Caught in a web of despair

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THE desperate messages that flicker on to my computer make for the darkest of reading. "I started cutting myself again today - I had to get some release," says one. "I haven’t laughed for so many years. I am beyond pain. I am numb," reads another.

I have just accessed the controversial Alternative Suicide Holidays (ASH) newsgroup, and its contents are truly shocking.

Most of those leaving messages have two things on their minds: when they will end their lives, and how. Every day, they share their darkest fears, and swap tips on how to avoid failure.

"Nohope", for example, is looking for an "exit" partner in the United Kingdom. "I’m not scared of death. I know I want to go, but don’t want to go alone," he says. Elsewhere, Beth and Angel are debating the relative merits of hanging and drugs as methods of ending it all.

This tunnel of hopelessness - where the depressed feed off the depressed - is the environment into which brilliant philosophy graduate Louis Gillies wandered last year.

Already depressed, he began communicating with others about how to "catch the bus" - slang for committing suicide.

Last Tuesday, he hanged himself in his Glasgow flat, just hours before he was due to appear in court charged with aiding and abetting a fellow ASH-er, Michael Gooden. It was, the judge said, "a bleak end to a bleak case".

In the circumstances, Gillies’s death was, perhaps, unsurprising. But for his many friends, it leaves questions unanswered. How did this talented, attractive young man from a wealthy family come to believe he had nothing to live for? And to what extent did time spent surfing the net affect his mental state, and contribute to his death and that of Gooden’s?

The internet’s potential danger to depressed young men was recognised earlier this year in the United States when Brandon Vedas, 21, killed himself live on webcam as virtual "friends" egged him on. Not one of them thought to discourage him or call for help. When it was over they logged off and went to bed. Vedas’s decision to kill himself was particularly horrific, because it was witnessed in live time, but he is far from the only vulnerable young man to use the net to indulge his fascination with his own death.

Enter the word "suicide" in an internet search engine and you get thousands of hits. There are sites which show you how to weight a body or tighten a ligature. It is even possible to take a quiz, which will tell you which method of suicide - wrist-slitting, overdose, hanging or jumping off a high building - best suits your personality.

"Most people who talk about suicide are ambivalent about it. If you ask them, they will say they are anxious to get help to ease their pain," says Dr John Connolly, a consultant psychiatrist with the Irish Suicidology Association. "But sites like ASH normalise suicide. Young men, who, as we know, are at a higher risk of suicide, are also keen surfers of the net and, finding this, might well be encouraged to take their own lives."

Although Gillies was a popular young man, the personality traits that led to his own internet tragedy were always there, hovering just below the surface.

A philosophy student at Glasgow University, he was a popular character who loved to regale his friends with colourful tales of his past. The son of a wealthy sea captain and a Greek mother, he claimed Jackie Onassis had once bounced him on her knee and boasted of getting caught up in fighting in Central America.

Most people lapped up the tales, without entirely believing them, but others found his behaviour irritating.

Dressed in black, and feverishly scribbling notes in leather-bound jotters, it was hard not to notice him at lectures and tutorials. Indeed, he seemed to invite attention, turning up with copies of the classics in their original Greek, and challenging his teachers at every turn. "Gillies was intelligent, articulate and good company, but I would say he had a tendency towards self-obsession and often engaged in attention-seeking behaviour," said one acquaintance.

A prominent member of the Philosophy Society, Gillies was expected to get a first, yet when he finally graduated in 1992, it was with a 2-2. He was embarrassed - and explained away his failure with a tale of turning up at the wrong examination hall.

But the disappointing result did not affect his financial position. "Maybe the real tragedy about Louis was he never had to have his feet on the ground," says fellow student and friend Kevin Laitak, now a Glasgow web designer.

"There was always money. He never really had to work because his family could always bail him out of trouble."

After graduating, Gillies moved to Greece, where he taught English as a foreign language. But in 1999, he returned to Glasgow, moving into the top flat of what had been the family’s home in Bank Street - a faded terraced house in the heart of the city’s student area.

His depression seemed to set in when he failed a postgraduate degree in IT and couldn’t get a job. A break-up with a girlfriend drove him lower and he began to worry his friends with his obsessive talk of suicide.

Some time in 2002 - it is unclear when - Gillies discovered ASH and began writing notes under the name "Leander". Between February and June 2002, he posted often, on a wide range of subjects - from his admiration for the philosopher Kant and the effectiveness of Beachy Head as a suicide site, to his analysis of hanging as a means of ending it all.

By then, Gooden - known as "assure-me" - had been posting messages on the ASH newsgroup for some time. He had long been obsessed with Beachy Head in East Sussex.

On November 23, 2001, he described travelling to the notorious site determined to throw himself off, but then failing to do so. In a message to ASH, he said: "Maybe if I had gone with someone who was of the same mind, the task would have been easier.

"Anybody wanting a partner to do the act with, please e-mail me as I’m so ready to go, but I’m just lacking in courage, courage that I feel I could get with support."

In January, Gooden seemed to renege on this, insisting any kind of pact "would give him a guilt complex" and insisting he would be "boarding the bus with a single ticket".

Nevertheless, he and Gillies made contact and came to an agreement. In June last year, the pair, who knew each other only by their tag names, met for a meal at a pub near Beachy Head, before walking to the cliffs to die.

But, as they stood at the edge, contemplating what they were about to do, Gillies’s mobile phone began to ring. It was his best friend Jonathan Caddy, who lives in Glasgow.

Caddy was shocked when he realised what was happening. "I told Louis how much I thought of him, that he was a fantastic person and that he should not jump that night," says Caddy, who would have been called as a prosecution witness at Gillies’s trial.

After talking Gillies out of it, Caddy, who was himself suffering from testicular cancer, spoke to Gooden for 10 minutes. Despite his efforts, however, Gooden stripped to his underpants and jumped.

Gillies then travelled home to Glasgow, stopping only at an internet caf to tell ASH-ers that "assure-me" had committed suicide despite "unbelievable meteorological conditions".

His description of the act - "inspirational, poignant, mesmerising" - smacked of exhilaration rather than grief, and some later questioned whether he ever really intended to kill himself.

In a second message posted the following day, he described his reasons for not jumping himself, explaining: "There was just the roar of the sea and the spooky lament of a fog-horn, but there was a very light wind. It freaked me not being able to see the bottom."

Initially, the police who questioned Gillies about Gooden’s death viewed him simply as an important witness to a tragic event. It was only when the 36-year-old began to talk openly about Alternative Suicide Holidays and his communications with Gooden that their suspicions were aroused.

After seeking advice, they arrested Gillies on suspicion of murder. He was sent south, remanded in custody for his own protection, and placed on suicide watch. The charge against him was reduced to aiding and abetting a suicide, and after a few weeks he was released on bail. Gillies returned to Glasgow, where he reported to a police station on a regular basis. As the months dragged on, however, the shock of being charged and the prospect of appearing in court began to weigh more heavily on him.

Gillies’s defence barrister Adrian Turner was in Lewes Crown Court on Tuesday when the news of his death was broken.

"In a way I was surprised Louis killed himself," he says. "He was a bright, articulate man, who gave me very detailed instructions. I really thought he would want to tell the court exactly what happened.

"But I understand there was a suicide note, and if I know Louis, he will have provided a lengthy explanation of his action."

Many people cannot understand why Gillies was ever charged, and wonder why the Crown would pursue a man who was clearly on the edge. Turner insists they acted in good faith. But others believe they were wrong.

"No judge in the land would have sent him to jail for his role in this matter," said one legal expert, who asked not to be named. "At most he would have got nothing more than probation. There was no justification for this prosecution in terms of deterring other people. It served no retributive service, so in what sense could it have been considered in the public interest?"

Yesterday, Gillies was buried on Harris, where his mother now lives. His sister Jane, who had recently emigrated to Canada, flew home for the funeral.

Back in Glasgow, his closest friends were rallying round - anxious to destroy the image they believe has been created by the circumstances of his death. "He was a man who liked to live on the edge, but he was not a sick internet freak as he has been portrayed," says Caddy, who believes Gillies felt forced to kill himself to prove he was not a ghoul who preyed on the suicidal.

His cyber acquaintances, however, have gone on the defensive. Dozens of newsgroup postings have followed the news of Gillies’s death, most of them critical of the authorities and the media, few of them expressing regret for his passing. Those who run the ASH site claim that they do not condone suicide, they are simply neutral on the subject. They believe that everyone has a right to choose whether or not to kill themselves.

But others fear the site will incite young people who are teetering on the edge to take their own lives.

"Wanting to commit suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem," says Connolly. "What you have to remember is that 90% of those who express suicidal tendencies are suffering from depression or a psychiatric disorder: these are treatable conditions and the people suffering from them can be helped."

On the ASH newsgroup, however, "Suicidal Crazy Person" has his own perspective on Gillies’s death: "He [Gillies] trumped them when he killed himself. Regardless of what everybody connected with this case thought of the situation, they couldn’t stop the guy from using his will to determine his own fate.

"He robbed them of that. Good for him."

POSTINGS FROM THE EDGE OF DARKNESS

THESE messages were posted on Alternative Suicide Holidays by Louis Gillies in the months before he travelled to Beachy Head with Michael Gooden, giving an insight into his personality and his state of mind.

April 18, 2002

"Hanging is one of the most common methods of suicide and lets face it, if you’re determined enough and put a bit of thought into it, it can’t be that hard to be successful."

May 20, 2002

"I’ve gone to great lengths to let slip the bonds that bind me to society. I’ve quit my job (in acrimonious circumstances - no glowing references there), picked feuds with all my friends and family, so now no-one actually talks to me, I’ve run up debts both on my cards and with the utility companies (gas, electric, phone...they’re all about to get cut off within the next two weeks) which I have no hope whatsoever, never mind intention, of paying. The whole protective edifice that has shielded me from the world of the streets is about to come crashing down around my ears."

May 21, 2002

"Ah! Beachy Head, where eternity is but one step and six seconds away.

"No-one has ever survived the full drop, though a few have fallen onto the numerous ledges that await to catch the unwary. Yep a lot of folks have done the Beachy Head thing over the past century, think the tally stands at over 1,200."

May 26, 2002

"One of the great benefits which accrues from the decision to catch the bus is the seemingly total invincibility it gives you vis a vis the quotidian concerns of day to day living. Everyday worries acquire their just insignificance in the face of one’s imminent extinction. The satisfaction gained is almost addictive. I was left a portfolio of properties after my father’s death (5 houses to be exact) which I rent out. Now as anyone who owns a house knows all sorts of issues arise from time to time, from plumbing and appliance breakdown to new planning and safety regulations. These I had diligently and conscientiously dealt with in the time preceding my decision of suicide. Subsequently I have been a right total arsehole and my inward glee at my behaviour warms me no end."