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A Mysterious Suicide Cluster

A month later, early in the morning of April 6, 2017, a fraternity member got up to shower for a shift at Home Depot, waking his girlfriend, who noticed a folded napkin under the door. Forty-eight dollars were wrapped inside, and the words “Smoke a bowl in my memory” were written on the napkin in Thomas’s handwriting, in pink highlighter. The member and his girlfriend found Thomas’s laptop in the building’s library, playing music. On top of it was another note in pink highlighter: “Read Me.” On the laptop screen was an essay that Thomas had been writing about how the trauma of a sexual assault in his high-school years was destroying his life. “You know what they say: What doesn’t kill you, just isn’t finished yet,” he had written. Thomas had just added a few lines, under the heading “Update 4/6/17”: “The virus. It just became too strong. . . . I’m so sorry. I just can’t do it anymore. I love you all. But I lost.” The time stamp on the document was 4:12 a.m.

The fraternity member continued searching, and he soon found Thomas hanging in a storage room where spare mattresses were kept. Near Thomas’s body was a small piece of paper that he had apparently unfolded and dropped. On it, Grossheim had written his e-mail address.

This time, the police brought in outside mental-health counsellors to help them interview anyone who, after the three deaths, seemed especially fragile. Grossheim was now considered to be even more at risk. But the police also had begun to wonder about this young man who seemed to be connected to crime scene after crime scene.

One of the officers involved told me, “There were a lot of red flags—Brandon’s name came up a lot.” The day that Thomas died, a police officer and an outside counsellor went to the apartment where Grossheim now lived. The officer made a note that a vein on Grossheim’s neck was pounding, describing this as a telltale sign that Grossheim “knew something was wrong.” Grossheim told me that he had been tripping on acid and was desperately trying to hide half an ounce of weed. After the officer and the counsellor left, Grossheim remembers going to a friend’s apartment and getting drunk. He had successfully kept the weed out of sight. “I celebrated not getting arrested,” he told me.

According to the police report, the officer and the counsellor explained that Thomas was dead. Grossheim sat in silence for a few minutes after receiving this news, then softly acknowledged how bizarre it was that so many of his friends had died by suicide. Grossheim says that he gave the authorities permission to go through the files on his laptop—including group chats and e-mails with his friends. At one point, the counsellor asked him how he would help someone in his situation. Grossheim explained that he tried to give people “step-by-step” advice for addressing things like depression. He was, he thought, a kind of superhero in that way, though in the end people would exert “their own free will.”

After the third Truman State suicide, students were appalled and fearful. The young woman who had been seeing Hughes at the time of his death posted on the fraternity’s Facebook page, “This should not be fucking happening. Guys, please, I’m begging you.” She implored anyone with suicidal thoughts to call her—“Just one little message. Please.” Parents wondered why Truman State couldn’t put a stop to this dreadful sequence of events. Melissa Bottorff-Arey, Alex Mullins’s mother, demanded a response from the administration. She saw her son’s death as the result of a failure by the university and the fraternity. Why hadn’t counsellors at Truman State followed up with her son when he started missing appointments? They’d sent a few e-mails and then let the matter drop. With a little more oversight, she believed, her son would still be alive. “I felt like he was dealing with what I call situational anxiety,” she told me. “I felt like he was . . . in college.” (The university said that students often made appointments and then failed to show up.)

Bottorff-Arey, who is in her fifties, is a former executive chef with a commanding manner and frosted-blond hair. She contacted the other parents of the Truman State suicide victims. They, too, wanted answers. Karen Hughes, Jake’s mother, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she was “blown away” by her son’s death, adding, “He wanted nothing more than to make other people happy and to cheer them up.”

After Thomas’s suicide, Bottorff-Arey met with the Kirksville police. She was particularly skeptical of how her son’s body could have gone undiscovered for half a day. Why hadn’t someone found him sooner? She also wondered why, in some crime-scene photographs that she’d seen, the table in her son’s room appeared to have been neatened up. There should have been drugs and drug paraphernalia on it. Mullins had worked making deliveries for a local Chinese restaurant, and had kept his earnings in a box, which was now empty. Where had its contents gone? “If I had done anything besides what I did, in culinary, I would have probably gone into police work,” Bottorff-Arey told me.

Around this time, she learned that a fourth young man in Kirksville had recently hanged himself: Alex Vogt, a twenty-one-year-old student at another school in town, Moberly Area Community College. Vogt knew some of the Alpha Kappa Lambda members at Truman State. He lived across the street from the Wooden Nickel, a restaurant and bar that his parents owned. He had died in January of 2017—five months after Mullins and Hughes, and three months before Thomas.

Vogt had worked as a cook at the Wooden Nickel, where he sometimes saw Brandon Grossheim, who had taken a job there, serving and washing dishes. The building Grossheim had moved into after leaving Alpha Kappa Lambda was owned by Vogt’s family, and Vogt had lived across the hall from him. They got together to drink and talk; sometimes they played the board game Settlers of Catan. (Vogt’s family declined to comment for this article.)

In June, 2017, the Kirksville Police Department told the Post-Dispatch that it had reopened the investigation into the first two deaths but denied that any “aha moment” had spurred the decision. For Bottorff-Arey, bumping into Grossheim’s name again was enough. Vogt had hanged himself in his apartment, conforming to the cluster’s pattern. His girlfriend, Madelyn Mazurek, had discovered the body. Grossheim had passed Vogt and Mazurek in the hallway a few hours before Vogt died, and he had comforted her outside the apartment after she’d woken up to find her boyfriend dead. Grossheim had asked to see Vogt’s body before the coroner took it away, but the request was denied.

The same day Bottorff-Arey visited the police, she went to try to retrieve Mullins’s fraternity paddle, which she had heard was in Grossheim’s possession. She tracked him down at the apartment of his girlfriend—a woman who had also dated her late son. Bottorff-Arey could see Grossheim in the apartment when she knocked on the door, but he would not come out. When she started photographing his car, Grossheim rushed outside and asked her what was going on. After a tense exchange of words, she turned and left.

Bottorff-Arey kept thinking about several interactions she’d had with Grossheim after her son’s death. Grossheim had been solicitous when she’d retrieved Mullins’s belongings at the fraternity, and he had attended Mullins’s memorial service. One day, Bottorff-Arey had been poking around in her son’s cell phone, which the police had given to her. As she put it to me, she did “what many mothers would do,” checking to see what Mullins had been up to before his death. Grossheim noticed that someone was active on Mullins’s Facebook page, and he sent a challenging message to the account. Bottorff-Arey’s surviving son, Parker, characterized the message as “Who is this? Why are you on here? You’re causing me distress.” Bottorff-Arey messaged Grossheim back, explaining that she was “Alex’s mom,” and he apologized. “He kinda backed off and was all friendly,” Bottorff-Arey recalled. Shortly afterward, someone “memorialized” the page, meaning that nobody could post from it anymore. She surmised that Grossheim had made this happen. (He says that he didn’t.)

It felt awkward when, a month after the Facebook altercation, Grossheim went to a suicide-awareness march in Kansas City that Bottorff-Arey was attending. As Parker put it, “We had already known he was weird, definitely, at that point.” But “it was really weird,” he said, to discover that Grossheim had a new tattoo with a large “7”—Mullins’s special number. After the march, there was a small reception, and Grossheim stayed for it. “He acted like he had taken the role of Alex’s friend,” Parker remembers.

Bottorff-Arey had looked at Grossheim’s Facebook account, where he had posted effusive memorials to some of the victims. A few days after Hughes’s birthday had passed, Grossheim wrote, “I love you buddy, and miss you a lot. Again, happy belated birthday, Jake Allen Hughes. I hope you’re doing well.” The messages struck her as insincere—it was as if he had “wanted to be on the grief train.” Grossheim had also posted a video of himself reading Grimms’ Fairy Tales. “It’s the classical version,” he said to the camera. “It’s with all of its horrors.”

On May 7, 2018, he posted a video of himself caressing one of his cats, which had just given birth. In that video, he was wearing a white shirt printed with an image of bright Popsicles. The shirt looked familiar to Bottorff-Arey, so she brought it up with Hughes’s mother, who confirmed that it had been her son’s. Bottorff-Arey scrutinized Grossheim’s Facebook photographs. She asked herself, “Why is it that he looks so different in all of his pictures?” She toyed with the idea of moving to Kirksville, to see if she could crack the mystery. In the meantime, she contacted people in Grossheim’s circle, trying to learn more about him. What, exactly, did Grossheim talk about with his depressed friends? What did he know about what had happened the night her son died? She pressed him on Facebook, and Grossheim seemed curt in his responses to her.

Other parents got involved. Josh Thomas’s mother wrote to the Kirksville police about her son, saying, “I know the newspaper and tv media would love to have my story.” Some of the bereaved saw the parents’ effort as ill-conceived. When Bottorff-Arey contacted Mazurek, Vogt’s girlfriend, on Facebook, she answered warily, feeling that Bottorff-Arey was misplacing blame. Mazurek said, “I can think of so many better ways to honor her son rather than investing time and energy into wounding that son’s friend with hurtful accusations. It makes it seem like the takeaway from the Truman suicide cluster is ‘Oh, watch out for your kids’ friends! They might encourage suicide!’ instead of ‘Let’s prioritize mental health on college campuses and find ways to better support students.’ ” But Bottorff-Arey was convinced that Grossheim, instead of helping his friends, had persuaded them to end their lives. She told me, “I feel he took advantage of their being in a weak emotional state, and sought out people who were struggling.”

Some time after Bottorff-Arey spoke with the Kirksville police, she met with Nicole Gorovsky, a former federal prosecutor specializing in crimes against children, who now ran her own law firm focussed on victims’ rights. Gorovsky, who had once sued the Archdiocese of St. Louis on behalf of someone who alleged that she had been abused by a priest, was inflamed by Bottorff-Arey’s account. In my conversation with Bottorff-Arey, she teared up when she told me about Gorovsky’s agreeing to take the case.

On July 31, 2019, Gorovsky, on behalf of Bottorff-Arey and Thomas’s parents, filed a civil suit alleging that Alpha Kappa Lambda and Truman State had been negligent in their sons’ deaths, in part because they had known that Grossheim posed a threat to other students yet had done nothing to stop him as he “aided or encouraged the deaths of multiple young people.” (The Hughes family, who declined to participate in the suit, chose not to be interviewed for this article.) Grossheim, the petition asserted, had committed voluntary manslaughter under Missouri law, for “knowingly assist[ing] Mullins and Thomas in the commission of self-murder.” The suit asked for a jury trial.

Suicide was once considered a crime. In England, until the nineteenth century, a suicide was buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through the heart. Over time, a more enlightened view took hold, and nowadays a person who dies by suicide is seen as a victim of mental illness, not as a felon. Yet, if the taking of one’s life has been essentially decriminalized, the act of abetting or facilitating the action has become more prone to prosecution. Laurie Levenson, a professor of law and an expert on ethical advocacy at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, said, “It’s a way of saying, ‘This is horrifying what happened, and someone needs to be blamed.’ ”

Some cases involving alleged facilitation of suicide have been clear-cut. In 1957, a Massachusetts man named Ilario Persampieri goaded his wife into killing herself. The state court found that he “taunted her, told her where the gun was, loaded it for her, saw that the safety was off, and told her the means by which she could pull the trigger.” He was ultimately convicted of involuntary manslaughter. In 2017, a teen-ager named Tyerell Przybycien bought his girlfriend a rope, fashioned it into a noose, and filmed her death. A Utah jury convicted him of child-abuse homicide.

“You’d best make hotel arrangements elsewhere.”
Cartoon by Frank Cotham

Beyond such extreme behavior, the crime is much trickier to define. In most states, a therapist has a legal obligation to contact law enforcement if a patient talks credibly about killing herself. But is a friend required to report a suicide risk? And what if someone encourages—even inadvertently—another person to commit the action?

In legal terms, it’s difficult to define what it means to encourage a suicide. Few people would consider it criminal to not actively try to stop a person who threatens to kill herself, even if it feels unseemly. And have you encouraged the deed if you say that you understand the impulse, or that everyone deserves an end to her pain, or that her family and friends will forgive the act in time? Body language and context can be as important as words. To acknowledge to a friend that she has much to be depressed about may mean different things, depending on whether you are sending her a hotline number or a link to a Web site that spells out the lethal doses for various barbiturates.

Will Newman, of Saint Louis University, told me that the lawsuit targeting Grossheim was unusual. He could think of no comparable accusations “of large-scale, face-to-face efforts to facilitate other people’s suicides,” other than lawsuits involving cults. He cited the Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate mass suicides. In some ways, the allegations in Bottorff-Arey’s suit resembled those in the case of Michelle Carter, a Massachusetts teen-ager who, in 2017, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for having urged her boyfriend to asphyxiate himself with the exhaust from his truck. In multiple text-message exchanges in the course of several weeks, she pushed him to make the decision. Most disturbing, when Carter’s boyfriend called in the middle of the act, saying that he was scared, she told him to complete the suicide. The petition filed on behalf of Bottorff-Arey and the Thomases contained no evidence that Grossheim had gone as far: it quoted no texts, conversations, or e-mails between him and the victims. But it characterized the “step-by-step” counsel he had offered to depressed friends as “advice on how to commit suicide.” Bottorff-Arey told me she was certain that Grossheim had psychologically manipulated his friends. As she put it, “Alex would still be here if it wasn’t for Brandon.”

When Gorovsky filed the lawsuit, she sent out a press release. CNN, the Post, and BuzzFeed all ran stories, each of which followed the lead of the press release in portraying Grossheim as a charismatic sociopath. The headline in the Daily Beast called Grossheim a “Death-Obsessed Missouri Frat Brother,” and the article claimed that he “had keys to the rooms or apartments of four of the young men who died.”

In the two and a half years since Grossheim had left the fraternity, most of his college friends had abandoned him. He had withdrawn from the school, citing the mental-health toll of the suicides, and now lived in a small apartment above Pagliai’s, a local pizzeria where he had begun working. He was still grieving for his friends but couldn’t afford a therapist.

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