Ricky Rash’s search for answers began almost from the moment he found his son’s body in a field a few miles from their Virginia farm.
Why would a 15-year-old boy take his own life? Why especially this boy, a hard-working teenager whose dreams and intelligence seemed sure to take him far beyond his Nottoway County dairy farm? Here was a kid who was big for his age but gentle, who loved to read so much that he carried his Kindle into the woods when he hunted deer and talked of going to Virginia Tech and then maybe Harvard Law School.
After Eric’s suicide in January 2011, Ricky and Diane Rash hunted for clues to explain their son’s death, including his Facebook page. But they found that the Internet giant, citing state and federal privacy laws, blocked their access until their son’s estate was settled. So now the Rashes want to change the law.
“We were just grieving parents reaching out for anything we could,” Ricky Rash said. “Our issue with Facebook and social media is, we should have access.”
On Monday, the Virginia Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill that would make it easier for parents, guardians or other legal representatives to obtain access to a minor’s online accounts after the minor’s death.
“Any parent in this situation would want to find answers,” said Del. David L. Bulova (D-Fairfax), a co-sponsor of the bill. “This is the 2013 equivalent of what you would store under your bed. Today, we store it on a server.”
Bulova initially pushed for a law that would give more sweeping access. The measure now — which was rolled into a bill sponsored by Del. Thomas C. Wright Jr. (R-Lunenburg) — left the Senate Courts of Justice Committee last week by a vote of 8 to 6, with one abstention. Another version, which passed the Senate, is moving through the House.
Bulova said these measures all wrestle with an issue not addressed by the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act. He said the 1986 law, which allows children as young as 13 to enter terms of service agreements, also shields their privacy, even from their parents after the child’s death.
Yet Facebook and other Internet services find themselves in a difficult position.
“These are tragic situations and Facebook always tries to be as helpful to families as possible while still complying with federal and state law,” Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said in an e-mail.
Facebook will deactivate an account, removing the profile and associated information, after families or loved ones provide proof of the loved one’s death. With documentation of a person’s death, Facebook allows that page to become an online memorial where friends and family can post remembrances.
“In those rare cases where the family of the deceased seeks access to the contents of their loved one’s account, we will respond in a way that is sensitive to their loss and is consistent with applicable law, which limits a provider’s ability to disclose data to third parties,” said Noyes, who is Facebook’s manager of public policy communications.
The nonpartisan Uniform Law Commission is drafting model legislation to deal with digital assets as part of an estate. These assets, including music downloads, client lists and online gaming pieces, can sometimes be valuable, the commission said. Only five states — Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma and Rhode Island — have enacted laws giving fiduciaries access to them, the commission said. It also reported that there are an estimated 30 million Facebook accounts belonging to dead people.
The Rashes aren’t even sure whether their son’s Facebook account would shed light on his death. But they wanted to try, because nothing else explains what happened to Eric,who stood about 6 feet 2 and weighed 260 pounds.
“He had no desire to play football because he didn’t want to hurt anybody,” his father said.
His son’s real passion was reading. After helping his father milk cows, he would plow through “Harry Potter” or classics such as “The Count of Monte Cristo.” But he wasn’t just good with words. His father said Eric was an A student who was as conversant in calculus and biology as he was with literature and Civil War history.
“I would have liked to have seen him go onto Teen Tournament on ‘Jeopardy!,’ ” his father said. “Can you tell I’m proud of him?”
Ricky Rash said the only time Eric ever did something notably defiant was when he set up a Facebook page after they had told him he couldn’t. When his parents found out, they forced him to deactivate it — a decision they later reversed. But nothing he did ever suggested he was battling inner demons.
“The night before I found him, Eric did his homework. He helped me at the barn. We had a family dinner,” Rash said. “He literally kissed his mother good night.”
The next morning, at 5 on Jan. 20, 2011, as Ricky Rash was preparing to milk cows, he got a call from the county’s 911 dispatcher. The dispatcher said Eric had just reported finding a dead body on Harper Road.
Finding his son’s bed empty, Ricky Rash drove to Harper Road. There, not far from his son’s car, Ricky Rash saw a body lying face down in a field and assumed it was a prank.
“I was yelling for Eric to stop playing,” Ricky Rash recalled. But as he walked toward the figure, each step brought him closer to a horrifying realization.
“I knew it was his shoes. I knew it was his size, his hair,” Rash said. “I could see enough of the shotgun to know it was mine.”
There in the field on a cold, dreadful morning, under a full moon, his grieving began. So did the questions. Sheriff’s deputies posed more: Did his son have a girlfriend? Was he in trouble? Had he gotten a bad grade? Had he been visiting troubling sites on the Internet?
When Ricky Rash returned home, he went straight to the computer to see for himself. But he discovered that he could not get onto his son’s Facebook page. They tried guessing his passwords, to no avail.
Facebook eventually turned over some information from Eric’s page, but his father was not satisfied.
“I’m still locked out, to this day,” Rash said.