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Soul-searching after teen's online suicide

How could viewers take 12 hours to alert police? And how could they mock him and egg him on?

November 22, 2008|Associated Press

MIAMI — The message "OMG" popped up next to the live webcam broadcast of Abraham Biggs lying motionless on his bed, followed by "LOL" and "hahahah."

But Biggs wasn't joking.

The 19-year-old Broward College student really did commit suicide by drug overdose, as some audience members egged him on and others tried to talk him out of it.

Eventually, police entered the video frame, having been alerted by watchers. But it was too late. The officers hovered over Biggs' body, then stopped the Web feed -- 12 hours after Biggs, at his father's house in Pembroke Pines, had declared his intent to kill himself.

It was unclear how many people had watched.

Biggs was not the first person to commit suicide with a webcam running. But the drawn-out drama -- and the reaction of those watching -- was seen as an extreme example of young people's willingness, even desire, to share intimate details about themselves with strangers online.

Biggs' family was infuriated that neither the viewers nor the website that hosted the live video, Justin.tv, acted sooner to save him. The website plays videos next to a space where computer users can post real-time comments.

"They got hits, they got viewers, nothing happened for hours," said Biggs' sister, Rosalind.

She added: "It didn't have to be."

An autopsy concluded Biggs died from a combination of opiates and benzodiazepine, which his family said was prescribed because he had bipolar disorder.

Biggs announced on an online forum for bodybuilders that he planned to kill himself, authorities said. He posted a link to the Justin.tv webcast.

Some members of the bodybuilder forum told investigators they did not take him seriously because he had threatened suicide there before.

Some online observers encouraged him to do it, others tried to talk him out of it and some discussed whether he was taking a dose big enough to kill himself, said Wendy Crane, an investigator with the Broward County medical examiner's office.

One person who claimed to have watched said that Biggs went to sleep after swallowing pills and appeared to be breathing for a few hours. Meanwhile, observers cracked jokes.

Someone notified the moderator of the bodybuilding forum, who called police, Crane said.

An online video purportedly from Biggs' webcam shows a gun-wielding officer entering a bedroom, where a man is lying on a bed, his face turned from the camera. The officer begins to examine him as the camera lens is covered.

Authorities could not immediately verify the authenticity of the video, though it matched their description of what occurred.

Montana Miller, an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said the circumstances of Biggs' suicide were not shocking, given the way teenagers chronicle every facet of their lives on sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

"If it's not recorded or documented, then it doesn't even seem worthwhile," she said. "For today's generation it might seem, 'What's the point of doing it if everyone isn't going to see it?' "

In a statement, Justin.tv Chief Executive Michael Seibel said: "We regret that this has occurred and want to respect the privacy of the broadcaster and his family during this time."

The website would not say how many people watched the broadcast. The site as a whole had 672,000 unique visitors in October, according to Nielsen.

Miami lawyer William Hill said there was probably nothing that could be done legally to those who watched and did not act. As for whether the website could be held liable, Hill said there didn't seem to be much of a case for negligence.

"There could conceivably be some liability if they knew this was happening and they had some ability to intervene and didn't take action," said Hill, who has represented a number of Internet-based clients. But "I think it would be a stretch."

Biggs' sister described him as an outgoing person who struck up conversations with Starbucks baristas and enjoyed taking his young nieces to Chuck E. Cheese. He was health-conscious and exercised but was not a bodybuilder, she said.

"This is very, very sudden and unexpected for us," she said. "It boggles the mind. We don't understand."

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