Its been a year since Sean’s death. The shock evolved into deep sadness and sorrow, then a dull ache and sense of emptiness. We all miss Sean immensely. With time we’ve gathered as much information and facts as possible and have developed a perspective on the events that lead up to his tragic decision to take his life. Many rumors circulated after his death and by sharing this story we hope to set the record straight based on the facts we now know.
Friday, May 13, 2005 was an ordinary day for our family. Sean would be attending the Junior Prom that night at the high school. He attended classes that day, busied himself running errands, weight lifting, showering, and tackling the hundred little details associated with such events. According to our observations and those of his friends, he had a great day. We saw him for the last time that evening at the fountain on the PSUC campus where the kids had gathered to take pictures. He looked wonderful in his tux. Happy with his date. Relaxed. Handsome.
It was around 5:30 when we met the limo and other parents. We admired the kids, took pictures and then all twenty of them got back into the limo and went to dinner. It was a joyous environment and the kids all looked so handsome and beautiful.
Sean made the first mistake in the chain of tragic events that led to his death when he decided to drink alcohol that night. He was not alone as other students (not all) in the limo elected to drink with him. According to the State Police reports, Sean brought his own alcohol and was drinking it out of a Poland Spring water bottle after dinner when the kids got back in the limo. We were told by Sean’s friends at the prom that many other attendees had consumed some amount of alcohol that evening. Unfortunately, underage drinking is not uncommon, especially at events like proms and dances.
In addition to alcohol, Sean had recently begun to take over-the-counter nutritional supplements, purchased from a well known store in the mall, to enhance his athletic performance (Sean was on the track team). We had told him not to take these products, assuring him that a healthy, well balanced diet provided all the nutrition he needed, but he argued they were safe and legal and might help him improve his performance.
Based on his friend’s observations at the prom, Sean and his date had a wonderful time, dancing, spending time with friends, and generally chilling out. Towards the end of the evening, Sean was observed by one of the chaperones as acting odd and reported. There are many versions of what happened between the time the limo arrived at PHS and the time that Sean was reported to the Principal. The following are some of the anonymous statements from the Plattsburgh City School District’s private investigator’s report:
“I saw him dancing later on and I was near enough to him to smell alcohol but I didn’t, he was one to stand out in a crowd because he was a great kid…I went over to him and made small talk in order to smell his breath and check his eyes. We talked a little about Boston College and how nice he looked. I’d say the time was about 11 p.m. I’d say that Sean was acting normal at that time. I went and told another chaperone that I got right into his face and could smell no alcohol.”
“I saw nothing to make me believe that Sean had been drinking or anyone else at the dance.”
“Sean’s actions were brought to my attention and later on I found him dancing and he looked okay so I kept an eye on him and saw him in the hallway. I saw him bolt down the hall to the bathroom and I think the time was close to crowning, between 11 pm and midnight. I saw him near the drinking fountain taking drinks, wiping his mouth and looking real out of it.“
“I saw Sean acting at first silly. He acts silly at times and is a great kid. He ran out of the gym and I couldn’t find him and later I saw him dancing. He walked fast, not really running. I think he went to the bathroom. Later on he was hanging around the doors right here by the gym in front of the cafeteria and he was just like moving his head back and forth acting just more than silly and I was concerned…”
“..I saw him in the gym. He was with (his date) and he was with her every time I saw him during the night. (someone) brought it to my attention that Sean was acting kind of suspicious like not kind of normal. So I was just looking at him and she was right. He was acting very hyper, he took his tie off and wore it around his head like a bandana and he had his vest unbuttoned and his shirt was untucked. He acted very goofy. I told 9the Principal) where Sean was when he came in to get him. I don’t know what he was on but there was one time before they rented an elf and he couldn’t sit still, he was skipping through the halls, and he was literally very hyper, just jumping and skipping. She then described the elf tradition. So, this is not the first time I saw him like that.”
The range of observations and opinions regarding Sean’s condition seem to describe a teen who was very energetic, “hyper”, and basically having fun with little regard to his appearance. For those of us who knew Sean, this pretty much describes him. The fact that he had been drinking and taking performance enhancing supplements that night no doubt added to the level of his behavior.
One of the Community Service Officers (City police) assigned to the school and the principal, were informed of Sean’s suspicious behavior and responded. The CSO gave Sean a sobriety test, which he failed. There are also various accounts of what took place when he was confronted.
“(The Principal) went up to Sean, took him by the wrist and escorted him to the office…they watched (the Principal) leaning forward into Sean’s face and flaring his arms up and down at Sean. Sean took out his wallet and it looked like he was giving certain things to (the Principal) such as cards and his license. We could tell by the way (the Principal) was opening his mouth and flaring his arms that he was screaming at Sean. Sean looked very flustered and upset.”
“(The Principal) was waving his arms and I heard him yelling at Sean at one point. It looked like Sean was cooperating with (the Principal) by clearing his pockets for him.”
“About 11:45 pm. someone claims to have seen (the Principal) and Sean in the reception part of the office face to face and talking…Sean was throwing stuff that was coming out of his pockets.”
From reading the NY State Police BCI reports, we do know that the Principal questioned Sean alone for about 15 minutes. He admitted to drinking and was informed of the outcome of his actions. He was not permitted to escort his date during the procession, even after pleading to do so. The BCI report that the Principal signed contains the following statements:
“At about 11 pm Officer X Plattsburgh PD approached me and said two teachers had come to him and told him they thought Sean had been drinking.
I approached Sean and told him he had to come with me because he was acting strange.
Officer X and I took Sean to the office. Officer X gave Sean a sobriety test that he failed. I smelt Sean’s breath it clearly smelt like alcohol with gum mixed in. Sean wanted to speak with Officer X alone.
I took Sean into the office he admitted to me he had been drinking. Sean said you know I have gotten in trouble for drinking in the past. I said I heard you had. Sean asked me what was going to happen to him. I told him there would be a couple of days suspension and sports punishment. I told Sean the punishment was going to be what it said in the Plattsburgh High School student handbook.
When Sean found this out he became despondent. Sean and I continued to talk.
Sean stated this was going to screw up his life. Sean said this would keep him out of Boston College.
I believe he said, ‘I may as well kill myself.’
Sean also stated he might as well go to Mexico.
I tried to tell Sean than things work out and it was good he admitted to drinking.
I said to Sean lets go talk to your parents because he told me they were both here.”
Enroute to locate us, the Principal left Sean with his date in the cafeteria lobby. His date has told us that the look on Sean’s face was different. She kept asking him what happened and he just kept saying, “I don’t know” over and over. He then told her he would be going away for a very long time and might never see her again. He gave her a kiss, told her he loved her, and ran out of the school.
The Principal located Mark in the gym and when they returned to where he left Sean, Sean was gone. Mark and the Principal walked outside but Sean was not there.
The Principal then briefly summarized his discussion with Sean, to include his remark about running away to Mexico. Mark recalls the Principal asking him “if Sean had been depressed?” He responded no. Sean had neither showed symptoms of depression nor was he on any medications for depression as some rumors after his death implied. At no time did the Principal communicate to either of Sean’s parents his threat to take his life. Had he done so, our response to Sean’s departure would have been radically different.
Officer X and Mark got in their cars and drove toward the footbridge to look for him. Deena then came outside. The Principal told her that Sean had admitted to drinking and then asked if he had been depressed?” She answered “bored yes, but depressed no” then she ran toward the footbridge. Not knowing the full story, we assumed Sean was upset and embarrassed and had run away from a bad situation and gone to a friend’s house to collect himself.
We drove around the City looking for him, thinking he might be just walking and getting himself together. Deena went home, hoping that he would call us from a friend’s house and letting us know where he was. Mark continued to go back and forth into town throughout the night, hoping that he would find him wandering the street somewhere. When we didn’t hear from him, we eventually went to bed, thinking that he went to a friend’s house to sleep and that he would contact us in the morning. He did not have his cell phone because he had planned to attend the after prom party and would not need it there. He also did not have access to his car, because we had relocated it to Stafford Middle School for him to drive home the next morning.
It was a fitful night, and as dawn approached, we returned to the city and continued looking for him. We found Sean’s shirt, vest and tie from his tux on the other side of the footbridge. At this point we became even more worried and scared and decided we needed to get additional help. We went to Deena’s office to use the phone, tried to look up the phone numbers of his friends that lived near the footbridge and not being able to find the numbers, decided to call Deena’s parents before contacting the police. It was then we found out Sean was dead.
We know he crossed the footbridge that night, and either ran to his grandparent’s house in Peru, seven miles south of the high school, or got a ride. Deena’s parents were asleep inside the house and never heard the door unlock. Sean knew where the key to the house was because he often took care of the their house when they traveled. Two shotguns were kept in the den. The ammunition was kept in the garage. Sean removed both guns, wrote a note and left it on a table in back of the garage. He then shot and killed himself. Sean’s grandfather found him the next morning when he got up to get the morning newspaper. He tried to call us, but we were already in the city. Sean left a note that said,
“I never hated life, I loved it too much.”
The toxicology report indicated ethyl alcohol present with a blood alcohol content of 0.026% and Papaverine at 0.81 micrograms per milliliter. Caffeine and Theobromine, the active ingredient in chocolate, was also found in the blood. His urine was also tested and the findings were ethyl alcohol with a blood alcohol content of 0.010 %, Caffeine, Theobromine and Nicotine. According to one of the physicians interviewed by the BCI, Papaverine is a prescription medication, but is not a controlled substance. Papaverine is used as a vasodilator and is used to stop the spasms of the vascular walls. Sean was not on any prescription medication. As indicated earlier, he had recently purchased and began using, against our will, both NO2, a vasodilator used by weight lifters, and Pro Performance, a dietary supplement.
Why would Sean take his life?
No one but Sean could answer this question. From the facts we now know, it is our opinion that Sean felt everything he had worked his whole life for was now lost and that his reality was so horrible, so embarrassing, so hopeless, that he chose to end his life rather than face it. Professionals we have talked to have told us that teens and adults who commit suicide often do so to avoid a particular moment in time, not to end their life. Sean’s note seems to support this theory. He was not unhappy with his life, in fact by all outward accounts he had a led a charmed life with great potential for future success. His reality that night, however, was not a positive one. Having been caught drinking at a school function meant he was in serious trouble. He had been caught drinking at a dance 2 years prior and knew that his punishment would be severe. Being told that he would be punished according to the school’s code (which Sean knew intimately) meant to Sean that he would lose his position as Student Association President, lose his officer position as Class Treasurer, lose his role as Captain of the track team, suffer the embarrassment of being suspended from school, and as he said that night, he no doubt thought that he might not be able to attend Boston College in the fall, something he was most proud of and looking forward to in his future.
Prior to his death, our family was blissfully unaware of suicide. By Sean’s act, we are unfortunately now very aware of the cost of suicide and the impact it has on our society. Andrew Solomon writes in his book, The Noonday Demon, “Suicide is astonishingly common and is disguised and trumped up more even than depression. It is, indeed, a vast public health crisis that makes us so uncomfortable that we divert our eyes from it. Every seventeen minutes, someone in the United States commits suicide. Suicide ranks number three among causes of death for Americans under the age of twenty-one and it is number two for college students.”
“Suicide is showing up more and more often in younger people. There is no consensus on why suicide is on the upswing in the younger population. George Howe Colt has remarked, “To account for the ‘epidemic’ of youth suicide, a host of explanations has been proposed: the unraveling of America’s moral fiber, the breakdown of the nuclear family, school pressure, peer pressure, parental pressure, parental lassitude, child abuse, drugs, alcohol, low blood sugar, TV, MTV, popular music, promiscuity, lagging church attendance, increased violence, racism, the Vietnam War, the threat of nuclear war, the media, rootlessness, increased affluence, unemployment, capitalism, excessive freedom, boredom, narcissism, Watergate, disillusionment with government, lack of heroes, movies about suicide, too much discussion about suicide, too little discussion of suicide.” In fact adolescents with high academic expectations of themselves may kill themselves if their performance does not live up to their own or their parent’s expectations. Suicide is more common among high-achieving adolescents than among their less ambitious peers.
Actual suicide attempts are usually brought on by external stresses, which frequently include use of alcohol, acute medical illness, and negative life events. How prone someone is to suicide is determined by personality, genetics, childhood and rearing, alcoholism or substance abuse, chronic illness and cholesterol level.
For Sean, we believe that the decision to kill himself made perfect sense at the time. The pain of living with the consequences of being caught drinking at the school dance were more than he could bear. To him he would lose everything for which he had worked. His whole existence had come crashing down on him and became painfully evident to him in that moment. For teenagers, they lack the perspective to want to die permanently, but for that moment it can seem like such an obviously good idea, so sensible.
Why he could not have seen this potential outcome before he made the decision that night to drink is hard to understand from an adult’s point of view. But kids make mistakes, impulsive decisions, and are subject to peer pressure. We talked with Sean about what he had at risk all the time, and how careful he needed to be because of the positions he held and because he had already been caught once before. But he did not see it the way we presented the situation. To Sean, a lot about living was just in that moment. And in the moment he commented that he “may as well kill himself” the other person in the room needed to be present also. Aware of how fragile kids are and that his cry for help needed to be listened to in that moment.
As his parents, we would have loved him no matter what happened. And we would have worked through this difficult time together. If we had only had the chance. Kids need their parents. The opportunity to be able to talk to Sean that night could have made the difference.