- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

Suzanne Gonzales loved wearing red with white polka dots so much that she had her prom dress custom-made in her favorite pattern. Later, as a 19-year-old student at Florida State University, she wore a red-and-white polka dot scarf as she dashed around Tallahassee on the Vespa scooter that her parents gave her.

Five years later, Mary and Mike Gonzales wear red-and-white polka dot ribbons on their lapels in memory of their daughter, who killed herself with the help of a suicide Web site. They are in Washington for the first time, making rounds on Capitol Hill to drum up support for “Suzy’s Law,” a bill that would make it a crime to use the Internet to teach someone how to commit suicide or provide them with the means to do so.

“This group should be allowed to discuss suicidal feelings - it’s their right to have this freedom of speech - but there’s a fine gray line where it is like taking someone who’s up high on a building thinking about jumping and yelling, ‘Jump,’” said Mrs. Gonzales, whose shiny black hair and wide smile mirror the pictures of her late daughter.

The site that Suzy visited, a Google Group called “alt.suicide.holiday” or “ASH,” is one of many suicide sites on the Web offering detailed instructions on how to go about ending one’s life. The sites suggest where to obtain poison and tell how many minutes it takes to die. Users share writings, poetry and even suicide notes.

As long as a visitor claims to be 18 years old, anyone can access alt.suicide.holiday. ASHers, as they call themselves, describe the philosophy as one of “pro-choice” - as opposed to “pro-suicide” - one in which depressed, anonymous users neither encourage nor discourage one another from “catching the bus,” as they call it.

But the Gonzaleses and suicide prevention authorities warn that sites like ASH - which claims that 24 users have killed themselves - are a deadly risk lurking in dark corners of the Internet, unbeknownst to parents.

“Most everybody who is at risk of suicide is vulnerable to suggestion,” said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. “The one reason people at risk for suicide can be helped therapeutically is that they are very open, for the most part, to influence.”

In the case of Suzy Gonzales, her parents say that influence came from a stranger.

She was a “beautiful, bubbly, wonderful daughter,” the kind of person who bought a purple wig for a teacher who had lost her hair undergoing chemotherapy treatment, her mother recalls. She painted her own shoes and made up different accents to amuse herself during a job as a telemarketer. She was fiercely competitive, winning a full academic scholarship to Florida State and spending her last year of high school taking college courses.

The couple had no idea that their daughter - 3,000 miles away from their small town of Red Bluff, Calif. - was severely depressed, much less contemplating suicide. Sure, she was shaken by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 18 months earlier and had put her scholarship on hold for two semesters, but she returned the next fall and seemed as happy as ever. The week before she died, she brought her new boyfriend to California to attend a cousin’s wedding.

But on March 23, 2003, Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales got word from Suzy’s best friend that she was missing. Minutes later, a time-delayed e-mail arrived. It was a suicide note.

“That still is the part of the puzzle that never fits in my mind. She was so happy the week she was home and then depressed enough to take her own life,” Mr. Gonzales said, holding his wife’s hand.

Soon, they learned that their daughter had become an active member of ASH, where she befriended a user by the name of “River,” who, her parents said, told her to pose as a jeweler in order to acquire cyanide - an action they consider tantamount to encouragement. He also claims to have edited her suicide note.

“Bye everyone, see you on the other side,” she wrote in her last post at 1:15 a.m.

In an e-mail to The Washington Times, River said he has “never encouraged anyone to die and never will. … There is no way for me to regret that Suzy killed herself. One cannot regret the actions of another.”

The Gonzaleses informed Florida officials about the ASH connection but were told that no laws were broken and that there was nothing they could do - a fact that was confirmed repeatedly by lawyers and even their congressman’s office, which sought the opinion of the U.S. attorney’s office.

“There is absolutely nothing illegal about them doing this,” said Rep. Wally Herger, a California Republican who introduced the Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Prevention Act of 2007. The bill would make it a crime to use the Internet to “teach” a person how to commit suicide or provide them with materials to do so.

He stressed that his bill is narrowly tailored to pass constitutional muster, a view echoed by an opinion he requested from the Congressional Research Service. The bill has been stuck in committee since March 2007, but Mr. Herger said he plans to keep pushing for a hearing.

Suzy Gonzales is not the first person whose family has sought redress for a loved one’s death. In late 2003, the mother of a 17-year-old who killed himself sued an ASH user who had spoken with her son on the phone. But the case was dropped after the Kansas woman reportedly learned that the defendant was a minor. Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales said they have met with several families who have lost loved ones to an Internet-assisted suicide; Mrs. Gonzales said she plans to reach out to the mother of a 13-year-old girl who recently killed herself after being harassed by cyberbullies on MySpace.

Asked to comment for this story, Google Inc. said its group sites operate under “terms of service that prohibit certain content, such as any that promotes physical harm or injury against any group or individual.”

“We take violations of the Google Groups Terms of Service very seriously. … We rely on our community of users to flag inappropriate content, which we expeditiously review as soon as we are aware of it. If we determine that flagged content violates our terms of service, we act quickly to remove it,” a spokeswoman said.

The best advice for family members worried about a loved one considering suicide is to “observe closely,” Mr. Berman said.

“Watch, listen, read, pay attention to anything that seems out of the ordinary,” he said. But, for parents like the Gonzaleses, who saw no visible signs of depression in their daughter, it’s a good idea to befriend the person’s friends, he said.

“Young people are more likely going to communicate suicidal despair to a friend than a parent,” he said.

Mr. and Mrs. Gonzales said they plan to do what it takes to get Suzy’s Law passed.

“We want to save someone else’s child - keep someone else from experiencing the hell that we’ve gone through,” Mrs. Gonzales said.

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