An American undergraduate took his own life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River after a supposedly private tryst with another man in his campus dormitory block was recorded illicitly by his roommate and a friend and broadcast live over the internet, according to prosecutors in New Jersey.
The apparent suicide of Tyler Clementi, 18, described as a shy young man and a talented violinist, has sent waves of anguish and shock across the campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey, just outside New York City, and raised questions not just about the bullying of gays in America but also abusive use of internet technology.
Officials said that the roommate, Dharun Ravi, and fellow Rutgers student Molly Wei, both 18, had been charged with invading Mr Clementi's privacy. Both could face prison sentences of up to five years if found guilty. Some legal experts said they may also face more serious federal hate crime charges.
Mr Clementi, a first-year student and member of a town orchestra, told Mr Ravi he needed their shared room to himself in the evening. Mr Ravi obliged but allegedly was able to dial into his own computer in the room and switch on his webcam. The encounter between Mr Clementi and his guest was then transmitted live to an audience of untold size.
Investigators have seized on a message sent out by Mr Ravi the same day via Twitter, the micro-blogging site. "Room-mate 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," Mr Ravi wrote on Twitter on 19 September. On 21 September, Mr Ravi allegedly tried it again. "Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9.30 and 12. Yes it's happening again."
It was the next day, on 22 September, that two witnesses saw a man jumping off the bridge that connects Manhattan to New Jersey. Mr Clementi's wallet was found on the span but yesterday police officers were still hunting for his body. Mr Clementi ironically used the internet to telegraph his intentions to friends on his Facebook page. "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry," he wrote on the day of his death.
Mr Clementi was new campus where he had few close friends. Arkady Leytush, the artistic director of the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra where Mr Clementi played, said: "It's really awful, especially in New York and in the 21st century. It's so painful. He was very friendly and had very good potential."
A lawyer for the young man's family said he was "a fine young man, and a distinguished musician". "The family is heartbroken beyond words."
Mr Clementi seems destined in death to become a new symbol of the suffering that gay and lesbian individuals can experience if they are bullied or outed against their will. This case "may very well be prosecuted as a hate crime ultimately," said local human rights lawyer Paul Callan. But, he added: "There is a lot of cyber-bullying going on... and very little of it is ever prosecuted."
The anger of the gay and lesbian lobby has been instant. "We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of a young man who, by all accounts, was brilliant, talented and kind," said Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality. "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."
Case studies: When cyber-bullying ends in tragedy
* When Megan Meier got a MySpace message from a 16-year-old boy, Josh Evans, she found him attractive. But later, Evans became cruel, telling her: "The world would be a better place without you." Twenty minutes after the last exchange between the two, Meier, 13, from Missouri, US, hanged herself. But the cause of her distress did not exist. In fact, Josh Evans was a fake account created by Lori Drew, the mother of a girl at Meier's school. Drew faced criminal charges but was eventually acquitted.
* Jessica Logan sent a nude picture of herself to her boyfriend. But when the couple broke up, he sent the pictures on to others at their Ohio high school. Girls started calling the 18-year-old a "slut" and a "whore", and Logan started skipping school. In mid-2008, she went on TV to warn others of the perils of passing such pictures on. But two months later she had committed suicide.
* Mark Drybrough and Nadia Kajouji thought they were talking to a female nurse, who advised them in a chat room on how to take their own lives, which they did. They were actually speaking to a Minnesota man, William Melchert-Dinkel. Prosecutors said he encouraged "dozens" of people to kill themselves. Believed to have made false suicide pacts with some victims and charged with encouraging suicide, he has been told to stay off the internet until the case is resolved.