Rutgers students charged in the invasion-of-privacy case could face five years in prison. (Photo courtesy phisigmasigma.org)
A Rutgers University student jumped to his death off a bridge a day after authorities say two classmates surreptitiously recorded him having sex with a man in his dorm room and broadcast it over the internet.
Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge last week, said his family’s attorney, Paul Mainardi. Police recovered a man’s body on Sept. 29 in the Hudson River just north of the bridge, and authorities were trying to determine if it was Clementi’s.
ABC News and the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., reported that Clementi left on his Facebook page on Sept. 22 a note that read: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” On Sept. 29, his Facebook page was accessible only to friends.
Two Rutgers freshmen have been charged with illegally taping the 18-year-old Clementi having sex and broadcasting the images via an internet chat program.
Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, said in a statement 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.”
On the Rutgers campus, there was dismay over Clementi’s death and the circumstances that led to it.
Freshman Jonathan Pena said he was in a dorm lounge on Sept. 19 when someone came in and mentioned the sex webcast happening that night. “I knew him as a nice kid,” Pena said. “I didn’t know why anyone was bothering him with that.”
Rutgers president Richard McCormick sent a letter to the campus community, saying school officials were “profoundly saddened by this report.”
“If the charges are true, these actions gravely violate the university’s standards of decency and humanity,” McCormick wrote.
News of Clementi’s death came the same day that Rutgers—the flagship university in a state known for ruthless mob bosses, petulant reality show stars, and cutthroat drivers—launched a two-year project to get people on campus to behave better.
Under the aegis of that project, students, faculty, and other employees have been encouraged to attend a series of lectures, presentations, and discussions on civility, exploring such topics as how cell phones, iPods, and other gadgets affect civility, as well as sportsmanship for athletes and fans.
One of the defendants, Dharun Ravi, was Clementi’s roommate, Mainardi told the Star-Ledger. The other defendant is Molly Wei. Ravi and Wei could face up to five years in prison if convicted.
A lawyer for Ravi did not immediately return a message from the Associated Press (AP) seeking comment. It was unclear whether Wei had retained a lawyer.
The Middlesex County, N.J., prosecutor’s office charged the pair, both 18, with two counts apiece of invasion of privacy, claiming they used the webcam to view and transmit a live image of Clementi on Sept. 19. Ravi also was charged with two more counts of invasion of privacy, alleging he tried to transmit another encounter of Clementi on Sept. 21.
Collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a fourth-degree crime. Transmitting them is a third-degree crime with a maximum prison term of five years.
A Twitter account belonging to Ravi was recently deleted, but in a cached version retained through Google he sent a message on Sept. 19: “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, he wrote on Twitter: “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”
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 AP. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Clementi’s body hadn’t been positively identified.
Mainardi issued a statement Sept. 29 confirming Clementi’s suicide.
“Tyler was a fine young man, and a distinguished musician,” Mainardi said. “The family is heartbroken beyond words.”
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.”
On campus and off, Clementi’s story gained sympathy after word of his death spread.
More than 100 people attended a campus rally Sept. 29, with some lying on the ground and chanting things like, “If my dorm’s not safe, Rutgers isn’t safe.”
A Facebook group, In Honor of Tyler Clementi, was quickly set up and as of press time 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.
“You will never be forgotten Tyler,” Samantha Hoffer commented. “I am so glad to have known such an amazing and talented person in my life. Rest in peace.”
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.
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.