Hollywood suicide points to chemical danger
LOS ANGELES – The suicide of a young woman in the Hollywood Hills might have seemed just another sad Tinseltown story but for large notes plastered on the window of the car in which she died: "Danger! Chemicals Inside! Call 911."
Police and coroner's investigators had seen this before — three or four times in the past year — and they knew the danger was real to them and the neighborhood. Had the chemical cloud escaped from the car with people nearby, many others could have died, according to authorities. An evacuation of residents was contemplated but never carried out.
Equally troubling was the fact that directions for the chemical suicide method, first publicized in Japan, were obtained from an easily accessible website through which the woman formed a suicide pact with a stranger who backed out at the last minute.
Police Detective Kevin Becker said 23-year-old Ana Gutierrez, an unemployed resident of suburban Culver City, had formed an online friendship with the man in a suicide chat room.
"She had financial problems and couldn't find work. Both of them had some issues and they decided it was time to go," Becker said.
From information provided by the man, whom Becker refused to identify, the two decided to use a method described on the suicide site. It involved mixing chemicals into a toxic brew that when released would kill anyone in the vicinity instantly.
"I've seen plenty of suicides but not like this," said Becker, who went to the scene on the morning of May 23.
Someone who had seen this sort of thing before was Los Angeles County coroner's spokesman Ed Winter, who also went to the upscale neighborhood not far from the Hollywood Bowl.
"That was our third or fourth one in 12 to 15 months," Winter said. "They originally popped up overseas. The most publicized one was in Japan where a porn star posted that she was going to do it and she did."
Winter said his office has been aware of the website, which gives instructions for a mixture of chemicals including hydrogen sulfide, which was used in the Hollywood case. He said the mixture is incredibly lethal.
"One big breath, and boom. That's it," Winter said.
He said there were about six bottles of chemicals in the car where the woman was found.
For officers working the case, it brought back memories of a 2009 incident in Pasadena. A shopping center was evacuated after a 23-year-old man carried out a similar suicide, posting notes on the outside of a car with a skull and crossbones warning of chemical dangers. In that case, the car was locked in 100-degree heat but there were no injuries to officers who wore protective gear to open it.
Winter said coroner's investigators have learned of about 35 cases nationwide in the past two years of people killing themselves in a similar way. The common link is the use of lethal chemicals in an enclosed space, usually a car, and the signs posted to warn that there is a potential for a larger catastrophe if the poisons are released into the area.
While most suicides affect only the deceased and their families, these cases have the potential to kill strangers.
According to Becker's reconstruction of the incident, Gutierrez and the man met up in Hollywood, had some food and quite a bit of alcohol.
"He told us he couldn't hold his liquor and he got sick," said Becker. "He got out of the car and stumbled away. No way would he have been alive if he had stayed in the car."
Becker said the man wandered away, then came back later to check on the woman and found her dead. He walked to a nearby hotel and called 911. Becker said the man mentioned the notes on the car referring to a chemical, and police raced to the scene followed by a Fire Department hazardous materials crew in protective suits.
"Coincidentally, the hazmat officers had done a training exercise on chemical suicides the week before," he said. "If they didn't know about it, the officers could have been injured." And if anyone had opened the door while the chemical was active, he said they could have been killed.
As it turned out, the door was open and the woman had fallen out on the passenger side of the car, he said. By the time authorities arrived, the fumes were dissipating.
"This is a do-it-yourself method," Becker said. "It forms a toxic cloud." Once released from the enclosed space, it dissipates quickly, he said.
Police and fire officials cordoned off the area around the scene for several hours and warned residents about a possible evacuation, but it wasn't necessary.
"It was very unnerving," said Mike Chessler, a TV writer who lives near where the car was parked. "I looked outside and saw a police car blocking my garage and the body was lying across the street between the car and the curb. And then there were suddenly so many people here."
Chessler said he suspected the woman and man might have been the same people he saw about a month earlier sitting on a curb across the street from his home.
Becker said he didn't know why they chose the location. The case remains under investigation, he said, and the woman's distraught parents were being interviewed.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said the bureau has been made aware of the Hollywood incident but has no direct involvement.
"We collect intelligence on these incidents, clearly because of the potential for criminal or terrorist uses," she said.
Attorney Douglas Mirell, who has handled cases involving Internet crimes, said the only way for someone to try to shut down the website would be to find the internet service provider for the website and investigate whether the website operator is violating the ISP's terms of service contract.
The website operators, however, may be protected from prosecution because they are neither encouraging nor discouraging suicide. Nor are they selling the ingredients for the chemical mixture.
Associated Press writer Thomas Watkins contributed to this report.