Courtesy the Tripathi family

Sunil’s saga: Family double-victimized by depression, Internet witch hunt

In wake of Boston bombing, Sunil Tripathi’s family faced outburst of false accusations after his disappearance

The surveillance footage — put together from several mounted video cameras — shows a 22-year-old college student walking through the cold Providence night, his gait determined but almost aimless.

Sunil Tripathi, then an upperclassman at Brown University in Rhode Island, was moving through the dark, lonely streets on campus on March 16, 2013, toward a destination from which he would never return. A victim of severe depression, he had left his wallet and cellphone behind before taking his life at Providence Harbor.

But Tripathi’s body was not located for many weeks, until April 23, forcing his family and friends through a heart-wrenching ordeal to find their missing loved one. The agonizing story is featured in a new documentary, "Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi," airing Sunday on Al Jazeera.

After he went missing, siblings, parents, relatives and classmates gathered at a university house from near and far to collect information, trace his steps, put the clues together and try to bring him home. Yet the social media platforms on which an outpouring of support for the family was generated soon became conduits of tremendously hurtful — and false — allegations that Tripathi was a Boston Marathon bombing suspect.

The virtual mob mentality that erupted on Reddit and other Internet platforms was the culmination of crowdsourced investigating that law enforcement authorities initially encouraged. However, the results of the mass misidentification proved a witch hunt that sought to implicate Tripathi in the two explosions in Boston that killed three people and injured more than 260 others.

At the family home in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, his sister, Sangeeta Tripathi, received 58 missed calls from 3:00 to 4:00 that eerie night, her phone buzzing nonstop on the hardwood floor.

Relentless reporters, from The Associated Press to CNN, were calling for more information about her brother. And little did they know that the Tripathi family — unfairly targeted by overzealous digital sleuths and a finger-pointing bandwagon — was going through a horribly tragic month that turned into a “night out of hell,” as Judy Tripathi, Sunil Tripathi’s mother, described it.

“At the beginning of his junior year, school started to be really hard for him,” says his sister in the documentary. “And that’s not him.” He was lacking enthusiasm and seemed to have lost his sense of purpose. She says he began to care less about playing music, which was one of his passions. “It’s hard because you’re watching somebody struggle and you just want to fix it.” 

Her mom says, “I was really worried … He could not go back to school … He said to me at one point, ‘I can’t sleep. I lay in bed, and all I do is think and think … and I can’t stop thinking.’” The family tried intervening, pushing him toward counseling. However, he wasn’t interested in seeking professional help for his depression. 

“This was always the worst nightmare that we never really wanted to talk about with each other,” says Akhil Tripathi, Sunil Tripathi’s father.

“Every day that there was no news came with a roller coaster of emotions, from being very hopeful that no news was good news to just being very frightened that no news meant that we were still there and that we were still looking.”

Courtesy the Tripathi family

It was even more devastating for the family to see the public mistaking Sunil Tripathi for a Boston bomber, saying his photos resembled that of a young man in widely distributed images of the perpetrators. His depression, his disappearance and their frantic search struck the Tripathis to their core, and the media circus compounded their grief.

“What started off as people saying ‘This image and your brother look the same’ became ‘This image is your brother,’” Sangeeta Tripathi says. “That became ‘How are you providing a cover for your brother to do this?’ … My mother kept wanting to pick up her phone, because she said, ‘What if it’s Sunil?’ I said, ‘It’s not Sunil.’”

After the dust cleared and the real culprits were publicly known, tremendous damage had been done to the troubled Tripathis, and Sunil Tripathi was one of the approximately 1,100 college students to commit suicide each year.

Newly aware of the dangers that depression poses for struggling young adults, his mother, father, sister and brother still have regrets.

“The one thing we didn’t realize is we did not know how real suicide risk is,” says Sangeeta Tripathi. “We couldn’t reach him, and there’s a lot of other people who can’t feel reached.”

Akhil Tripathi says he hopes the documentary will bring awareness of depression among young people and help prevent them from ending their lives. “If it helps even one person, then it’s worthwhile,” he says. “We need to lend a hand and keep providing support.”

But according to Sunil Tripathi’s brother, Ravi Tripathi, finding and recognizing those young people truly on the edge is not easy. He says his brother “had good friends and was very likable. But he was, deep down, I imagine, going through really difficult times dealing with his own anxieties.”

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