RED BLUFF - Most informed parents are aware of the dangers lurking just a mouse click away from their children on the Internet. But no one suspected that for one Tehama County girl it was also the gateway to her suicide.
Suzanne Gonzales, 19, of Red Bluff took her life with the help of an online discussion group that promotes suicide as a healthy lifestyle choice. A bright and talented student, Gonzales was a 2001 graduate of Red Bluff Union High School, had been honored as a finalist as a National Hispanic Scholar and was attending college in Florida on a full-ride, two-year scholarship.
The week before her death on March 23, 2003, her grandfather had died. Her father, a retired firefighter, was taking care of his mother and making arrangements. She told him she was making plans to come home to attend services.
"I got a phone call Saturday evening saying I love you," her father Mike Gonzales said. She also called her mother Mary Gonzales.
"She sounded normal and upbeat," her father continued. "The next thing I know, her best friend in California called in a panic to tell us that Suzy was missing and that she had received a suicide note in the e-mail."
The note was also sent to her parents, her sister Jennifer and law enforcement on a time-delayed e-mail distribution system. Too late for anyone to rush to the motel room she had rented and, with scientific accuracy gained from a "pro-choice" suicide newsgroup, mixed the right amount of a deadly chemical in tap water, using a PH meter to get it right.
"I will make this short, as I know it will be hard to deal with." Her note began. "If you haven't heard by now, I have passed away."
She detailed how she had suffered from depression for a long time and had been taking medication. She stressed this was her own decision. She said her death would be quick and painless and hoped when the time comes theirs would be too. She said that if her parents wished to hold a service, she wanted "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor played. She ended by telling them that she loved them and wished them the best.
When her parents arrived in Tallahassee, the morbid details of how their daughter got help in the suicide began to unfold.
They found that she received step-by-step instructions from an online newsgroup in which another member instructed her to pose as a jeweler to obtain deadly chemicals not widely available to the public. It was suggested she use a time delay e-mail, so that it would appear after she had died and that someone in the Internet forum had actually reviewed her note for her before her death.
The group veiled their real intentions with words like "transitioning" and "exiting." They traded tips, methods, and joining the group nine months before her death, Gonzales posted almost 100 posts about her plan. The Web site has also been linked to over a dozen other deaths.
Even more shocking, when the family sought justice, prosecutors told them that there was no law under which the members of the online group could be charged with murder.
"They (the Internet newsgroup) gave her the information, the knowledge and the encouragement. There was one person who even read her suicide note to make sure it was perfect," said Gonzales. "No charges were filed because there are no laws that govern this type of behavior."
After reaching dead end after dead end, the family contacted Congressman Wally Herger's office.
Herger was horrified.
"People suffering from depression need help and treatment," said Herger. "They should not be exploited by sick and twisted individuals who present suicide as just another personal choice."
Thinking back, her father said that they had no idea that she was suffering. They suspected that she may be homesick, but when they talked, she talked about having lots of new friends and doing lots of fun things. He said that they had traveled back and forth to visit her and except for being sad over her grandfather, there weren't any outward signs of depression. No warning signs.
"We had no idea. We were completely surprised that she was suffering from depression and that she was visiting this site on the Internet," said Gonzales.
Herger is introducing a new federal law, (HR 940) titled "The Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Prevention Act" and will visit Red Bluff at 10 a.m., Thursday at the Tehama County Courthouse lawn to discuss the measure with the media and the community. The Gonzales family will be attending the event as guests of the congressman.
"Those who facilitate this irreversible and tragic decision should be held responsible for their actions," said Herger in his announcement of the Thursday event.
"That is why I have introduced legislation that would make it a federal crime to use the Internet to help an individual commit suicide."
Although many states have laws prohibiting assisted suicide, the individuals responsible for Gonzales' death could be residents of any state. HR 940 is narrowly tailored to avoid infringing on freedom of speech or laws passed by state governments.
The Gonzales' warn parents to get involved in what their children view online.
"Be on guard of what your children are viewing on the Internet," said Gonzales. "Know what they are doing."
They also stressed the importance of keeping in touch with children away from home. "Keep in contact with your kids if they are away," said Mike Gonzales. "Be on the lookout for any signs of depression."
They have established a Web site to help parents cope and prevent the same tragedy from happening to them: www.suzygonzales.com
. The family has told their story on CNN and "The Oprah Winfrey Show." They hope they can help out other parents who are facing this.
According to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 4,000 people between the ages of 15 to 24 commit suicide each year, and suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people.
"We are doing everything we can to change the laws so that those people who are responsible for manipulating vulnerable people are held accountable," Gonzales said. He added that it is time for the laws to catch up with technology, so that things like this won't ever happen again. Staff writer C. Jerome Crow can be reached at 527-2151, ext. 109 or at email@example.com