Video: Did secret webcam lead to student’s suicide?

  1. Transcript of: Did secret webcam lead to student’s suicide?

    MATT LAUER, co-host: But we begin this half-hour with the tragic death of a freshman at Rutgers University who took his own life after being secretly recording during an intimate moment. It was posted on the Internet . Now two students have been charged in this case. NBC 's Mike Taibbi is on the Rutgers campus with more on this. Mike , good morning to you.

    MIKE TAIBBI reporting: Good morning, Matt. Well, grief counselors have been at work on this campus for a week. There's plenty of work to do, Matt. This is a terrible day for this university. The students involved were all from New Jersey , only 18. They had just begun their freshmen years. Now one is a dead. A body pulled from the Hudson River yesterday may be his, and the lives of the other two have been changed forever. When Tyler Clementi celebrated his high school graduation this past June, he'd already won acclaim as a violinist and a scholarship he would use at prestigious Rutgers University . But on Sunday, September 19th , his new college roommate, Dharun Ravi , announced via Twitter , according to the AP , that "roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into Molly 's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

    TAIBBI: Prosecutors say Ravi also broadcast live video of Clementi 's encounter over the Internet , where an untold number of viewers could watch. Then Ravi allegedly tried to do it again tweeting, "yes, it's happening again." And though this time it did not work, the next day, a police source told NBC News , two witnesses saw Clementi jump off the towering George Washington Bridge to his death. Ravi and the Molly he referred to, high school and college classmate Molly Wei , have been criminally charged with violating New Jersey 's privacy laws and if convicted, could face three to five years in prison. Not enough, says privacy law expert Parry Aftab .

    Ms. PARRY AFTAB (Internet Safety Expert): I think that if the prosecutors limit this to just the privacy violations in state law , they're not doing their job.

    TAIBBI: Clementi 's suicide may be the latest tragic teen death linked to the Internet and to humiliating violations of privacy . Last year, 13-year-old Hope Witsell and 18-year-old Jesse Logan both took their lives in separate incidents after nude photos they had sexted to close friends were forwarded to their classmates. But in Tyler 's death, his accused tormentors face criminal charges . Rutgers , like so many schools, continues to struggle with issues of privacy in the Internet age .

    Mr. MOR NAAMAN (Rutgers University School of Communications): The basic element you have is the human nature that can exploit any technology to do any number of bad things to other individuals.

    TAIBBI: Clementi 's family issued a statement, calling him a "fine young man, and a distinguished musician. The family is heartbroken beyond words and is cooperating fully with the ongoing criminal investigation of two Rutgers University students." Friends mourn the loss of a young and hopeful talent.

    Ms. MARY ALCARO (Friend): Outside of being an extremely talented musician, Tyler was an amazing person who made you feel great, and you couldn't help but smile when Tyler smiled at you.

    TAIBBI: No comment from Molly Wei or her lawyer, while Steven Altman , the lawyer for Dharun Ravi , did tell me yesterday that his client is confused, he's upset and still struggling to understand what happened. Both suspects are now home with their families awaiting arraignment. Matt :

    LAUER: All right. Mike Taibbi . He's on the campus of Rutgers for us this morning. Thank you very much . Parry Aftab is an Internet safety expert. Greg Blimling is the vice president of student affairs at Rutgers University . Good morning to you both.

    Ms. AFTAB: Good morning, Matt.

    Mr. GREGORY BLIMLING (Vice President of Student Affairs, Rutgers University): Good morning, Matt.

    LAUER: Mr. Blimling , let me start with you. I mean, it's obviously a horrible day for students and everyone at Rutgers . What's the university doing to deal with this situation?

    Mr. BLIMLING: The campus is in mourning. We're all very, very sad about what has happened to Tyler . Our heart goes out to his family. There's no greater tragedy than to lose a child and our entire campus mourns with them.

    LAUER: I know you cannot because of federal law speak specifically about the case, but I wonder, has there ever been any kind of similar incident at Rutgers , any situation involving such a gross invasion of privacy ?

    Mr. BLIMLING: I've been in higher education 36 years working with students, and I have never seen a case like this in that 36-year period. So it's highly unusual for a case like this to happen. Mostly what happens in our residence halls is students develop a close-knit trust relationship, a sense of community and attachment to one another. For a student to do this, it violates that trust relationship that usually exists within a residence hall , and it's shocked our entire university community .

    LAUER: And tragically and ironically, Mr. Blimling , this happened, or this was announced, on a day that the university was announcing something called Project Civility , which had been long in the planning. It was about compassion and courtesy in everyday interactions. There was even a session

    planned as part of that program called Uncivil Gadgets: Changing Technologies and Civil Behavior. So this was not something that wasn't on the radar.

    Mr. BLIMLING: Civility is an issue that the university talks about with our student at all times. It's part of the way we try to build character and help students understand how they interact with one another. And there's a lot of ways in which our students interact both on the Internet and with one another. And part of our responsibility as educators is to teach them how that interaction needs to occur with one another and with people outside the community.

    LAUER: Parry , it's become so easy for people to record just about anything and then stream it online. Do you think because of the ease of this that these young people simply forget that this is not only an affront to privacy , it's illegal?

    Ms. AFTAB: It's very illegal, and it's more than an affront to privacy . And we talk about this as a privacy issue; it makes me very nervous. I think these are smart kids who got into Rutgers , and it's very competitive. They knew that this kind of thing shouldn't happen. It's easy, and that's the problem. You think about it , it seemed like a good idea at the time . There's technology to let you do it, and done.

    LAUER: They are charged right now with a couple of counts of invasion of privacy . Could more serious charges be filed? For example, if they can -- if prosecutors can connect the dots directly from this invasion of privacy and this recording and streaming online to the suicide of this young man, could a charge like involuntary manslaughter be added? I know you're not a prosecutor, but have you seen things like this in the past?

    Ms. AFTAB: But I'm a New Jersey lawyer.

    LAUER: Right.

    Ms. AFTAB: And -- I don't think that's going to happen. We looked at that with Megan Meier 's case as well. But I think you're going to be seeing a lot more serious charges, especially civil rights charges used by the prosecutor in the Phoebe Prince case. It's the modern way of approaching this.

    LAUER: Apparently one of the students kind of went online and told others to log into this and watch this. Unwittingly, if someone did log in to it and do nothing about it, could they be an accomplice to this?

    Ms. AFTAB: No. We're allowed in this country to see terrible things happen and not report them as long as we don't have a special relationship with them. But this is a much bigger issue, Matt. We're here far too often to talk about these things. It has to stop.

    Ms. AFTAB: I'll help Rutgers do it. But I've got kids who work with me who knew him, went to school with Tyler , and know what a huge loss it is.

    LAUER: This is perhaps an incredible lesson, not only about, you know, remembering and respecting the privacy of others, and I know the privacy makes you nervous, but also remembering we are not safe. And we've got a laptop computer next to you. It's simply open. It has a camera on it; could record this entire conversation or anything else that goes on in a room.

    Ms. AFTAB: Absolutely. And if somebody puts a Trojan horse , which is a hacking type program on it without your knowledge, they can turn it on and off whenever they want to. Walk in from the bathroom into your room, having sex, having a private conversation, you are now on national TV .

    LAUER: All right, Parry Aftab , Mr. Blimling , we appreciate your input, both of you. And again, our condolences to everyone there at Rutgers , Mr. Blimling .

Image: Tyler Clementi, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei
The Star-Ledger
Tyler Clementi, left, is thought to have committed suicide, days after video of him was secretly webcast on the Internet. Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, center, and another classmate, Molly Wei, have been charged in the case.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 9/30/2010 8:48:11 AM ET 2010-09-30T12:48:11

A college student jumped to his death off a bridge a day after two classmates surreptitiously recorded him having sex with a man in his dorm room and broadcast it over the Internet, authorities said Wednesday.

The Rutgers freshman, Tyler Clementi, jumped off the George Washington Bridge last Thursday, the Clementi family's attorney, Paul Mainardi, confirmed on Wednesday.

New York Police Department harbor officers recovered the body of a white man, clad only in pants, wearing a watch and without identification after a parks department employee spotted a body floating in the river, police said. The body was taken to the city medical examiner's office; authorities hoped to use the watch as identification.

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Clementi's driver's license and Rutgers ID were found in a wallet left on the bridge on Sept. 22 after two witnesses saw someone jump from it, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press.

ABC News and The Star-Ledger of Newark reported that Clementi left on his Facebook page on Sept. 22 a note that read: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry." On Wednesday, his Facebook page was accessible only to friends.

News of the death came on the same day that Rutgers kicked off a two-year, campuswide project to teach the importance of civility, with special attention to bullying and the use and abuse of new technology, The New York Times reported.

Under the aegis of that project, students, faculty and other employees have been encouraged to attend a series of lectures, presentations and discussions exploring such topics as how cell phones, iPods and other gadgets affect civility, and sportsmanship for athletes and fans.

"Tyler was a fine young man, and a distinguished musician," Mainardi said. "The family is heartbroken beyond words."


Two fellow Rutgers freshmen, Dharun Ravi, of Plainsboro, and Molly W. Wei, of Princeton, both 18, have been charged with two counts each of invasion of privacy. According to the Middlesex County prosecutor's office, they secretly placed a camera in the victim's dorm room in Piscataway "to view and transmit a live image" of the student having sex on Sept. 19.

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Ravi also is charged with two counts of invasion of privacy for attempting to use the camera to view and transmit another encounter involving the student two days later.

Mainardi told the Star-Ledger that Ravi and the victim were roommates at Rutgers. "The family and their representatives are cooperating fully with the ongoing criminal investigations of two Rutgers University students," he said in a statement. "They will have no further comment at this time."

Wei was released on her own recognizance after surrendering to Rutgers police in New Brunswick on Monday, according to the prosecutor's office. Ravi surrendered to Rutgers police on Tuesday and was released on $25,000 bail.

Under New Jersey’s invasion-of-privacy statutes, it is a fourth-degree crime to collect or view images depicting nudity or sexual contact involving another individual without that person’s consent, and it is a third-degree crime to transmit or distribute such images. The penalty for conviction of a third-degree offense can include a prison term of up to five years.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, said in a statement Wednesday that his group considers Clementi's death a hate crime.

"We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of a young man who, by all accounts, was brilliant, talented and kind," Goldstein said. "And we are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others' lives as a sport."

Ravi and Wei, who according to the Star-Ledger were high school classmates before enrolling at Rutgers this fall, could not be located for comment Wednesday by msnbc.com. Ravi and Wei did not respond to e-mail requests for comment Tuesday from the Star-Ledger.

Steve Altman, Ravi’s attorney, told msnbc.com: "I understand the investigation is continuing because of the missing status of the alleged victim. That being so, I would not be doing the ethical thing to make any comment at the present time."

It was not immediately known if Wei had an attorney.

"We are profoundly saddened by this report, and our hearts and prayers are with the parents, family, and friends of this young man, who had started at Rutgers this semester as a first-year student on the New Brunswick campus," Rutgers President Richard McCormick said in a statement.

"If the charges are true," McCormick said "these actions gravely violate the university's standards of decency and humanity." The university does not comment on specifics of cases involving active criminal investigations, he said.

Lanman and the Middlesex County prosecutor's office told msnbc.com they had no information on the reported suicide.

"Our case is limited to the charging of two Rutgers students in the invasion of privacy case," said Jim O’Neill, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office. "I don’t know anything about suicide and that’s not part of the case we’re handling."

The investigation began after Rutgers police learned that a camera had been placed in the 18-year-old student’s dorm room without permission, Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan and Rutgers University Police Chief Rhonda Harris said in a news release.

The Middlesex County prosecutor's office wouldn't provide details of the alleged sexual encounters, including how and where they were broadcast.

Ravi wrote Sept. 19 on what is believed to his Twitter page, which has since been deleted: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

Two days later, Ravi apparently posted another entry referring to iChat, an internet messaging service with a live video feed.

"Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again," Ravi wrote in the Sept. 21 post, according to a Web-cached version of his Twitter feed.

Gay rights groups say Clementi's death is the latest example of a long-standing problem: young people who kill themselves because they're bullied about being gay — regardless of whether they are.

Last week, Dan Savage, a columnist at the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger, launched the It Gets Better Project, a YouTube channel where gay, lesbian and bisexual adults share the turmoil they experienced when they were younger — and show how their lives have gotten better.

In response to Clementi's death and others, the group Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays said it would issue a "call to action" on the topic.

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On campus and off, there were outpourings of sympathy for Clementi.

A vigil was planned for Wednesday night. And a Facebook group, In Honor of Tyler Clementi, was quickly set up and by Wednesday had drawn nearly 3,000 people, many of whom posted remembrances of Clementi or expressions of shock over the death of the young man pictured playing his violin.

Ed Schmiedecke, the recently retired music director at Ridgewood High School, where Clementi graduated earlier this year, said Clementi was a violinist whose life revolved around music.

"He was a terrific musician, and a very promising, hardworking young man," he told the AP.

Thomas Jung, 19, who played alongside Clementi in the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, told The New York Times that hours before Clementi's suicide the two had rehearsed works by Berlioz and Beethoven.

"He loved music," Jung said. "He was very dedicated. I couldn’t tell if anything was wrong."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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