Tyler Clementi was one of those kids who spent a lot of time on his own-not weird, just quiet. "He was always by himself with his iPod in his ears," says Kevin Muldoon, 17, a former classmate at New Jersey's Ridgewood High School. But when he picked up his violin, the shy teen came alive. "There was deep emotion when he put that bow to his violin," says friend Morgan Knight, 18. "That's how he expressed himself."
Clementi did not get to play late on Sept. 22; instead he drove to the George Washington Bridge and jumped into the Hudson River. The tragedy of his suicide, at 18, has affected people around the world because of what preceded it: Just three days earlier, his freshman roommate at New Jersey's Rutgers University, Dharun Ravi, 18, allegedly webcammed Clementi in an encounter with a man in their dorm room and streamed it live. Authorities have charged Ravi and another student-Molly Wei, 18, whose computer Ravi allegedly used-with invasion of privacy, which could lead to five years in prison. (The prosecutor is considering adding hate crime charges, which carry a maximum 10-year sentence but said Oct. 4 there may not be enough evidence.) What officials and friends are struggling to answer: Was this cold blooded cyber-bullying or a dumb prank with awful, unforeseen consequences? "It's not clear Mr. Ravi was motivated to harm Tyler because he was gay," says former federal prosecutor Henry Klingeman. "But given the suicide and the attention, I'm certain the prosecutor will seek prison time."
The harassment Clementi may have felt is all too common. A 2005 Harris poll found 90 percent of gay and lesbian teens say they've been bullied in the past year. And nearly two-thirds of these students feel unsafe in school, according to a 2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. In September alone, three other teens took their own lives after homophobic taunting (see box). Still, the actions that may have prompted Clementi to kill himself seem particularly heartless, and they have touched a nerve across the country, sparking a national conversation on bullying and prompting talk show host Ellen DeGeneres to declare, "Something must be done." Clementi's mother, father and two brothers "are devastated," says Emanuel Sosinsky, president of the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra, with which Clementi played. "They were always so supportive of him."
Clementi may not have had a big circle of friends, but he made an impression on the ones he had. "When I felt isolated, he showed me an immense amount of compassion," says Morgan Knight. Clementi dazzled conductors and fellow violinists with his technique. But if he shared his musical gifts with the world, he kept his personal life hidden. "He was, as far as I know, completely in the closet," says Knight. Clementi once called himself "practically asexual" in postings on the Internet message board JustUsBoys.com; there, he said, "I honestly don't think people are mature enough to be having sex prior to collegeish years."
On Sept. 19 Clementi invited a man to his dorm room. Clementi "asked for the room till midnight," Ravi tweeted that evening. "I went into Molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw [Clementi] making out with a dude. Yay." According to someone close to Wei, several students came to her room to watch. Two days later Ravi tweeted he was going to secretly webcam Clementi again and share it with his Internet chat group. "Video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12," he tweeted. "It's happening again."
By then Clementi had learned about the webcam and shut it down. He discussed the matter on the Internet forum and possibly with a resident adviser. "I'm kinda pissed," he wrote in a Sept. 21 post entitled "college roommate spying." Even so, he didn't seem overly distraught in the message-board postings and even called Ravi "a pretty decent roommate." Yet just a day later, at 8:42 p.m., Clementi posted this terse status update on Facebook: "Jumping off the gw bridge. Sorry."
While Clementi's friends and family grieve, those who know Ravi and Wei-both popular, solid students-are stunned. Ravi "found irony and dark situations funny," says his friend Josh Rutstein. "He's not a monster." The outgoing Wei, a pharmacy student, "is one of the most caring people I've met," says a close friend. Wei's lawyer Rubin Sinins insists, "She did nothing wrong and committed no crime. There's not an ounce of bias in her."
Ravi and Wei were released while investigators keep digging into the case. Meanwhile hundreds of mourners held a vigil for Clementi on the Rutgers campus Oct. 3, and even those who never knew him seemed to sense his gentle spirit. "His parents lost a wonderful son, and we've lost a wonderful human being," says Emanuel Sosinsky. "His death is a loss to the world."
BEGINNING OCT. 4, PEOPLE AND CNN ARE PARTNERING FOR A WEEKLONG SPECIAL AC 360 SERIES ON BULLYING, AND A PEOPLE-CNN-CARTOON NETWORK TOWN HALL AIRING OCT. 8 AT 10 P.M. ON CNN
- Nicole Weisensee Egan/New Jersey,
- Diane Herbst/New Jersey,
- Charlotte Triggs/New Jersey,
- Lesley Messer/New York City,
- Joanne Fowler/New York City,
- Daniel S. Levy/New York City,
- Nadine Shabeeb/New York City.