When Marine veteran Daniel Rey Wolfe signed on to Facebook on Monday night and announced he was taking his own life, documenting the process in a graphic timeline of final self-portraits, his former comrades worked quickly and purposefully to save their brother-in-arms.
Their best efforts came too late. Wolfe had killed himself—a fact that Facebook reminded them of over the next two days, as the social-media site refused to remove the grisly series of photographs he’d taken of his suicide, despite the requests of his friends and veterans’ organizations.
Wolfe was an amphibious assault vehicle crewman in the Marine Corps, a father, and a lifelong artist with a passion for loud music and graphic design. He also appeared to struggle with money and politics and purpose—struggles that culminated in Wolfe taking his own life with a blade in a squat outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Monday night.
Wolfe’s passing is the kind of postwar tragedy that illustrates how American veterans still need more resources and counseling than they’re getting, as the wars wind down and the Department of Veteran Affairs wrestles with corruption and increased workloads.
But his suicide also throws into relief the difficulties that social networks face in creating a one-size-fits-all policy to moderate photographs and status updates. And, critically, it reveals a macabre blind spot in Facebook’s “community standards,” behind which a suicide victim’s final moments can appear on the site indefinitely, despite the protestations of people who loved him.
“His friends and family were exposed to images they should never had to [have] seen,” Douglas Tripp, one of Wolfe’s former Marine comrades told me in an email. “Who needs to see their son, brother, cousin or friend like that? They will remove a picture of a bare ass or exposed breast with the quickness. How are those more dangerous than a young man mutilating himself before he commits suicide?”
Wolfe served in the Corps from 2004 to 2008, including a trip to Iraq. An imposing guy at 6’3″ and anywhere from 260 to 300 pounds, he “had a good personality and could burn pretty much anyone,” one shipmate said of him in a Facebook tribute. His social media postings depict a man with a soft spot for his drawings, his daughter, and guns, not unlike many of his comrades.
But he’d had a rough time of it lately. In recent years, he collected a string of speeding tickets and two arrests for undisclosed charges in Southern California. He was taken in for public intoxication in Texas. And he was known by the police—not as a troublemaker, but as a troubled man—in his latest haunt, the Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow. “We had run into Daniel one time or two,” says Maj. Mark Irwin, the spokesman for Broken Arrow’s police department, “going from place to place.” He was known as a guy who was “down on his luck,” and several officers in the department with prior military service had offered him help in the past: “One of the officers, she gave him a little bit of money.”
Perhaps it was the transition to civilian life, which had bothered so many of the fellow Marines who had served in Wolfe’s unit. “You get home and it feels like you have been stuck in time, you feel isolated, you do the things that you did in the Corps—wake up, PT, make your bed,” Tripp says. “The way you talk the way you interact with other Marines isn’t social acceptable. Friends don’t understand what you went through. You have no job, nothing to do. If you do have a job, it feels unimportant.”
Whatever troubled Wolfe, by Sunday night he’d had enough. His Facebook updates began to take a morose turn.
After that, Wolfe posted four photographs. The first one is of half-empty bottles of vodka and Jack Daniel’s on a house floor. The corner of a handwritten note pokes into the frame on one side, with two words visible: “ROT IN”.
The caption Wolfe gave the photo was “Byeee bitches.”
The final three photographs show a left leg and arm with numerous cuts and scratches grooved into them. Deep punctures are visible on the leg.
“Is it real yet fuckers,” Wolfe asks in the first caption (all quotes sic). One commenter responds at 8:45 p.m.: “what do you mean is it real yet fuckers? Some of us tried to help you.” A second adds, half an hour later: “And still currently trying to help.”
On the second of the grim series, a flurry of friends begins to comment, urging Wolfe to tell them where he is and to reach out to someone, anyone.
On the final photo, Wolfe comments: “Im leakinging good now.”
The graphic photos began to pop up in friends’ news feeds, unbidden, as other people commented them, Tripp says. “That’s how most of us saw them.”
By Tuesday morning, Wolfe’s Facebook friends were marshaling their resources on his Facebook page to try and locate him. “I will continue doing what I can but this is a group effort I will keep all informed and have not and will not rest until he is found,” one wrote.
“Apparently he was seen recently in Broken Arrow, OK,” another responded. “They found his phone in a bush I guess.”
Another: “When I talked to the VA Crisis Line, they are familiar with his name (I think from many of us calling last night) and they are working with the local authorities to do what they can.”
Another: “battles in distress have contacted local police hospitals and firedeparts men looking for him.”
The concerned men and women cast wide nets, contacting everyone they could, placing alerts on their military group pages.
Irwin told me that Broken Arrow police officers found Wolfe’s body in “an unoccupied dwelling” late Tuesday night after a call from neighbors. “As a matter of fact, it was right by City Hall,” he said.
Irwin, disappointment in his voice, estimated Wolfe had been gone less than a day: “He had used a knife and had cut himself up pretty bad.”
Immediately after news of Wolfe’s death reached his Marine friends, they set out reporting his grim photos to Facebook, so the site could remove the images from his profile. They had a good case, too: “Facebook takes threats of self-harm very seriously,” the site’s community standards state. “We remove any promotion or encouragement of self-mutilation, eating disorders or hard drug abuse.” Elsewhere, the guidelines state: “[G]raphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence have no place on our site.”
Yet when dozens of people reportedly contacted Facebook about the photos, they got a startling response. Gawker was first made aware of the issue when one of Wolfe’s friends emailed us the screenshot below. “We reviewed the photo you reported for containing graphic violence and found it doesn’t violate our community standards,” the response reads, directly below a copy of each unsettling photograph.