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Suicide assistance: Did website contribute to Shawn Shatto's death?

York Daily Record logo York Daily Record 5/29/2019 Mike Argento
a person who is smiling and looking at the camera © Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

In the last moments of her life, Shawn Shatto turned to an internet forum. 

The 25-year-old woman had been in pain for some time, suffering from severe depression and anxiety. She had sought help, her mother said, seeking treatment for her illness from doctors and therapists, even a hypnotherapist. None of it seemed to ease the pain.  

Through fantasy, she escaped from a reality that treated her harshly, a reality that tortured what her family described as her kind and gentle soul. She loved Harry Potter – she had posters from the literary series hanging on the wall above her bed, and her bookshelves were lined with books and actions figures of the series’ characters – and gaming and anime.  

a person who is smiling and looking at the camera: Shawn Shatto, 25, took her own life after finding instructions on a pro-suicide website. © Submitted Shawn Shatto, 25, took her own life after finding instructions on a pro-suicide website.

She often felt as if she lived in a different world, her family said. “A square peg in a round hole kind of life,” her sister said. “She didn’t try to fit in,” her sister said. “She didn’t want to change for anybody.” 

She would often say, “I don’t want to live, but I don’t want to die.” 

On that day, May 22, a Wednesday, she logged onto the internet forum that had given her a means of escape, a forum dedicated to the topic of suicide.  

Her final message, preserved on her phone, read, “Just took it. I’m (bleeping) terrified.” 

Another member of the forum responded, “Safe travels and I hope you find peace.” The message was punctuated with a thumbs-up emoji. 

No one on the forum encouraged her to seek help. The only help they provided, her family says, was a recipe for her to end her own life. 

'A kind, very loving soul'  

Shawn always was different, her family said.  

When she was a child, she called her mother, Jackie Bieber, “moy,” unable to pronounce “mom” as a toddler, a nickname she used until her last days. She and her mother would carry on text conversations comprised entirely of emojis. 

“She was a kind, very loving soul,” her mother said in the living room of the family’s Newberry Township home, dabbing tears from her eyes as she spoke, her voice cracking. “She would never hurt anybody. She was very fragile.” 

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She was artistic. She loved music, picking up the saxophone in fourth grade and playing throughout high school at Red Land. She had recently started playing the electric bass; a Squier Jaguar bass and a little Fender practice amp were in her bedroom.

Her sister said she had eclectic taste in music, favoring obscure bands and then abandoning them should they find mainstream success. One of her favorites was the Welsh indie pop band, Marina and the Diamonds. She loved ‘80s new wave music, her sister said. 

She also loved anime and gaming, her sister said, those fantasy worlds giving her solace from a reality that caused her so much pain, the shelves in her room covered with fantasy books and graphic novels, DVDs of anime and fantasy and anime figurines. 

“She just wanted to live in a fantasy world,” her sister Beth Hoffman said.  

She was reserved. She drew – her family found her sketch books in her room – but she never showed them any of her art. 

a drawing of a person: Shawn Shatto drew this sketch of her dog, Bailey. She never showed it to her family. © Mike Argento, York Daily Record/Sunday News Shawn Shatto drew this sketch of her dog, Bailey. She never showed it to her family.

She had attended HACC and Penn State Harrisburg, studying science, but was working at an Amazon warehouse in Carlisle at the time of her death – a job she didn’t like very much, her family said. 

The past two years, her mother said, she really struggled. “Doctors did everything to help her ... We tried everything.” 

A terrible discovery  

The past few weeks, her mother said she didn’t notice anything wrong. There was no sign of what was to come. 

On that Wednesday morning, her mother, who works from home, saw her at about 11 or 12. She seemed fine. 

A couple of hours had passed and she hadn’t heard from her daughter so she knocked on her bedroom door. She thought maybe Shawn was taking a nap.

There was no response. She opened the door and walked in. 

Shawn was lying on the floor.  

She was blue. 

She was cold. 

She wasn’t breathing. 

She started CPR and called 911.  

It was too late. 

Shawn was gone. 

The Newberry Township police and the coroner’s office sealed off her room, treating it like a crime scene. Initially, they couldn’t find anything. No empty pill bottles. The police officer told her mother he’d like to be able to tell her what happened to Shawn, but he couldn’t. The deputy coroner was equally perplexed. 

They found her phone and saw the posts on the internet site. As the posts scrolled down, her mother said, it became clear what had happened. Other members of the forum had given Shawn explicit instructions on how to kill herself, describing a three-day regimen that would lead to her death. The recipe included over-the-counter medications that would prevent her from vomiting the poison that would end her life. 

 At one point, the screen shots show, Shawn wrote that she had fallen asleep and missed one of the steps. Another forum member told her it was OK, that missing a day wouldn’t make any difference.  

The series of substances she had ingested were listed in a recipe that Shawn had recorded in her journal. It was the recipe she had found on the website, down to how much of whatever substance to ingest and when. 

Shawn was obviously in pain, but nowhere in the thread had anyone suggested that Shawn call for help, or do anything that would save her life. 

'A very disturbing case'  

Shawn’s step-father, Chip Bieber, said, “She had her issues. We were working on it. But this website never gave her a chance.” 

Her mother said, “Not one person said there is another way. It’s like a cult.” 

After Shawn was gone, a member of her family got in touch with the website. The person who responded only wanted to know whether she had been successful in ending her own life. The person also wanted to know whether she had felt any pain so that it could continue recommending that particular method of suicide to other members.  

Then, the website’s administrators scrubbed the site of Shawn’s posts. 

Her parents preserved the discussion in screen shots and passed them on to investigators. Newberry Township Police Chief Steve Lutz said, “We are looking into it.” He said the department would “see what it can do.” 

York County Coroner Pam Gay said she had heard about such websites and that such things, as a macabre part of her job, shouldn’t shock her, but “it’s shocking to me.” 

“It’s a very disturbing case,” Gay said. “How can people do that and have a conscience and go to bed? It’s just disturbing.” 

Shawn’s parents describe it a different way. 

“It’s sick,” her step-father said.  

Her family, by speaking out, just hopes that they can help someone. They know that nothing they can do will bring Shawn back, but if they can prevent one other person from going down that tragic path, they think it’s worth sharing their grief, that they can raise awareness that such websites exist and that they can be fatal. 

The website claims it's 'pro-choice,' not pro-suicide 

The website – it would be irresponsible to mention its name – posted a disclaimer shortly after Shawn’s death. It describes the site as “a forum where we discuss mental illness and suicide from a perspective of suicidal people, as well as the moral implications of the act itself.” 

“This is a pro-choice forum, not a pro-suicide forum. We are not a pro-suicide forum, nor do we encourage anyone here to commit suicide. We do not provide the means or the tools to do so either.” 

The disclaimer suggests that anyone feeling suicidal call the suicide hotline. It further states, “Beware that they may call emergency services on you if they think you are at imminent risk of death, so keep that in mind when you call. We were hesitant to put this number up because we didn’t want to see members involuntarily committed.” 

In a post on the website, an administrator who goes by the name of Marquis acknowledged Shawn's death and added, "We deleted the thread and banned the member in question in accordance to our rules on 'Goodbye Threads.'"

He wrote that he doesn't blame Shawn's family for ascribing culpability to the forum for her death, but, he added, "At the same time, I don't appreciate the misrepresentation of this forum by the family in the media or the constant calls in the past few days for this forum to be shut down. The accusations of suicide encouragement are completely unfounded. The demonization of this forum by family members and friends of the deceased member on Facebook has been sickening for me to watch.

"To say that our community encourages people to commit suicide is simply not true. To say that this forum 'murdered' this member is false. There's not a single post in the thread that the deceased member posted that encourages suicide in any capacity and to suggest that they were would not be true in the slightest."

In an email, Marquis wrote that the screenshots preserved by Shawn's family were "selective and don't represent the forum at all."

"To my knowledge," he wrote, "there was no specific member that offered her 'a specific recipe.'"

He continued, "I do feel for the family members of Shawn and again my heartfelt condolences go out to her mother. I can't imagine she's going through right now, but I don't think shutting down our website will do any good in this situation. Many members depend on our website for support and I feel that this site has saved many lives, and I simply can't do that to those members. As I said in my thread, any loss of human life will always be sad and tragic."

Other members of the forum were less diplomatic.

Responding to a post by Shawn's family, one person commented, “I like how her mother redirected blame on the website, instead of commenting on what led to the suffering in the first place.” 

Jackie Beiber wept as she read that. 

“It’s evil,” she said. “It’s just evil. That’s all I can think.” 

Seeking strength  

As Jackie Beiber spoke about her daughter, she clutched a Wonder Woman action figure. Her daughter had given it to her on her last birthday. 

“When I need strength,” she said, “I hold onto it.”  

a couple of people sitting posing for the camera: Shawn Shatto's mother, Jackie Bieber, clutches the Wonder Woman figure her daughter gave her, seeking strength. © Mike Argento, York Daily Record/Sunday News Shawn Shatto's mother, Jackie Bieber, clutches the Wonder Woman figure her daughter gave her, seeking strength.

To get help

Crisis Intervention Hotline at 717-632-4900

WellSpan Crisis Intervention at 717-851-5320

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741741

Shawn Shatto's family has requested that memorial contributions be made to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Reach Mike Argento at 717-771-2046 or at mike@ydr.com.

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Suicide assistance: Did website contribute to Shawn Shatto's death?

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