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Ripper Is a Gangster!!!

By Annalee Newitz

I'M PROBABLY the last person on the net to pick up on the horrific and sad Ripper meme. Ripper was the online moniker of 21-year-old Brandon Vedas, a tech support geek at the University of Phoenix in Arizona. On the evening of January 12, he logged onto an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel called "#shroomery," turned on his webcam, and proceeded to ingest a lethal overdose of prescription drugs as the people in the chatroom watched and talked to him.

Somebody saved the logs of Ripper's final chat session, where the people on #shroomery debated whether to intervene when they realized Ripper was overdosing. You can view these logs yourself on the Brandon Vedas website (www.brandonvedas.com/internet.html).

All the articles I've read about Ripper's death have registered a shocked disgust at the apathy of the other people in the chatroom with him. We hear how terrible it was that the denizens of #shroomery egged him on ("That's not much you pussy!" one person taunted Ripper after he'd taken a huge number of pills). But this behavior shouldn't be the point. It's not surprising; it's just part of the colloquial landscape of IRC.

Imagine, for a moment, what it was really like to be on that IRC channel when Ripper logged on. He's on his webcam with a bag of pills which could be anything. They could be Pez or sugar capsules. He's trying hard to impress: "I got a grip of drugs," he announces. "Tune in. Watch." People start hassling him. They don't believe the drugs are genuine, or they think he's just playing when he tells them how many he's already taken. New people are jumping onto the channel all the time and they have no idea whether this Ripper guy is for real or not. That's why you get Grphish joking, "Ripper, if you puke? can i eat it? i'll get so high off that puke."

Meanwhile, Ripper is being tailed by a bot named Pnutbot, a program which pretends to be a person but is really just a chunk of code that tries to spit out semirelevant comments to the #shroomery community. Pnutbot picks up phrases that other people are saying and then repeats them back in a different context. Every time someone says, "Ripper," which begins to be quite frequent as the #shroomery folks get scared that he's OD'ing, Pnutbot shrieks, "Ripper is a gangster!!!"

In between frantic requests from Grphish that people try to find Ripper's real name and address or phone number, Pnutbot keeps surrealistically shouting "Ripper is a gangster!!!" over and over. Finally, Ripper begins to nod out. Grphish is trying to get somebody to call 911 or poison control. Eventually, Ripper types his dying words: "~~~~~~~~~shoa I'm fukcin." Somebody named TheKat, who tells Grphish not to call 911, comments, "You will never know if he died unless he get back on here." The worst part is that as Ripper wolfed down his "grip" of drugs, he told the group how to find his real address in case anything bad happened.

So why didn't Ripper's online pals call 911 when they knew he was dying? Two reasons: they didn't believe it was really happening, and they didn't trust the authorities. I think the latter problem is the more tragic of the two. Given the terrifying crackdown on people who take recreational drugs in the United States, it's not surprising that the #shroomery community was too scared to call 911 when their friend seemed to be OD'ing. Because it was taking place on the Internet, visible only via stuttering webcam images, they couldn't intervene physically.

Sure, they should have overcome their fear and called 911 anyway. And Ripper, a bright young man, shouldn't have been acting like he wanted to win a Darwin Award. But Ripper's death isn't about stupidity or apathy or "peer pressure." Instead, it underscores one of the most dangerous side-effects of the war on drugs: people who need help won't get it. The people on #shroomery really did want to save Ripper. They just couldn't imagine that anything good would come out of calling the authorities.

Now their anguish and indecision are written out for everyone to see. Reading the logs, you can see clearly what happens when people live in so much terror of the authorities that they'd rather watch a friend die than call 911. Ripper wasn't just a victim of drugs. He was also a victim of the war on drugs.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who hopes that next time you'll call 911.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the May 15-21, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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