His last words, posted on Facebook about 10 minutes before he died, were brief and to the point: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” The comment gave no hint of the torment and mortification that lay behind the decision of gifted 18-year-old violinist Tyler Clementi to throw himself off the George Washington bridge last week.
The cruel details began to emerge today when the body of a man believed to be Clementi was dragged out of the Hudson river at the northern end of Manhattan. At the same time, charges were brought against two of his fellow first-year students at Rutgers university in New Jersey. Like him, they are both 18. They have been accused of invading Clementi’s privacy.
One was Dharun Ravi, his roommate at college, the other Ravi’s friend Molly Wei, who had a room on the same corridor. On the evening of Sunday 19 September, according to the account given by police, Clementi asked his roommate to give him some time alone in the room they shared.
Ravi agreed, and went down the hall into Wei’s room. There, he allegedly logged onto Wei’s computer and used it to access through Skype a webcam he had set up on his own computer back in the room he shared with Clementi.
It is not known whether what happened next was accidental or preconceived, but Ravi and Wei are alleged to have watched Clementi in what authorities described as a “sexual encounter” with another man.
It is claimed that Ravi then streamed the video live, and that same night broadcast to the 150 followers of his Twitter feed details of his voyeuristic escapade, outing Clementi in the process: “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 evenings later, Ravi tweeted: “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9.30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”
The next day, having told no one about his despair and leaving no clues to his decision other than the Facebook comment, Clementi is thought to have made the hour’s drive from Rutgers to the bridge, leaving his car, his wallet and mobile phone on a side road before leaping to his death.
News of the tragedy led to an outpouring of anger and outrage from Rutgers students and on the internet. Gay and lesbian groups on the campus held vigils last Wednesday, carrying posters saying “We’re here, we’re queer”.
More than 15,000 people subscribed to a Facebook group honouring Clementi.
In a statement, his family said that “Tyler was a fine young man, and a distinguished musician. The family is heartbroken beyond words.”
Rutger’s president, Richard McCormick, said that if the allegations against Ravi and Wei proved true, they “gravely violate the university’s standards of decency and humanity”. He pointed to the coincidence that the university has this week launched a two-year programme to encourage “civility” within the social life of the campus.
Clementi was described by acquaintances as a shy and self-contained student. He was three weeks into his university career, so few other freshers at Rutgers had got to know him.
His passion was the violin. He played in the front row of the second violins in the symphony orchestra of his home town, Ridgewood, New Jersey. Diane Wade, a fellow violinist in the orchestra, told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that “he was so incredibly talented – I could not believe how good he was for such a young boy”.
Ravi and Wei have both been charged with four counts of invasion of privacy, the most serious of which carries a maximum sentence of five years. Bail conditions of $25,000 (£16,000) have been imposed on Ravi.
Clementi’s suicide is the latest example of the damage that can be inflicted when the age-old habit of pranks between teenagers meets the huge social power of technology.
Examples abound, such as the 18-year-old pupil in Cincinnati who hanged herself in 2008 after her former boyfriend circulated among classmates mobile phone images of her naked.