As Matthew van Antwerpen, a 17-year-old in suburban Dallas, struggled with remote schooling during the pandemic last year, he grew increasingly despondent. Searching online, he found a website about suicide.
“Any enjoyment or progress I make in my life simply comes across as forced,” he wrote on the site after signing up. “I know it is all just a distraction to blow time until the end.”
Roberta Barbos, a 22-year-old student at the University of Glasgow, first posted after a breakup, writing that she was “unbearably lonely.” Shawn Shatto, 25, described feeling miserable at her warehouse job in Pennsylvania. And Daniel Dal Canto, a 16-year-old in Salt Lake City, shared his fears that an undiagnosed stomach ailment might 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 calling themselves Marquis and Serge — provides explicit directions on how to die.
The four young members were among tens of thousands around the world who have been pulled in. On the site’s public forums, in live chats and through private messaging, they discuss hanging, poison, guns and gas.
Though members are anonymous, The New York Times identified 45 who had killed themselves in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada and Australia — and found that the trail of deaths is likely much longer.
More than 500 members wrote “goodbye threads” announcing how and when they planned to end their lives, and then never posted again.
Most of the narratives cited the same lethal method: a preservative used for curing meat, The Times found. By promoting the preservative as a poison, the site has helped give rise to a means of suicide that is alarming some coroners and doctors.
The site now draws 6 million page views a month, on average — quadruple that of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, according to data from Similarweb, a web analytics company.
Most members reported that they had experienced mental illness and were 30 or younger, according to a survey last year by the site. That age group roughly aligns with the demographic in the United States — 15 to 24 — that had the sharpest rise in suicide rate from 2009-19, the most recent data available.
Among them was Matthew. Despite the strain of virtual high school, he had appeared to be looking to the future. He had applied to Texas A&M University and intended to become a public defender.
His other plans took shape quickly and secretly. In only 29 days, Matthew joined the site, learned of the lethal preservative and ended his life.
“My son committed suicide at 17 two weeks ago,” Sharon Luft tweeted in January, calling out the site. “They told him how to, encouraged him after he took the mix.”
“Please help me,” she wrote, joining the calls of other parents for Marquis and Serge to be held accountable and for the banning of the site, called Sanctioned Suicide.
Australia, Germany and Italy succeeded in restricting access to the site within their borders, but U.S. law enforcement officials, lawmakers and technology companies have been reluctant to act.
While most states have laws against assisting suicide, they are inconsistent, rarely enforced and don’t explicitly address online activity. Federal law shields website operators from liability for most harmful content posted by users. Court decisions have left unsettled questions about protected speech.
And when asked to stop steering visitors to the suicide site, the world’s most powerful search engine deflected responsibility. “Google Search holds a mirror up to what is on the internet,” a senior manager for the company wrote to Australian officials in February 2019.
Marquis and Serge have vowed to fight any efforts to take down the site. They have experience running websites with dark content: They operate several online forums for “incels,” or involuntary celibates, men who believe that women will never have sex with them because of their looks or social status. Many on those sites openly discuss a fatalistic outlook, including thoughts of self-harm.
The two men have worked to shield the suicide site and to frustrate efforts to learn who is behind it. The servers have been moved from country to country. Marquis and Serge use multiple aliases and have removed nearly every trace of their real identities from the internet. Still, The Times found them, thousands of miles apart, in the capital of Uruguay and a city in Alabama.
Daniel Dal Canto, a high school junior, arrived on the suicide site with little idea of how to end his life.
Three years earlier, he had been depressed, prompting his parents to steer him into months of therapy and medication. Now he was drumming in a jazz band, playing video games with friends and getting straight A’s.
But in September 2019, Daniel, expressing anxiety over his stomach pain, was gathering information and advice from the website.
It came online after Reddit shut down a group where people had been sharing suicide methods and encouraging self-harm. Reddit prohibited such discussion, as did Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
While some of those drawn to the website described suffering from physical pain, most mentioned depression, bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses. About half were 25 or younger, the survey showed; like Daniel, some were minors.
The suicide rate has risen over the past 20 years in the United States. About 45,000 people take their own lives each year — more than die from traffic accidents. (That figure does not count the hundreds of physician-assisted deaths in the nine states where they are legal and restricted to the terminally ill.)
Within several weeks, Daniel settled on the lethal preservative, sodium nitrite, one of the most discussed topics on the website. Members guided one another to online sellers. They advised on obtaining it without alerting family. And they shared directions for using it.
On Oct. 3, the teenager posted a photograph of a bottle of the lethal preservative and announced that he would take it that weekend. But hours later, he posted again. Things had changed: A disagreement with his parents had prompted him to move up his plans.
At 2:30 a.m. the next day, Daniel’s mom found him dead in his bed.
In December 2019, two months after Daniel’s death, a coroner in England called for a government inquiry after discovering that members of the site had advised a troubled young woman on ending her life. German officials had already begun an investigation, worried about potential harm to children.
And Australia’s eSafety Commission, the nation’s regulator for online safety, had been looking into the site for months, after a father reported that his 22-year-old son had poisoned himself with the preservative.
Serge and Marquis were determined to protect the site — and themselves.
The two men had taken pains to scrub their personal identifying information from the internet and obscure the names of companies hosting the website, making it difficult for authorities and families of the deceased to take action against them.
As Australia began its investigation, the site was moved to a new server, according to a post by Marquis.
In March 2020, after the site was removed from online search results in Germany, the company hosting the site threatened to take it down over its “violation of German law.” Once again, the site was moved.
The sites rely on search engines to drive traffic. About half of all visits to the suicide site come that way, according to data from Similarweb.
But when Australian officials asked Google, the dominant business, and Microsoft’s Bing in 2019 to remove the site from their search results, they refused to do so absent a legal requirement.
It was not Google’s role to pass judgment on any sites containing content that was legal, “as objectionable as it might be,” a senior manager told the Australians.
As for Bing, a Microsoft spokesperson said the company was continually working “to help keep users safe.”
While federal law protects the site operators from being held liable for most content posted by users, the members could be vulnerable to criminal charges.
But the definition of a crime depends on the jurisdiction. State suicide laws vary. Some specify that assistance must be physical. Only a handful criminalize encouragement.
Some law enforcement officials outside the United States have also declined to investigate the operators and members of the site, believing the online activity falls outside their jurisdiction.
Officials in several countries consider the forum an American website. Italian investigators said they concluded that because a site administrator — apparently Marquis, using another of his fake names — provided them with a business address in the United States.
The Times investigation led to an elegant three-story apartment building in Montevideo, Uruguay, and a modest two-bedroom town house in Huntsville, Alabama.
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.
Records show that Galante, 29, resides in the Montevideo apartment with his family — several siblings, his mother and his father, who is a lawyer. Small, 28, lives with his mother and brother in the town house.
In two recent phone interviews, Small 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.
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.
In his email to The Times, 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.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]