Nancy Russell buttoned her dressing gown against the winter chill as she tiptoed across the landing to the bedroom opposite her own. It was 9am and she didn’t expect Brandon, her 21-year-old son, to be awake. Hesitantly she tapped on the door, then turned the handle. “I remember smiling because he had gone to sleep on top of his bed, yet again,” Nancy says.
She had no cause for concern. Brandon often sat up very late surfing the net when he was off university the next day. He always slept in. “Downstairs in the kitchen I remember thinking how well the night before had gone,” Nancy says. “Brandon had brought home his new girlfriend to meet the family. I liked her and was pleased he had found a nice girl. Maybe now he wouldn’t be so obsessed with his computer and would spend less time cloistered in his bedroom on the net.”
It wasn’t until lunchtime that Nancy decided to rouse her son. “What I found when I tried to wake him is something that will be seared in my mind for ever,” she says, her voice breaking. “Something I will see every moment of every day for the rest of my life: my baby, lifeless and cold.”
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Brandon Vedas had been dead, sprawled across his bed in his home in Phoenix, Arizona, for several hours: he had lapsed into a coma and died after taking a cocktail of marijuana and prescription drugs washed down with alcohol.
The death of the computer technician who dreamed of being the next Bill Gates was not just another lonely, albeit tragic, suicide. Instead it was watched by an audience of a dozen who, rather than try to save his life, encouraged him to end it. Only at the point just before death did they panic and talk half-heartedly of intervening, terrified that they would be charged as accomplices to the world’s first internet suicide.
On the night of January 11, Brandon was logged on as “Ripper” to an internet chat room which he habitually frequented when he invited his “virtual friends” – all, like him, using pseudonyms – to watch him take drugs via a webcam in his bedroom. Naked and surrounded by an array of anti-depressants and rum, he began swallowing his hoard when one of his “friends” goaded him saying: “Take one. No, take a thousand.” Egging him on, another urged: “That’s not much, eat more. I wanna see if you survive or just black out.”
By dawn on January 12 Brandon was dead on his bed and his “friends” – including the more vocal “Grphish”, “Smoke2K” and “The Kat” – had fled the chat room. They had watched him stagger, watched his eyes roll back in his head and his eyelids flutter. They had watched his typing become more and more erratic and his words more and more incomprehensible as he swallowed, at their urging, tablet after tablet. Finally, they watched him lapse into a coma and die, live on the internet. Then, as if watching a fictitional television drama, they simply logged off and went to bed – the night’s viewing over.
“If only one of those watching had made him pound on my door before he lost consciousness,” says his heartbroken mother. “How can they live with what they did? They watched him like they were watching a soap opera. Yet this was Brandon’s life ebbing away. And they pushed him, gloatingly, to his death.”
The chat room that Brandon, who was a gifted student of computer science at Phoenix University, had logged on to was one of the 9,000 suicide sites on the internet. They attract the young and vulnerable, many of whom, like Brandon, suffer from depression and take prescription drugs to control their condition. Unregulated and unsupervised, they are a forum for death. They are, they boast, “a sanctuary where people can discuss suicide in an atmosphere that is not condemnatory”.
The reality of what happened that night was that, far from behaving in a disapproving fashion, those on line actively encouraged Brandon to take his life. But what Brandon’s virtual friends did that night is not illegal. There is no crime with which they can be charged. As Sergeant Randy Force, of the Phoenix police department, points out: “This is not a criminal matter. This is a 21-year-old under no coercion or duress. He may have been on the internet, and people may have been cheering him on, but what he did, he did of his own free will.
“The people watching don’t know what he is taking, how much he’s taking, what the effect will be or whether it is deadly. How can someone assess the vital signs? How can they know he is in distress? How do they know that it isn’t just candy he is popping?”
While his last point is true, Nancy and Rich, her eldest son, are horrified at the actions of the voyeurs. Nancy feels, as yet, unable to read the transcripts of the exchanges between Brandon and those in the chat room. Rich, 28, however, has. He was devastated by the callous exchanges. “It was as though none of them realised that this was real life, as though it was make-believe to them,” he says.
On the transcript Brandon, or Ripper, initially boasts that he will take “a grip” of Klonopin and Restoril, his prescription drugs – at the same time swilling 150 per cent proof rum. Others online boast of their own suicide attempts and encourage him by suggesting that he is like a “hero gangster”. They tell him that if he doesn’t die he will “at least have a great time”. As he takes more pills and alcohol, Brandon becomes increasingly incoherent – though he tells them if he “looks like dying” to call his mobile. The viewers talk half-heartedly of calling 911 to contact emergency services. Then, when there is no sign of life, one says: “It’s been fun watching this.”
When he read the transcript Rich tracked down three of those in the chat room that night. He knows only their chat room nicknames but to each he has emailed one simple, poignant question. “Why did you goad my brother to take his life then leave as though he was an actor in some grotesque, amateur drama?”
He has told them he is not seeking vengeance, but instead wants to make them understand the horror of what they allowed to happen. Their response showed little comprehension of the enormity of what had happened.
“Who can say if they fully understand,” he says sadly. “All are teenagers. They were irresponsible and so very wrong. But they were way out of their depth. I doubt if any of them truly comprehends even yet.”
Since Brandon’s death Rich has researched suicide sites, discovering such “folk heroes” as Markus B, a young German who boasted on the net of killing himself at the age of 16. By the time of his death two years later he had become a cult figure. On November 11, 2000, his final message read: “Everything went well in the gun shop today. I picked up my weapon.” Three days later he locked his bedroom door, set the Beatles’ song Let it Be to play continuously in his room and shot himself in the head. Dr John Connolly, a consultant psychiatrist with the Irish Association of Suicidology, has long warned of such risks. “Young men spend a lot of time surfing the net and they are also those at most risk of suicide,” he says. “We know that if vulnerable people get into these sites it can easily tip them over the edge. Some of them are sick and bizarre but for a lonely and isolated young person they can give a sense of credibility and recognition. They normalise suicide and that is unhealthy.”
Nancy recognises that Brandon had some emotional problems and that, like many youngsters, he bragged while not necessarily meaning to go through with his boasts. “If he hadn’t been able to brag to an audience and goaded in return I doubt he would have done it,” she says.
The authors of a recent report into suicide and the internet agree. Pierre Baume, who produced a study for the Australian Journal of Mental Health, believes bragging and then not wishing to lose face plays a big role. “He may have felt that it was more important to go through with killing himself than to lose face by not acting on his messages and the feedback he received,” he says. “It is all too easy for self-destructive individuals to incite others to kill themselves.”
Charities that deal with young people have been concerned about the lack of regulation of the internet and say a code of safe practice should be developed.
Stephen Carrick-Davies, of Childline International, considers suicide sites, which he describes as “purposely provocative and sensational, intent on causing trouble”, as among the most dangerous on the internet. “They pander to the insecurities of the young and immature,” he says.
No one will ever know whether Brandon would have taken his life had he not been watched by an audience to whom he had bragged and who encouraged him to “put his money where his mouth is”. His final words, however, at 5.50am suggest that, confused and disorientated from drugs and alcohol, he could not face backing down. In a sad, prophetic epitaph, he wrote: “Told u I was hardcore.”