Celia Blay tripped online over someone encouraging suicide. Scotland Yard was uninterested, but a St. Paul cop took the case.
Celia Blay of Wiltshire, England, was frustrated.
The retired teacher and carriage whipmaker, searching Internet chat rooms in 2008, believed she'd uncovered a predator living in southern Minnesota, posing as a woman and, via computer, encouraging young people to kill themselves.
But British police wouldn't listen to her allegations about William Melchert-Dinkel, she said. Exasperated, Blay phoned her longtime friend and fellow horse fancier, Mary Jo Stockman of Hampton in Dakota County.
"You're telling me a serial killer lives in the neighborhood, Celia?" Stockman asked her in disbelief.
Thus began a chain of events that led to a prosecution that attracted international attention and ended in Wednesday's sentencing of Melchert-Dinkel, 48, a former nurse from Faribault, to a year in jail for assisting two suicides of people from other countries.
Stockman said in a recent interview that, on Blay's behalf, she offered to contact an old friend, Tim Robbins, a corporal in the Carver County Sheriff's Office. Robbins gave Stockman the e-mail address of a unit of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that investigates adults who prey on children over the Internet.
"I can't get anyone to take this seriously," Blay wrote in an e-mail to the unit.
"My first reaction was, 'What the heck is this?'" recalls Sgt. William Haider, a St. Paul police officer assigned to the unit. 'This is quite a strange tale.'"
Blay had found the right man.
Haider took up the case, and on March 15, Melchert-Dinkel was convicted of assisting in the suicides of Mark Drybrough, 33, of England, in 2005, and Nadia Kajouji, 18, of Ottawa, Ontario, in 2008.
Standing outside the Rice County Courthouse after the sentencing, Kajouji's mother, Deborah Chevalier, praised state and county authorities and, specifically, Haider. "Without Bill, it would not have happened," she said. Haider, for his part, said it would not have happened without Blay.
Blay, 65, now represented by a film producer in California, would speak only briefly to a Star Tribune reporter.
"Celia sort of reminds me of Miss Marple," said Stockman, referring to Agatha Christie's fictional amateur detective. "She is the sweetest, nicest person you can imagine. She got wind of what Melchert-Dinkel was doing. ... She went to everyone. She went to Scotland Yard, [and] they put her off. She went to the local police, and they asked her if her husband knew she was there."
Counseling to kill
According to a report on Fifth Estate, a Canadian news program, Blay went on the Internet after a death in her family to distract herself from her grief.
She apparently stumbled onto a website on suicide with postings in which someone purporting to be a female nurse from Minnesota offered advice on how to hang oneself. The nurse said she was suicidal and suggested suicide pacts. Copies of the postings eventually made it into the court file.
In a July 2005 posting, the nurse, using the identity "Li Dao," wrote in an exchange with Drybrough that "hanging is by far the best and surest method ... it is the method I am using." Drybrough, Blay eventually learned, hung himself nine days later in his apartment.
In March 2008, using the name "Cami" and the chat room identifier "falcon_girl," the nurse counseled Kajouji, a college student who wanted to drown herself, to hang herself instead, using a webcam so "Cami" could watch.
The nurse advised Kajouji to buy "about 8 feet or about 3.5 meters" of "yellow nylon rope," and "look around the apartment for somewhere to hang from ... I can help you with the [camera] when you need to."
Five days later Kajouji disappeared, and her body eventually turned up in Ontario's Rideau River.
In one posting, Melchert-Dinkel apparently got careless or slipped up; he sent a message under his own name, and Blay located his address in Faribault.
When Blay first wrote the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, she said, "He is very dangerous and in chat logs has admitted causing deaths."
Haider asked Blay for more details, and she sent more than 100 e-mails that included verbatim transcripts of the suicide chats. "The volume was incredible," Haider recalled. At his request, British and Ottawa police sent him their files on the suicides. The Ottawa police file showed they had searched Kajouji's computer, linked some of the postings to the Faribault address and believed a nurse there was considering suicide. They advised Minnesota authorities to check the welfare of the nurse in that home.
A Faribault police officer interviewed Melchert-Dinkel, who lied, claiming a daughter sent the e-mails but was no longer suicidal.
'God or something'
On Jan. 7, 2009, Haider and Neil Nelson, commander of the BCA Internet sex crimes unit, drove to Faribault to interview Melchert-Dinkel.
"Our main goal was to get information as to who was at the keyboard," said Haider, noting that four people besides Melchert-Dinkel lived there.
They reached their goal: In a two-hour interview, Melchert-Dinkel admitted he had posted the messages, and he acknowledged some were "inappropriate."
Haider asked him to bring his wife into the room and explain what was happening. He told his wife, "I just got into a lot of discussions talking and talking and thinking that I was being an advocate or helper, or ... God or something or another."
They seized his computer, on which they found some postings and Kajouji's picture.
County Attorney Paul Beaumaster said he studied several other suicides with possible links to Melchert-Dinkel but concluded he had sufficient evidence only on the Drybrough and Kajouji deaths.
"Bill [Haider] did a great job putting it all together and walking me through it," Beaumaster said.
Melchert-Dinkel's attorney, Terry Watkins, said he'll appeal because the victims intended to kill themselves and because his client's e-mails are protected free speech.
He blames Melchert-Dinkel's behavior on an "obsessive compulsive disorder."
Haider and Nelson sat in the back of the courtroom at the sentencing.
"This validates a couple of young lives that ended tragically and far too soon," Haider said the next day. "This is about holding a small, pathetic man accountable."
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382