Hayden Berkebile is a 29-year-old man who lives in Indiana. Pudgy, pale, balding, with glasses, he was not likely to be voted “sexiest man” of any year.
He’d had an unkempt brown beard and mustache, but shaved it off to look more clean-cut for trial. He came from a family of 13 kids. He worked as a bouncer at a strip club.
And he has just been convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the suicide death of Grace Anne Sparks, which took place miles away in Tennessee.
In 2013, when he sought out the chat website Omegle, that pairs strangers together, he’d hoped to find someone he could commiserate with about being physically and sexually abused, since he had given up on therapy. He wanted to talk to someone who hated him less than he hated himself.
WHO WAS GRACE SPARKS?
Sparks was a 19-year-old woman who grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. With long blonde hair, blue eyes and a beaming smile, she was beautiful. She had dreams of becoming a veterinarian. But she was hiding dark secrets…
When she was around 13 years old, the demons from her childhood caused her to seek solace on the same chat website, Omegle. There she connected with Berkebile because they each had suffered trauma and abuse, which caused chronic anxiety and depression. They both also had chronic suicidal ideation. But they were ambivalent about wanting to die and comforted each other in a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
Sparks’ dysfunctional relationship with her father caused her to seek a substitute, making her vulnerable to Berkebile, who was about 8 years older. She was looking for love from a father figure that she was missing from her own. And these ‘daddy-issues’ ultimately led to her death.
Berkebile could only satisfy these needs to a point because he lived far away.
So, when Sparks was 17 years old, she joined the Sugar Baby-Sugar Daddy website, Seeking Arrangements, and found 44-year-old Jim Landreth.
When he became aware that she was only 17, he waited to have sexual relations with her. When she became 18, he moved her into his house and took care of her. She introduced him to BDSM, where he became the dominant and she was the submissive. Sparks had fears of abandonment that gave her nightmares. So, in 2019, when Landreth was deployed in the military, she went to Indiana to see Berkebile for the first and only time.
In 2013, fate – or an algorithm – paired them together on Omegle. The relationship eventually turned sexual with a BDSM theme – online and once in person. Throughout it all, they were unconsciously acting out scenarios from their childhood – at times acting as the victim, other times identifying with the aggressor, their abusers.
He was looking for someone he could control, who would provide sexual excitement. And perhaps, he was also looking to watch someone die. Berkebile was the dominant partner and he directed Sparks, over video chat, to be involved with kinky sex acts and suicide games, including Russian Roulette, for his sexual gratification.
In June or July 2019, Sparks and Berkebile met in person and had a BDSM sexual encounter. Between this explosive meeting and the day she died, the intensity of their online communications increased. These included: cutting, denigration, control, sex, role-play, gunplay and suicide games. It was a kaleidoscope of fantasy mixed with reality and it was spinning ever faster, taking them to dizzying heights.
Countless times, when Berkebile would tell her he wanted to kill her, Sparks would give subservient responses, such as, “How do you want me to die? Revolver? Naked?... Yes, Daddy.” Other times she would respond with, “I don’t want to die.” And other times, “Use me. It will make me feel good to be useful…. I love you. I think you’re special.”
On Aug. 30, 2019, He wrote, “I want to kill you.” Grace asked, “Why?” Hayden responded, “I don’t know. I’m so grrrr….” “Please try to put it in words. I want to understand.” “I don’t have words. I just have needs.” “What are you doing at the moment?” “I’m in the bathroom masturbating.”
Finally, on Sept. 29, 2019, Berkebile said, “I want to kill you.” Grace replied, “I trust you not to kill me. I’m afraid, but I still trust you. I love you. This is to serve you.”
Then, suddenly Sparks pulled the trigger. This time there was a bullet loaded in the .357 Magnum. She was in her room, her phone propped up in front of her, with Berkebile online.
When he heard the gunshot, he screamed, “No!” and called 911. He was hysterical, weeping and frightened. He still claims he’d hoped she hadn’t died. He knew she hadn’t wanted to die. But S[parks may have represented all the women who’d rejected him, who were out of his league in terms of ever wanting a committed relationship.
Sparks’ father was in the next room. He claims not to have heard the shot, and it would have been too late to save her. But the scenario is rife with Freudian imagery – as she shot herself in the head, her father (who in my opinion, may be the real person responsible for her suicide) sat outside the door. What better way to take revenge on Daddy – even if only unconsciously – than to kill yourself at his feet?
According to the prosecutor, and Sparks’ mother, she didn’t want to die the day she shot herself. She had enjoyed dance class, lunch with a friend and had submitted a job application – not the kinds of things one usually does when they expect to die later that day. But Sparks’ mother was oblivious. Later, she would confess, “My baby was in pain and I didn’t know.”
There was no question that Sparks shot herself, but the jury had to decide whether Berkebile should be held criminally responsible when he was miles away.
The prosecution claimed Berkebile provoked Sparks to shoot herself “for his viewing pleasure.” The defense claimed they were both “damaged people” who played with fire too long, but not because Berkebile wanted her to die. He may well not have wanted her to die because he seemed like a very lonely man, and she was his longest friendship, if not his only friend.
There were 1,300 pages of thousands of text messages between the two of them, which formed the major part of the trial. These messages reflected their confused and conflicted feelings about suicide, sex, past trauma and their relationship.
So, it was even more confusing for the jury when these texts were read aloud by strangers, who couldn’t possibly know the inflections and feelings of Berkebile and Sparks behind each word.
Ultimately, the Tennessee court convicted Berkebile of criminally negligent homicide, a class E Felony, which carries a potential sentence of 1 to 6 years.
This month, a judge sentenced Berkebile to two years behind bars, according to reports..
This case is similar to that of Massachusetts v. Michelle Carter. She was convicted of manslaughter for having convinced her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, via text messages, to commit suicide.
We have entered a new age, where people can not only use their phones and laptops to order food because they’re hungry, but order others to kill themselves because their damaged psyche never got enough therapy. And they can be convicted of homicide and manslaughter — through coercion — without being anywhere near their victim.