Police in Pennsylvania are investigating the death of a 25-year-old woman after her family alleged that members of an online suicide forum provided her with instructions and encouragement to kill herself.
Shawn Shatto, whose family said she struggled with anxiety and severe depression, killed herself on May 22.
After going through her phone's browser history, her family found Shatto's posts on a website that claims to be a "pro-choice" forum to "discuss mental illness and suicide from the perspective of suicidal people."
Her family discovered that members of the forum gave Shatto advice on how to die, as well as encouragement when she posted details of her plan.
Shatto's mother, Jacqueline Bieber, took screenshots of her daughter's now-deleted thread on the forum and shared some of them on her Facebook page.
"She lost her life to darkness but she did so in a way with the HELP of darkness," Bieber wrote in a Facebook post. "I never knew she was going to a place like this or that it even existed. But I wanted to bring awareness to people."
The screenshots appear to show that Shatto — who went by another username on the forum — wrote a thread on May 22 describing the method she would use to kill herself.
"Also I feel bad because my mom is just down the hall from me," Shatto wrote in one post on the forum.
A forum member replied to her post expressing doubts about whether Shatto's plan would work.
"I'm not 100% this will work because your mother is down the hall," the user wrote. "If she hears noises coming from your room, she will come in and will call an ambulance if you're in a bad way. I'm not trying to stop you, im just saying," the member added.
In her last post on the forum, Shatto wrote, "I'm fucking terrified."
Other members then wished her luck and success, according to the screenshots.
"Hope it goes smoothly... good luck to you," one member replied to Shatto.
Another said, "wish you success."
"Safe travels, and I hope you find peace," a user replied.
"goodluck. I hope your journey is peaceful," another member said.
Authorities are now analyzing the "digital evidence" surrounding Shatto's death to "determine if a criminal act occurred," Newberry Township Police Chief Steven Lutz told BuzzFeed News on Friday.
Police are examining the way Shatto accessed websites and are looking into her text messages and other content on her electronic devices, Lutz said.
Lutz said that his department is working in conjunction with the district attorney's office to see if there are any criminal statutes in Pennsylvania that would apply to the allegations against the website made by Shatto's family.
A spokesperson for the York County District Attorney's office said they could not comment on ongoing investigations.
Lutz said that the police's investigation was not focused on a single forum.
He said that authorities had to first verify the screenshots provided by Shatto's family. Authorities were trying to determine whether Shatto was being allegedly "coached" or "coaxed" by someone else and whether she was getting her information from other sources.
"She could have had multiple conversations on forums, apps, text messages on her cellphone," Lutz said. "We can't look narrow-mindedly at a single forum."
However, Shatto's family said it is determined to raise awareness about the dangers of such online suicide forums.
"This is not free speech," an emotional Bieber told BuzzFeed News on Friday. "This is murder. Someone needs to be held liable."
Shatto's obituary said she would be remembered for her "kind hearted nature, gentle soul, artistic talent, passion for music, and love for anime and Harry Potter."
"She enjoyed science fiction and fantasy, which allowed her an escape from a world that could be cruel and damaging at times, particularly when suffering from anxiety and severe depression," the obituary said.
Shatto had attended Harrisburg Area Community College and studied science at Penn State Harrisburg. She was employed at an Amazon warehouse at the time of her death.
Bieber said that Shatto had been diagnosed with depression and social anxiety after she began her first year of college.
Six months ago Shatto seemed to be improving and had even mentioned moving out of the family's home and finding her own apartment, her mother said.
But in the last two months, "it just went downhill again," Bieber said.
Shatto was constantly in her room and on her phone.
"She was just looking at that," Bieber said referring to the suicide forum that Shatto became a member of in April. "The darkness of the website sucked her in."
On May 22, Bieber said she was working from home when she realized she hadn't heard from her daughter for a few hours.
When Bieber went to Shatto's bedroom, she found her daughter lying on the floor.
"She was cold. She was blue," Bieber said. "I tried CPR but I could tell looking at her face that she's gone."
Bieber said that she had no idea such websites existed before her daughter's death.
"There are children on this site — 12- and 14-year-olds — talking about suicide," Bieber said.
A disclaimer on the website reads, "This is a pro-choice forum, not a pro-suicide forum. We are not a pro-suicide site, nor do we encourage anyone here to commit suicide."
The disclaimer says that all the information provided on the forum is "for educational purposes only."
"We are not responsible for what you do with that information," the disclaimer says.
Bieber said that the website's "pro-choice" description upsets her.
"If they were helping terminally ill people who were in pain, I can understand," Bieber said. "But the people on this site are depressed and lonely. They just need help."
One of the forum's administrators, who goes by the username Marquis, wrote a long post on Tuesday defending the site.
"We will not let the outrage mob get this forum taken down," Marquis wrote.
Marquis said that after being made aware that Shatto had died, her thread was deleted and she was "banned" in accordance to the forum's rules on "Goodbye Threads."
Giving his condolences to Shatto's family, Marquis wrote, "Any loss of human life will always be sad and tragic, and I do really feel for the family in this situation."
Marquis then criticized Shatto's family for "demonization of this forum" on social media. "To say that this forum 'murdered' this member is false," he said.
Marquis said that it was against the forum's rules to encourage suicide, and anyone who did it was removed from the community.
"We strive to make this community a censorship-free place where people can discuss suicide without having to worry about being involuntarily committed and held against their will," Marquis wrote in the post.
Bieber said she is seeking legal recourse to have the website taken down and that she is in touch with local and state representatives about bringing attention to this issue.
"It's like these people running the site are getting off on watching people die," Bieber said. "They feed off it. It's so disturbing."
She said that her family has been vocal about Shatto's suicide and the forum to make sure other parents never have to go through something like this.
"My daughter was standing at the edge of a cliff holding her hand out for help," Bieber said. "Instead of someone holding her back, they just pushed her over the edge."