terry Watkins, said his client had Asperger Syndrome, (a disorder with similarities to autism), so Watkins would read his statement. "I feel intensely remorseful," it said.
Neuville said that there were many victims and that he hoped Melchert-Dinkel "soaked up" the comments in the victim impact statements. The judge said the defendant had subjected his wife and children to "humiliation and shame." Melchert-Dinkel's wife, Joyce, clearly shaken, put her head in her hands.
In an interview with Minnesota investigators, Melchert-Dinkel admitted conversing via the Internet with the two victims about suicide methods, including hanging.
He pretended to be a veteran female nurse also planning to kill herself. He never counseled them to reconsider. In chats with Drybrough, he signed his name "Li Dao," and with Kajouji, called himself "Cami." He encouraged her to use a web cam so he could watch. Prosecutors say he chatted online with 10 people about suicide, five of whom killed themselves.
Drybrough hanged himself July 27, 2005. Kajouji, a college student, disappeared between March 6 and March 9, 2008, and was found in Ottawa's Rideau River.
Melchert-Dinkel could serve about seven months in jail, if he gets time off for good behavior, Watkins said.
Neuville stayed the jail time, pending an appeal of the conviction, which must be filed by June 1. If the state court of appeals affirms the conviction, he must report for jail in seven days. The fine and restitution payments were not stayed.
County attorney Paul Beaumaster said the sentence was "well reasoned and supported by the facts." The judge adopted the recommendation of a community services officer in a presentence investigation.
Beaumaster said the officer ranked the crimes "higher than most other aiding suicide cases that have been sentenced in the last 10 years, which was appropriate given the egregious conduct." With so few assisted suicide convictions in state history, there's no recommended sentencing level in state guidelines.
Because Melchert-Dinkel had no prior criminal history, court rules called for no state prison time and left the jail sentence up to the judge.
Neuville ordered restitution payments of $9,452 to Chevalier, and $20,000 to Nadia's father, Mohamed Kajouji -- half of what they wanted for expenses that included funeral costs. Neuville noted he had to consider that Melchert-Dinkel was not the sole factor in their deaths.
Both victims had contemplated suicide when Melchert-Dinkel met them in Internet suicide chat rooms.
Neuville stayed a total of 6 1/2 years prison time and put Melchert-Dinkel on probation for 30 years, so a violation could land him in prison. Neuville said he could not work with vulnerable adults and cannot use the Internet, except for work as approved by a probation officer.
Watkins said while he believed it was a "fair sentence," he'll appeal the conviction because his client's "discussions" were "protected free speech." He said his client's actions were "morally ... absolutely wrong" but did not alter the suicide victims' decisions.
Beaumaster said the appeals court has already found the assisted suicide statute constitutional, although never in an Internet case. He said he did not believe the First Amendment gave someone the right to solicit people to kill themselves.
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382