TRENTON, N.J. – A former Rutgers University freshman who prosecutors said used a webcam to spy on his roommate’s same-sex encounter was charged Wednesday with a hate crime and accused of deleting tweets and texts to cover up his tracks.
Dharun Ravi, 19, was indicted in Middlesex County on 15 counts including bias intimidation and invasion of privacy in events that predated the suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who in death started a national conversation on the perils of bullying.
Ravi had already faced invasion of privacy charges along with another Rutgers student, Molly Wei. It took prosecutors months to present their case to a grand jury alleging that Ravi targeted Clementi because of his sexual orientation and tried to broadcast the encounter online to intimidate his roommate.
The cascade of events started the day Ravi “learned the name of his roommate,” Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan said in a statement, not elaborating. The charges do not link the alleged spying to Clementi’s suicide.
“The grand jury indictment spells out cold and calculated acts against our son, Tyler, by his former college roommate,” Clementi’s parents, Jane and Joe Clementi, said in a statement. “If these facts are true, as they appear to be, then it is important for our criminal justice system to establish clear accountability under the law.”
The indictment is an important step in a heartbreaking case, state Attorney General Paula Dow said.
The state’s hate crime law “recognizes the terrible harm caused by acts of bigotry and hatred and imposes harsher punishment on those who commit such crimes,” Dow said.
If convicted of the most serious bias charge, Ravi could face five to 10 years in prison.
Kaplan said charges against Wei weren’t presented to the grand jury. It was unclear Wednesday whether a case against Wei would go before a grand jury or whether she helped prosecutors in the case against Ravi.
An attorney for Ravi did not return a call seeking comment, and Wei’s attorney declined to comment.
Prosecutors have said that Ravi used Wei’s computer in her dorm room to activate a webcam on a computer in his room to view and stream Clementi’s encounter. Prosecutors said Ravi tried the same thing during a second encounter Sept. 21, the day before Clementi’s suicide.
Ravi posted a message on his now-closed Twitter account on Sept. 19 that read: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
Two days later, he wrote on Twitter: “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”
Lawyers for Ravi and Wei later said that the webcam stream was viewed on only a single computer and did not show the men having sex.
The indictment said the sexual encounter was seen and accuses Ravi of targeting Clementi and invading his privacy, knowing that his roommate would be intimidated because of his sexual orientation.
The indictment also suggests that Ravi tried to cover up his actions, by deleting a Twitter post letting others know how they could view the second encounter, and replacing it with a false tweet. It said that Ravi also deleted text messages sent and received by witnesses and gave false information to police — all with the intent of misleading investigators.
A poster in a gay-themed chat room who appears to have been Clementi said he unplugged Ravi’s computer and searched for hidden cameras before the second liaison.
Clementi had apparently complained to the university about his roommate, and Rutgers officials have said they did all they could.
The young man left a note on his Facebook page on Sept. 22 that read: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
Clementi was a promising violinist — and out to his parents, an attorney told The Associated Press on Wednesday — in his first weeks at college when he took his life.
His death came amid a string of high-profile suicides nationwide of young people who were gay or perceived to be gay.
Partly because of the way he killed himself — jumping off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River — his suicide became the tipping point and led to a national conversation about bullying.
President Barack Obama, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and sex columnist Dan Savage talked publicly about his death, even videotaping statements, saying that young gays and lesbians need to know that life gets better after the torment of teen years.
New Jersey toughened its anti-bullying law in the months after Clementi’s suicide.
On Wednesday, gay rights activists cheered the indictment as an act of justice and a warning to would-be bullies.
“Without question, the indictment is in the best interests of justice and in the best interests of students across New Jersey, for their potential bullies will now think harder before demolishing another student’s life,” said Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality.
Gov. Chris Christie in January signed a law requiring the codes of conduct at public colleges to address bullying.
Clementi’s parents have filed notice preserving their right to sue Rutgers, saying the university failed to put in place or enforce policies to deter such acts.
Their attorney, Paul Mainardi, said Wednesday that they are “in negotiations” with Rutgers.