When Matthew van Antwerp, a 17-year-old in suburban Dallas, struggled with distance learning during last year's pandemic, he became increasingly discouraged. Searching online, he found a website about suicide.
"Any pleasure or progress that I make in my life just seems forced," he wrote after registering on the website. "I know it's all just a distraction to pass the time until the end."
Roberta Barbos, a 22-year-old student at the University of Glasgow, wrote for the first time after a breakup that she was "unbearably lonely". Shawn Shatto, 25, described feeling unhappy doing her warehouse job in Pennsylvania. And Daniel Dal Canto, a 16-year-old in Salt Lake City, shared his fears that an undiagnosed stomach condition could never get better.
Soon after joining, each of them was dead.
Most suicide websites are about prevention. This one – started in March 2018 by two shadowy figures who call themselves Marquis and Serge – gives explicit instructions to die.
The four young members are among the tens of thousands drafted worldwide. They discuss hanging, poison, guns, and gas on the site's public forums, live chats, and private messages. Strangers seek partners to meet face to face and kill each other together.
Participants regularly nudge each other when they share suicide plans, post reassuring messages, thumbs up and heart emojis, and praise those who pull it off: “brave”, “a legend”, “a hero”.
Although members are anonymous, the New York Times identified 45 who had killed each other in the United States, Britain, Italy, Canada, and Australia – and noted that the trail of deaths is likely much longer.
More than 500 members – a rate of more than two per week – wrote "goodbye" threads announcing how and when they planned to end their lives and never posting again. In many of them, people shared their attempts in real-time posts. Some described how other members streamed their deaths live from the website.
Most of the narratives quoted the same deadly method, a preservative used to cure meat, The Times found. By promoting the preservative as a poison, the website helped develop a means of suicide that is alarming some coroners and doctors. However, many public health officials and law enforcement agencies are unaware of this.
"It's disgusting that anyone would create such a platform," said Dr. Daniel Reidenberg, psychologist and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a national non-profit organization. "There is no question that this site, the way it is created, operated and maintained, is extremely dangerous."
Although 10 of the identified suicides have already been reported, the Times investigation reveals the broader scale of deaths, increased use of the poison, and the impact of the location. Reporters analyzed more than 1.2 million messages from the site, examined members' online history, checked hundreds of pages of police and coroner records, and interviewed dozen of families left behind.
The site now has an average of six million page views per month – four times the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, according to data from Similarweb, a web analytics company.
Most members said they had mental illness and were 30 years or younger in the past year, according to a survey on the website. This age group is roughly the same as the population in the United States – 15 to 24 – who had the largest increase in suicide rates from 2009 to 2019, the latest data available.
Change in US suicide death rates over the past decade
While 45- to 54-year-olds had the highest suicide rate in 2019, the largest percentage increase in the ten years before 2019 was seen among 15- to 24-year-olds.
15-24 years old
45% higher than 2009
15-24 years old
45% higher than 2009
15-24 years old
45% higher than 2009
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Note: The graph shows the percentage change in suicide deaths per 100,000 population in the United States for each age group. Each line is based on a three-year moving average. Data for people 14 years of age and younger are not included because their suicide rate is very low.
Among them was Matthew. Despite the stress of virtual high school, he seemed to be looking to the future. He and his older brother were planning a summer road trip with friends. He had applied to Texas A&M University and intended to be a public defender.
“'I want to help people,'” his mother Sharon Luft remembered telling her. "He was just a cute kid."
Ashley Gilbertson for the New York Times
His other plans quickly and clandestinely took shape. In just 29 days, Matthew joined the site, learned about the deadly preservative, and ended his life listening to a playlist he said made him nostalgic for his childhood.
"My son committed suicide two weeks ago when he was 17," tweeted Ms. Luft in January and called up the site. "They told him how to do it, encouraged him after he took the mixture."
"Please help me," she wrote, joining other parents' demands to hold Marquis and Serge accountable and to ban the Sanctioned Suicide site.
When considering how many details to provide
Times journalists interviewed mental health officials and suicide researchers, as well as parents and former members of the forum, through the website and its content. The editors decided to identify the website and the preservative used in many suicides – as some other news outlets have done – in order to fully educate readers about the dangers they pose, especially to the young and vulnerable.
Australia, Germany, and Italy managed to restrict access to the site within their borders, but American law enforcement, lawmakers, and tech companies were reluctant to act.
While most states have laws against assisted suicide, they are inconsistent, seldom enforced, and do not explicitly address online activity. Federal law protects website owners from liability for most harmful content posted by users. Court rulings left questions about the protection of speech unanswered.
And when the most powerful search engine in the world was asked to stop directing visitors to the suicide site, it diverted responsibility. "The Google search holds up a mirror of what is on the Internet," wrote a senior manager of the company in February 2019 to Australian officials.
The Marquis and Serge have vowed to fight all efforts to destroy the site. You have experience running dark content websites: you run several online forums for "incels", or involuntary celibates who believe that because of their appearance or social status, women will never have sex with them. Many on these pages openly discuss fatalistic views, including thoughts of self-harm.
The two men worked to shield the suicide site and thwart efforts to find out who was behind it. The servers have moved from country to country. Marquis and Serge use multiple pseudonyms and have removed almost every trace of their true identity from the Internet. Still, the Times found her thousands of miles apart in a city in Alabama and the capital of Uruguay.
In online posts, Marquis said repeatedly that the website complies with US law and does not allow assisted suicide or encouragement to commit suicide.
He has referred to the site as a "pro-choice" forum several times, supporting members' choices to live or die. "People are responsible for their own actions at the end of the day," wrote the Marquis last year, "and there is not much we can do about it."
Ashley Gilbertson for the New York Times
"You felt somehow safe, but you weren't safe"
Daniel Dal Canto, a high school junior, arrived at the suicide site with no idea how to end his life.
He had been depressed three years earlier, which caused his parents to transfer him to months of therapy and medication. Now he was drumming in a jazz band, playing video games with friends and just got an Achievement. Those around him, including his father, a doctor, seemed to be doing well for the 16-year-old.
"It almost gave me a false sense of security because I thought I knew what a depressed Daniel looked like," said his mother Pam Dal Canto in an interview.
Ashley Gilbertson for the New York Times
But in September 2019, Daniel, fearing his stomach ache, gathered information and advice from the website.
It came online after Reddit closed a group where people shared suicide methods and encouraged self-harm. Reddit has banned such discussions, as well as Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. Serge wrote days after the new site opened that the two men had started working on it because they "hated seeing the community break up and disappear". He assured users that "this is not our first rodeo and we know how to keep the site safe".
On their website, Daniel was able to search a "resource" thread, a table of contents with links to methods compiled by members and stretched over dozen of pages. Or he could click on a suicide wiki page with similar instructions. The other members often mocked therapies and other treatments, and encouraged each other to hide their suicidal intentions from relatives and medical professionals.
In posts, Serge and Marquis noted their own struggles.
"There's not much to say about myself, except that I've never really found a reason to be here," wrote Serge. "There is little that I find worthy in this life."
Marquis had once been on the verge of suicide, he announced. And he had come to the conclusion that the mental health system “abandons everyone” and treats people with problems as “outcasts”.
Explaining the purpose of the site, he wrote, "This community was created as a place where people can freely talk about their problems without worrying about being 'saved' or giving up empty platitudes."
While some of those attracted to the site described physical pain, most mentioned depression, bipolar disorder, or other mental illnesses.
About half were 25 years or younger, the survey found; like Daniel, some were minors. One shared, "I'm 13, I ran away from home a month ago." Another, who claimed to be 14, wrote on a post about suicidal thoughts: "My father would probably be really angry."
In the US, the suicide rate has increased over the past 20 years. Around 45,000 people take their own lives every year – more than die in traffic accidents. (That number doesn't count the hundreds of medically-assisted deaths in the nine states where they're legal and restricted to the terminally ill.)
Suicide deaths in the United States
14 deaths per 100,000
14 deaths per 100,000
14 deaths per 100,000
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Note: The graph shows the age-adjusted three-year moving average.
For many people, suicidal thoughts will eventually pass, experts say. Treatment and detailed safety plans can help. However, clinicians and researchers caution that if they learn the methods and are convinced that it is the right thing to do, people are much more likely to attempt suicide. The suicide site enables both.
"It's like someone is angry in the street and handing them a gun," said Dr. Matthew Nock, professor of psychology and suicide research at health University.
While the website discusses not giving up hope and the benefits of surviving, there is a lot more about the reasons to die. For example, the most viewed posts include the “goodbye” threads.
One member, a 45-year-old English woman named Emma Davis, recalled being shocked the first time she read a farewell thread and its messages of support. But when she reads more and more of it, "it just becomes normal," she said in an interview.
"It felt like you were wrapping yourself in that blanket of all this misery and darkness," said Ms. Davis, who eventually found the site dangerous and gave up. "You felt kind of safe, but you weren't safe."
Within a few weeks, Daniel settled on the deadly preservative sodium nitrite, one of the most talked-about topics on the site. The members led each other to online sellers. They advised that it be obtained without notifying the family. And they shared instructions on how to use it.
When Daniel took in the information, he asked in a post: What could he do if his attempt with the preservative failed?
Moments later, a member called himself Stan answered.
Stan, who had announced on the website that he was depressed, divorced, and largely estranged from his children, made it his business to learn all about the preservative as a poison. He later wrote a guide on the method that made him a celebrity on the website.
When someone posted in September 2019 that she was going to die of poisoning the next night, Stan quickly replied: "Keep talking to us, you are not alone." When another member wrote that he had booked a hotel and decided on a dosage, then Stan asked if the plan was ok, Stan replied, "Don't get off the method now."
And he had an answer for Daniel to try again. Still, the teenager had doubts as he planned his death.
"I thought that as you near your bus appointment you should feel happy," wrote Daniel, an abbreviation for "catch the bus," a phrase members use to refer to suicide. "Is part of me just desperately clinging to it?"
The site's written rules prohibited assisting and encouraging suicide, but not providing “factual information” and “emotional support”. In practice, some members pushed others further, be it with mild reassurance or more force.
When a woman with bipolar disorder from Brighton, England stated that she had attempted suicide twice and did not want to incriminate her two sons, another member wrote her a message: “I am sorry your sons were traumatized, but They know you have to kill yourself. "
When an Australian announced he was suicidal because of persistent behavior problems, several members mocked him. "Maybe he / she can film it," wrote one person, sarcastically requesting popcorn for a screening with others. Weeks later, the young man committed suicide.
No sooner had Daniel expressed his uncertainty than another member commented: “Setting an appointment has always annoyed me. I just keep extending it, but I won't make it forever. I don't think you're doing anything wrong Hold on."
Then, on October 3, the teen posted a photo of a bottle of the deadly preservative and announced that he would be taking it over the weekend. But hours later he posted again. Things had changed: a disagreement with his parents had caused him to postpone his plans.
"I hope you are there :)", he wrote.
Later that night he thanked other members for "all good wishes". He noticed that he was "a bit scared" but had concrete plans and drew a flood of messages: 11 "hugs", four "likes", three "loves" and two "awws" – the emoji cries a single tear .
At 2:30 am, Ms. Dal Canto lay awake and got up to check on Daniel. There lay her son, dead in bed.
"You will never enforce yourself with censorship"
In December 2019, two months after Daniel's death, a coroner in England called for a government investigation after discovering that members of the website advised a troubled young woman to end her life. German officials had already opened an investigation over concerns about possible harm to children.
And Australia's eSafety Commission, the national regulator for online safety, had investigated the site for months after a father reported that his 22-year-old son had been poisoned with the preservative.
"We were very concerned about the open question of what this would mean for potentially thousands of other families who have a vulnerable child or person," said Julie Inman Grant, eSafety officer, in an interview.
Matthew Abbott for the New York Times
Later a site member in Leeds, England, in his parting speech, called for the forum to be closed. "Please do your best to close this website for everyone else," pleaded Joe Nihill, 23, in a suicide note.
Serge and Marquis were determined to protect the site – and themselves.
The two men had tried to remove their personal information from the Internet and disguise the names of the companies hosting the website, making it difficult for authorities and families of the deceased to take action against them.
When Australia began its investigation, the site was moved to a new server, according to a post by Marquis. And when Australian law enforcement officials tried to contact the website, he later wrote, "We have ignored your emails and requests for information."
After the site was removed from online search results in Germany in March 2020, the company that hosts the site threatened to remove it for "violating German law". The page was moved again.
“We have been planning the worst for years,” Marquis wrote in November 2020, citing daily server backups and the purchase of alternative domains, “and we are confident, even if they have coordinated all of these takedowns at the same time (which is very unlikely)) , we could be back online within 24 hours. "
The two made other arrangements. Serge warned members that they would take action against anyone who publicly shared personal contact information. He also said they would begin closing the accounts of those who posted farewell threads, a move that prevented loved ones and law enforcement from accessing them later.
"When preparing your departure, please contact a mod so that we can help with the preparations," wrote Serge, forwarding the members to the moderators.
The Times identified 45 people who died of suicide after spending time on the site.
(Their names, and in some cases their cities, have been withheld here.)
16 year old woman, Illinois
16 year old man, Salt Lake City
17 year old man, Frisco, Texas
18 year old man, Houston
18 year old man, Bassano del Grappa, Italy
19 year old woman, Richmond, Virginia.
19 year old man, Rome
19 year old man, Rome
20 year old man, Texas
20 year old woman, Costa Mesa, California.
20 year old woman, Radcliffe, England
20 year old woman, Palermo, Italy
21 year old man, Langley, British Columbia
21 year old man, Sunderland, England
22 year old man, Australia
22 year old man, Perth, Australia
23 year old man, Leeds, England
23 year old woman, Glasgow
24 year old woman, Cumbria, England
24 year old woman, Scotland
25 year old woman, York Haven, Pennsylvania.
25 year old man, Connecticut
25 year old man, Portadown, Northern Ireland
25 year old woman, Wisconsin
26 year old man, North Carolina
27 year old man, Schertz, Texas
28 year old woman, New Jersey
28 year old woman, North Harbor, Conn.
28 year old man, Scotland
29 year old man, Widnes, England
30 year old man, Canada
30 year old man, Italy
30 year old man, Grapevine, Texas
31 year old woman, Amherst, Ohio
31 year old man, Leiston, England
31 year old man, Kansas City, Mo.
31 year old woman, England
32 year old woman, Missouri
32 year old man, Leicestershire, England
35 year old man, Mississippi
35 year old woman, Kirkhill, Inverness, Scotland
42 year old man, Hilliard, Ohio
49 year old man, Darlington, England
56 year old man, California
58 year old man, Texas
Concerned about legal liability, Marquis explained, the men asked prospective members to tick a box that confirmed they were 18 or older, although he made it clear in a post that the website would not require evidence.
Links to a suicide hotline and other mental health resources appeared on the site, as well as a new public forum focused on recovery from thoughts of suicide. However, the Marquis also noted that those who registered to use the Recovery Forum only were "most likely to be turned away."
When investigating several deaths by news organizations, he claimed that critics wanted the "website utterly destroyed", dismissed the reporting as "the usual pro-life BS" and promised to take "drastic measures" – go to court – to the effort to take it down.
"They will never prevail with censorship and we will fight any attempt they make," wrote the Marquis.
His fierce defense was praised by the members. Many said the site was a rare safe place to share their feelings. Some said it helped them realize that they did not want to die.
"People adored him," Ms. Davis, the former member, said of Marquis, the louder of the two men.
For all the devotion they had shown online, the site attendees had no idea who the Marquis and Serge actually were.
Marquis left some clues in his posts. His father had been in the military. He was "about 7-8 years old" on September 11th. And he acknowledged his struggles with suicidal thoughts and wrote that he was one of those who "was helped immensely in speaking to the people on the forum".
Serge was more private. He did not appear to share biographical information and later removed his posts from the website, essentially erasing his visible association with her. (The Times looked at screenshots and archived web pages that captured the messages Serge posted before deleting them.)
None of the men showed their faces during video chats and other virtual events.
But in June 2019, BuzzFeed News reported that the two men ran the incel websites in addition to the suicide site.
Money didn't seem to be the motivation. Both men appeared to have found their identities and purpose in the online world of the Incels, many of whom share a dark outlook known as the "black pill". In 2017, when Reddit banned an Incels online group for promoting violence, Serge started an independent site for them, soon to be joined by the Marquis, who had written to him about his interest and skills as a system administrator.
By then, several fatal attacks had been carried out by men expressing their usual Incels complaints. American authorities would later label Incels as an emerging extremist threat. Radicalization experts warned that some were prone to misogyny, suicide and violence.
On the incel sites that Serge and Marquis run, many members have voiced their anger at society; some praise those who commit violence and dream of doing the same. A man from Ohio, featured on a website frequently, was charged last July with allegedly plotting to slaughter women. In a podcast interview on Incels, Serge said much of the discussion was "suicide fuel".
But he and Marquis claimed that they helped those on the websites by allowing them to express themselves freely and face harsh truths, a rationale similar to what they offered through their suicide website.
100 most viewed posts in the Suicide Forum
Instructions or contributions to the discussion on suicide methods
Posts about suicide attempts
Note: The contributions represented are the 100 with the most page views (as of October 3) in the "Suicide Discussion" section of the website. This section contains approximately 75 percent of the site's posts, the "Recovery" section contains approximately 5 percent and the "Offtopic" section contains approximately 20 percent.
"If people want to change, if they want to improve themselves, basically the whole web is there – Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, all the big ones," Serge said during a virtual panel discussion on Incels in January. "But if we're honest, not everyone has a way out."
The websites rely on search engines to increase traffic. About half of all visits to the suicide site are made this way, according to Similarweb.
But when Australian officials asked Google, the dominant company, and Microsoft's Bing in 2019 to remove the website from their search results, they refused to do so without a legal obligation.
It is not the job of Google to pass judgment on websites that contain legal content, "as offensive as they may be," a senior manager told the Australians.
The deceased's parents would later receive a similar response.
Jess Miers, a legal policy specialist with Google's Trust and Safety division, responded to a request for help from Kelli Wilson, whose 18-year-old son hanged himself in Texas last year after finding instructions on the website. Ms. Miers told her in a private correspondence that she had spoken to someone who ran the site – who was using one of Serge's well-known aliases – and found them "off the rails".
In tweets Ms. Miers admitted that the site had moderation problems and that content that encouraged suicide had slipped through. However, she also said the website and Google were shielded by the first amendment. (Ms. Miers said in a recent interview that she did not speak on behalf of Google.)
When asked on the website, a Google spokeswoman, Lara Levin, said, "This is a deeply painful and challenging problem."
In a written statement, she said Google was trying to protect vulnerable users, including the visibility of suicide hotlines. But, she said, "We are balancing these safeguards with our commitment to give people open access to information."
As for Bing, a Microsoft spokesman said the company is working continuously to "keep users safe."
Ashley Gilbertson for the New York Times
"Look, here is the crime law"
Jackie Bieber went to the York County, Pennsylvania District Attorney's Office in July 2019 and asked officials to investigate the death of her daughter Shawn Shatto two months earlier.
In most states, including Pennsylvania, assisting suicide is a crime. Ms. Bieber shared with prosecutors some conversations on the suicide side that she thought showed exactly that activity.
Als Frau Shatto, die unter schweren sozialen Ängsten, Depressionen und anderen psychischen Erkrankungen litt, bekannt gab, dass sie sterben wolle, weil sie ihren Job im Amazon-Lagerhaus hasste, bestätigten die Mitglieder dies.
Als sie befürchtete, ihre Selbstmordpläne vermasselt zu haben, versicherten ihr andere, dass sie auf dem richtigen Weg sei. Und als sie nach der Einnahme des Konservierungsmittels mitteilte, dass sie "Angst" habe, wünschten ihr mehrere viel Erfolg und "sichere Reise".
Frau Bieber erinnerte sich in einem Interview daran, den relevanten Abschnitt des Pennsylvania-Statuts zu identifizieren und den Beamten zu sagen: „‚Schauen Sie, hier ist das Verbrechensgesetz.‘“
Ashley Gilbertson für die New York Times
Während Bundesgesetze die Seitenbetreiber davor schützen, für die meisten von Benutzern veröffentlichten Inhalte haftbar gemacht zu werden, könnten die Mitglieder strafrechtlich verfolgt werden.
William Haider, ein Detektiv im Ruhestand in St. Paul, Minnesota, half bei den Ermittlungen gegen einen Mann, der 2011 wegen Beihilfe zum Selbstmord einer Person, die er auf einer früheren Selbstmord-Website kennengelernt hatte, verurteilt wurde, und schickte Anweisungen zum Erhängen. „Ich bin überzeugt, dass es kluge Leute gibt, die ein Abzeichen tragen, die mit dieser Art von Internetkriminalität umgehen können“, sagte Haider in einem Interview.
Die Definition eines Verbrechens hängt jedoch von der Gerichtsbarkeit ab. Staatliche Selbstmordgesetze variieren. Einige geben an, dass die Unterstützung physisch sein muss. Nur eine Handvoll kriminalisieren Ermutigung.
Und die Gesetze haben einer gerichtlichen Prüfung nicht immer standgehalten. Im Fall Minnesota stellte der Oberste Gerichtshof des Bundesstaates fest, dass das Gesetz zu weit gefasst war: Während es bestätigte, dass die Beihilfe zum Selbstmord durch das Anbieten von Anweisungen ein Verbrechen sei, entschied das Gericht, dass das Verbot der Ermutigung zum Selbstmord einen Verstoß gegen die freie Meinungsäußerung darstellt.
Darüber hinaus wissen Polizei und Staatsanwälte oft nicht über die staatlichen Gesetze Bescheid, stellte die Times fest. Und weil Selbstmord nicht mehr wie seit Jahrhunderten als Verbrechen gilt, sehen sie wenig Anlass, ihn zu untersuchen.
„Die Strafverfolgung spiegelt die gesellschaftlichen Einstellungen wider“, sagte Guyora Binder, Rechtsprofessorin an der Universität von Buffalo, die über Selbstmordgesetze geschrieben hat. "Wir sehen Selbstmord typischerweise als die unglückliche Entscheidung eines Individuums."
In Pennsylvania teilte die örtliche Polizei Frau Bieber mit, dass sie nicht zuständig sei, wenn die Site-Mitglieder, die mit ihrer Tochter kommuniziert hatten, außerhalb des Staates lebten. Der Bezirksstaatsanwalt versprach, den Fall weiterzuverfolgen, aber zwei Jahre später gibt es keine Anzeichen dafür.
In Long Beach, Miss., suchte ein Freund eines 35-jährigen Mannes, der an dem Konservierungsmittel starb, ebenfalls polizeiliche Hilfe. Ein Standortmitglied hatte angeboten, den Mann bei der diskreten Beschaffung des Giftes zu beraten; ein anderer tauschte private Nachrichten aus, während er es einnahm.
Aber Detective Brad Gross, der den Fall bearbeitete, sagte in einem Interview, dass es ohne Beweise für körperliche Hilfe beim Selbstmord nicht als kriminelles Verhalten gelten würde. Für ihn fühlte sich die Online-Kommunikation „nicht bösartig“ an.
„Es wäre anders gewesen, wenn es gewesen wäre: ‚Hey, schau, Mann, du musst das tun und das Kissen halten‘“, sagte er. „Was jede Art von Cyberkriminalität angeht“, fügte er hinzu, „sind wir weit davon entfernt, damit umzugehen.“
Einige Strafverfolgungsbehörden außerhalb der Vereinigten Staaten haben es ebenfalls abgelehnt, die Betreiber und Mitglieder der Website zu untersuchen, da sie der Ansicht sind, dass die Online-Aktivitäten außerhalb ihrer Zuständigkeit liegen.
Beamte in mehreren Ländern betrachten das Forum als eine amerikanische Website. Italienische Ermittler sagten, sie seien zu dem Schluss gekommen, dass ein Site-Administrator – anscheinend Marquis, der einen anderen seiner falschen Namen verwendet – ihnen eine Geschäftsadresse in den Vereinigten Staaten gegeben hat.
Diese Faktoren beeinflussten eine Untersuchung in Schottland. Roberta Barbos, eine rumänische Psychologiestudentin an der Universität Glasgow, wurde von einem Mann kontaktiert, nachdem sie im November 2019 eine Nachricht gepostet hatte, dass sie 22 Jahre alt sei, in Schottland lebt und nach einem männlichen Partner suche, der ihre Hand durch ihren Selbstmord hält.
Sie und ihr Freund hatten sich getrennt, und sie war in eine tiefe Depression versunken und schrieb: "Manchmal tut die Einsamkeit so weh, dass ich mich kaum zusammenhalten kann." In privaten Nachrichten auf der Suizid-Site und später auf WhatsApp sagte ein Kollege, er könne helfen.
„Ich wohne in Glasgow und habe verdammt viel Erfahrung mit dem Aufhängen … Ich helfe Ihnen gerne, wenn Sie möchten. Kein Druck, kein Urteil und in Ihrem eigenen Tempo.“
Frau Barbos traf den Mann, Craig McInally, in einem örtlichen Café. Aber danach brach sie die Kommunikation ab.
Within weeks, prosecutors in Glasgow contacted her. Mr. McInally had persuaded two other women from the site to meet him, and then had sexually assaulted and tried to hang each of them, court documents say. (Last week, he pleaded guilty to reckless conduct; charges involving the second woman had been dropped after she declined to participate.)
Law enforcement officials, however, were not investigating the site, which a spokeswoman for the Scottish police said was hosted out of its jurisdiction.
Ms. Barbos got pulled deeper into the suicide forum. She was learning more and more about poisoning. And she was getting swept up in private messaging with a member in Bulgaria, who had offered support. “I wish I could’ve felt real affection before doing this,” she told him.
She managed to escape a predator. But she didn’t escape suicide. In February 2020, Ms. Barbos ended her life while messaging with that member on the site.
“It swallowed her,” said her mother, Maria.
‘How Is This Site Still Allowed?’
The Times investigation led to an elegant three-story apartment building in Montevideo, Uruguay, and a modest two-bedroom townhouse in Huntsville, Ala.
The man calling himself Serge is Diego Joaquín Galante; Marquis is Lamarcus Small.
Reporters pieced together their identities and roles with the site from domain registration and financial documents, their online activity, public documents including court records, and interviews with seven people who had interacted with either of them.
The domain and financial records were never intended to become public. They came to light after a domain seller the site operators had used was hacked this fall, resulting in the release of millions of records. In addition, The Times obtained photographs of Mr. Small and Mr. Galante that were a match with Marquis and Serge.
Records show that Mr. Galante, 29, resides in the Montevideo apartment with his family — several siblings, his mother and his father, who is a lawyer. Mr. Small, 28, lives with his mother and brother in the townhouse.
Mr. Small’s family life has been tumultuous. His father, who has served as an Army officer, and his mother divorced. She was accused of attacking her husband in 2010, and then her adult daughter four years later, according to police complaints.
Mr. Small had his own troubles. In 2017, a bank sued him for $6,578, and wages from his remote work for a Colorado tech company were garnished until that job ended in 2019.
In two recent phone interviews, Mr. Small denied any involvement with the site. He said that he did not know how his credit card number, name, address and phone number had appeared on an invoice for the suicide website domain name. He suggested first that the information might have been stolen, then that his brother, whose name appears on several documents, might have made the purchase.
Mr. Small did not respond to subsequent phone calls, texts, emails and a letter delivered to his townhouse. Despite similar efforts by The Times to contact his brother, he did not respond.
Mr. Galante, when reached by phone, initially said he knew nothing about the suicide website and hung up. Days later, after receiving a letter from The Times, he acknowledged in an email that he had posted on the site as Serge, but he denied that he was a founder or operator of it.
Records show that Marquis described him as a co-founder of the site and often mentioned in posts that the two had conferred on rules and practices. Serge’s own posts identified him as an administrator.
In his email to The Times, Mr. Galante defended the site as a positive influence that improved the lives of some members. But, he said, “I am deeply sorry that there are people who decide to end their life.” He noted that the suicide wiki page has been taken down. The extensive information about methods remains, however.
Sharon Luft, Matthew’s mother, and other parents want more.
“I’m talking to moms that their kids are dying, they’re so frustrated,” Ms. Luft said in an interview. And friends ask, “‘How is this site still allowed?’”
Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times
In January, Robert Davis, a senior vice president at Epik, the domain seller that was later hacked, read Ms. Luft’s tweet pleading for help.
Concerned, he had several phone conversations with someone he identified as “the site owner.” In an email to The Times, Mr. Davis said he had concluded that that person and the site administrators “lacked the empathy, compassion or intent to appropriately utilize the platform for future good.” Epik terminated its services for the suicide site, effectively removing it from the internet.
Within days, it was back, with a slightly different domain name.
Some parents had taken their battle to shut down the site to Washington, in phone calls and Zoom meetings with lawmakers. Those efforts also had little effect.
There has been growing bipartisan agreement that a 1996 law governing online activity — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — is in need of reform. In most circumstances, the law shields websites from liability for content that users post on their platforms.
The need for more regulation was repeatedly raised during congressional hearings in October, as Democrats and Republicans alike blasted Facebook and Instagram for content about body image and eating disorders that harms teenage girls. But with tech companies resisting sweeping reform, and the two political parties pursuing different agendas, not much has changed.
As the months went by, more members of the suicide site died. A 21-year-old lifeguard outside Vancouver. A 25-year-old online gamer in Portadown, Northern Ireland. A 31-year-old musician in Kansas City, Mo. An 18-year-old high school student in Italy.
And just this fall, a 30-year-old man in Grapevine, Texas. Newly unemployed, going through a breakup and deeply in debt, he found his way to the site, making his first post in late September. Three days later, he was gone.