Five suicides jolt S. Utah — (The Deseret News)

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The Deseret News,  Salt Lake City, UT

April 25, 2006

Author: Lucinda Dillon Kinkead and Dennis Romboy Deseret Morning News

MOAB — In the late summer of 2004, four teenagers linked by small-town connections and eastern Utah roots took their own lives within two months of each other.

Stephen, Mario, Brandon and Katherine hanged themselves in their own bedrooms. Each left a suicide note. And in every case, a parent or guardian was in the house close by while each looped something around his or her neck and leaned forward against the noose.

School had not yet started when Stephen Cannistraci died July 30, 2004. The boy heading into his senior year at Moab’s Grand County High School was the first in a series of suicides that made real every community’s worst nightmare about teenage suicide — the bizarre dynamic of what is commonly known as “copycatting.”

A month after Stephen died, just one week into classes at Grand County Middle School, administrators were horrified to learn eighth-grader Mario Hernandez also was dead. At 13, he would be the youngest.

Then unbelievably, on Sept. 13, just a few days before he was to be reunited with his father in Moab, Stephen’s older brother, Brandon Cannistraci, 19, hanged himself in a St. George home where he was living temporarily.

And 11 days after that, in neighboring Carbon County, 17-year-old Katherine Langdon wrote the following in pages of notes explaining her actions before she, too, hanged herself:

“The things I hated most about Stephen and Brandon was I never understood why. So I’m going to explain why I’m doing this.”

During the time period that became a season of suicide, another girl, 17-year-old Kelly Sowell, lived two doors down from Mario Hernandez in Moab’s Grand Oasis mobile home park. She also knew Stephen and Brandon Cannistraci. In fact, her co-worker at the local pharmacy — the boys’ stepmother — apparently showed Kelly photos of the two boys in their caskets.

Kelly Sowell was in the middle of a traumatic few years and at the center of a crime that shook Moab that is still playing out in Utah’s Court of Appeals.

The girl had been sexually harassed and assaulted in 2002 by a well-liked female coach and teacher. The woman — so popular she’d been chosen to run the Olympic torch through town during the 2002 Winter Games — was convicted of several felonies and sentenced to prison for crimes against Kelly.

But neither time nor the court conviction in September 2003 dulled emotion over the case for some in the community of 4,800.

Some students and people around town continued to torment Kelly mercilessly. “Whore,” they’d call her. “Lesbian.”

Someone “keyed” her car, leaving a long scratch. Someone else beat her up at school. She was depressed and traumatized, and her family was keeping a close eye on her. She was being treated for depression.

“Mom, is this going to go on forever?” she asked.

Kelly attended Mario’s funeral and told her mother afterward, “I could never do that to you or Dad.”

She held off for 15 months.

Then on a Friday evening last November, while her mom ironed clothes in the next room, Kelly wrapped a dog leash around her neck and died in her closet.  · · ·

According to experts who study suicide, these five deaths were not a suicide pact, which occurs when a group of people decide to kill themselves together. There is often a group note in those cases.

The deaths also didn’t classify as a suicide “cluster,” in which victims share the same method of death, explained Michelle Moskos, a state expert in suicide research who traveled to southeastern Utah during this series of tragedies. Also, all five deaths did not occur in the same town.

What happened in southeastern Utah was most likely a suicide “contagion,” a process by which exposure to a suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before Stephen, no one could remember a young person in the area ever killing himself. Peggy Nissen certainly couldn’t, not in 26 years as a Grand County High School guidance counselor. “It wasn’t an option among kids in our community before that,” she said.

The young man’s death left the town in shock, according to Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison.

And Mario had known Stephen because the two biked and skated together at a park on Moab’s west side. Mario’s sister had also dated Stephen.

When Mario died, the community panicked.

Rumors of a suicide pact filtered through town. Talk of a cult surfaced. Those notions proved to be unfounded, but no one knew where to turn for answers.

Adrien Taylor, editor of the Moab Times-Independent, said officials felt shocked and helpless. “The community just didn’t know what to do. How do you react?”

“We were very much afraid of copycats,” said Tom Brown, Grand County High School principal.

Desperate, he called experts along the Wasatch Front and reached Greg Hudnall, who heads the Provo-based Hope Task Force. Dedicated to suicide prevention, Hudnall’s group provides training and support before and after suicides, and Brown asked him to come to Moab right away to help.

Hudnall’s cell phone rang as he was driving south for the training. Brown was calling from Moab: “We just found a third body.”

The young man who’d died was Brandon, Stephen Cannistraci’s brother.

Katherine knew the Cannistraci boys. Kelly Sowell, the last of the young people to commit suicide, knew all of those who’d died during the 15-month period.

Teen suicide is now part of Moab’s legacy.

How did it happen?

Back in the fall of 2004, in the wide-open panic following Mario’s death, one school official shuddered and whispered, “Stephen, what have you done?”

In his best-selling book, “The Tipping Point,” author Malcolm Gladwell writes about the phenomenon described as “that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire.”

Gladwell dedicates most of a chapter to the “imitative” characteristics of teenage suicide.

“The central observation of those who study suicides is that, in some places and under some circumstances, the act of one person taking his or her own life can be contagious. Suicides lead to suicides.”

As it turned out, young Stephen Cannistraci, with his impish smile, wrestling accolades and 4.0 GPA, was the tipping point.  · · ·

“My final letter. …” — From Stephen’s suicide note, found July 30, 2004  · · ·

Despite a frightful childhood filled with abuse, upheaval and interventions by the state Division of Child and Family Services, things
seemed to be looking up for Stephen Cannistraci.

Stephen had moved in with his father the previous summer after his mother abandoned him and his brothers in East Carbon.

His dad, also named Steve Cannistraci, worked as a maintenance man at the upscale Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa 17 miles outside Moab. The man put his namesake son to work at the resort restaurant. Although the young man said structure, chores and responsibilities tethered him, and he didn’t like people at the ranch calling him Junior, Stephen excelled at the job, winning the ranch “Rookie” award.

Few knew Stephen was seeing a counselor for depression. Or that he’d told her he wished he could “not wake up” and that life was “a lot to bear.”

Instead, most people in the Moab area knew a popular dynamo of a kid who got straight A’s and was the May Student of the Month. Barely 5 feet tall, Stephen ruled the 103-pound wrestling weight class and was ranked fourth in the state’s 2A classification.

Stephen thought he might join the Air Force and told his parents he wanted to be a pharmacist when he grew up. He seemed to be looking forward.

But it had been a difficult summer.

July 7, 2004, was a particularly bad day. It was his birthday — Stephen’s first away from his mother, whom he dearly loved despite her meth and alcohol use, abusive boyfriends, suicide attempts and periodic neglect.

His desperate attempts to reach her by telephone that day failed, so he called his mental health therapist.

“(I’m) going to do something stupid like kill myself,” he told social worker Michelle Capler, according to medical records. After talking, he promised the therapist not to hurt himself and agreed to meet the next day. By then, Stephen told her the suicidal thoughts had passed. He told Capler he would call her or 911 if he felt suicidal again.

On July 12, a doctor who evaluated Stephen noted “a strong family history of depression” and prescribed Prozac, records show.

Shortly after, Stephen did get in touch with his mom and spent five days with her in Carbon County. In another session with his therapist on July 19, Brandon downloaded Capler on the visit — his mother was still using meth and alcohol, and she had predicted her own death within six months.

But at home, Stephen seemed OK. He helped around the house, had tidied his room and even cleaned out his closet. He was working hard at the ranch and bought a Toyota Corolla as summer drew to a close. He had a girlfriend, which prompted cautionary words from his dad and stepmom, Tara Keele, the night of Monday, July 30, about moving too fast with her.

After the discussion, the young man said good night to them both, went into his bedroom and closed the door.

By all accounts, Stephen then stripped to his boxer shorts, folded his clothes neatly on the bed and wrote a suicide note:

“This is my final letter. I have only four minutes. My bedtime is 10 p.m. every night. I am 17 years old. I lost love for life over the pas (sic) two years. Now I have manic depression and social anxiety. I have nothing left. … Enough is enough.”

Around noon, his dad called for Stephen and found the bedroom door locked. He got the door open and found an immaculate bedroom and a piece of paper face down on the bed. Stephen’s closet door, which opened and shut like an accordion, was closed. Thinking his son might have run away, Steve Cannistraci pulled open the door to see if his belongings were gone.

“There he was,” his dad said, “with his back to me.”  · · ·

“How could he do that?” — Mario, to his mother at Stephen’s funeral, Aug. 6, 2004  · · ·

Mario Hernandez begged his mother to take him to Stephen Cannistraci’s viewing. His sister had dated Stephen, and the two boys skateboarded on the same concrete tabletops and bowl at Moab’s Swanny City Park.

Though the thought of seeing a dead body made her queasy, Sharla Lovato relented. She stayed just long enough for her son to glimpse the open casket. Mario cried.

“How could he do that?” he asked his mother.

“Please, Mario, don’t do that to me,” she told him on the way out.

Stacey Hernandez, 17, believes her younger brother tried to honor his mom’s wishes. But the boy was competitive and took teasing and bullying hard, she says.

Maybe other kids didn’t like that he won bike races and skateboarding contests. Mario was also a “ladies man,” and lots of girls complemented his long eyelashes. Hernandez guesses maybe that made classmates jealous.

Whatever the reason, kids picked on him at the skate park. Friends turned on him at school.

Mario often was angry or sad, and that led to tears.

Life at home was also far from ideal. His mother battled methamphetamine addiction for much of her son’s childhood, and the boy lived with his grandmother on and off. Lovato has been clean for five years, but there was still much transition in Mario’s young life. He never knew his biological father, and in 2004, Lovato was divorcing a man Mario liked. Mario and the man had been building a clubhouse together on property in the nearby LaSalle Mountains the summer before he died.

“I would tell him it was OK to cry,” Hernandez said recently, looking back at the end of her brother’s life. “He would cry a lot. We would cry together.”

His tenderheartedness showed in concern for others. He always urged his mother to stop to help broken-down motorists.

His family said Mario didn’t act like someone about to take his own life. He had just started eighth grade. He opened a bank account with money saved from a part-time job. He bought a bike, an electric guitar and new school clothes. He wanted to attend military school.

“I had no warning,” his mother said recently.

But Mario took his life in exactly the same way Stephen did. In a closet.

He wrote that he was sorry for doing what he did, and that he would see everybody on the other side.

“He had a big heart,” Lovato said. “Probably too big for his brain.”  · · ·

“Call my Dad …” — From Brandon’s suicide letter, found Sept. 13, 2004  · · ·

Some 300 miles away, 19-year-old Brandon Cannistraci was finishing up the last two weeks of court-ordered time in the protected environment of a “proctor” home.

After his horrific childhood, Brandon’s teenage years were a series of ups and downs that included truancy, running away and substance abuse. He once led police on a high-speed chase through three counties. He got caught and ended up in the temporary care of a family in St. George and had grown close during two months with them. He’d adjusted to the family’s structured routine, a curfew, and told his family he’d done a lot of soul-searching. He’d earned his GED and seemed to be doing well.

But his little brother committed suicide while Brandon was in the proctor home, and the death hurt him deeply. “It hit us all hard, but it hit him real hard,” his dad, Steve Cannistraci, said. “It was just nothing that anyone anticipated.”

He was set to come back to Moab to live with his father and stepmother in 10 days when he hanged himself on the bedpost in his caregiver’s home.

His suicide letter began: “Call my Dad.”

“I am sorry to be writing this letter for the second time. I know the first question is why?” Brandon wrote. “Dad. I am really sorry. I know it was hard with Stephen’s death and all but I can’t do it a
nymore. I really was excited about coming home to you and Tara. You two are really great parents. . . .

“To everyone I never knew cared for me thank you. All you kept me here for 19 years. I will really be a lot happier when I’m gone.”

The three-page suicide note was mostly words of love and encouragement for his father and stepmother, his half-brothers and members of the family that cared for him in the proctor home. Mixed in, Brandon attempted straightforward explanations for his death.

“I am happy when I’m working and spending time with others, but when I’m alone I am so sad and lonely.”

Brandon, the tough brother who loved motorcycles and snowboarding, said he wanted to go protect Stephen. “I want to see my brother and ask him why he gave up his world. I know I will be with him so I will help him not to be scared.”

To his two half-brothers, he wrote: “I love you two so much and I am really sorry our childhood was full of pain and terror.”

As word spread in Moab of Brandon’s death — just two weeks after Mario — the community winced.

“It was so frightening for kids. We were all terrified,” said Brown, the high school principal. “You heard the ambulance and then you waited for the phone call.”

Hudnall’s Hope Task Force, with the help of teachers and counselors, identified at-risk students and put them on what he called “suicide watch.” Crisis workers interviewed them to see if they needed additional counseling.

School staff was on high alert. “Keep your antenna up,” Brown and Nissen warned their colleagues.

Several social service groups came in to speak to the school’s 480 students about depression and suicide. As a result, six students referred themselves to nearby Four Corners Behavioral Health.

School officials continued the delicate juggling act of educating young people on the subject without inflaming the community.

It was a school community’s worst nightmare coming true.

“Contagion is the one that scares us the most,” said Hudnall, who did community meetings and school trainings after Brandon’s death.

“You always have a small group who are on the edge,” he said. “All they need is one more excuse to push them over.”

At one funeral, Hudnall overheard kids say things like, “If you’re going to die, this is the way to go.” It’s a stark example of the psychology and thoughts that must be defused to prevent “contagion” deaths, Hudnall explained.

So teachers and counselors kept hammering home the point: “Suicide is not an option” and “We will not honor people who take their life with suicide.”

Official efforts not to allow other students to glamorize or memorialize the Moab suicides seemed harsh to some.

Students put up informal pictures and memorials in the hall. Administrators took them down. Someone wanted to plant a tree. The school said no. Would either of the students be acknowledged in the yearbook? No.

Today a trophy case in the gym contains a memorial plaque of Lynelle Chavez, a Grand County basketball player who died in 1992 at age 16. Photos of Matt Relph, who died July 13, 2003, and Jeff Meador, who died in 1977, are nearby.

There is no sign of Stephen or Brandon.  · · ·

“These songs are how I feel since I can’t really explain it.” — From Katherine’s suicide note, found Sept. 24, 2004  · · ·

Katherine Langdon loved music and she loved it loud.

The rock band A Perfect Circle was in the portable CD player on her bed when her foster mother found her body Sept. 24, 2004 — 11 days after Brandon died. Maybe she had listened to a track titled “The Hollow.” Maybe she listened to “Sleeping Beauty.”

After several tumultuous years, the young woman who always signed her name “Katherine Langdon, The 1st” ended her life with a series of hopeless, apologetic notes.

“All I ever wanted to do was make all of the people I care about proud and I realize that it will never happen,” she wrote. “I’m sorry if you feel any pain with me passing away, but look at it this way, I was causing more pain while I was alive.”

Today few items remain from Katherine’s life. There are her ashes, some suitcases of clothes and a plastic box full of memorabilia.

The box contains the girl’s wallet, covered with duct tape and SpongeBob Band-Aids. She kept a Linkin Park ticket stub from a concert at the E Center, a few gift cards and a bunch of friends’ phone numbers.

In her scrapbook are pages of photos, stickers, hand-drawn tributes to her favorite rock and rap musicians and a delicate paper announcement that reads: “In Loving Memory of Stephen Cannistraci.”

The photos and keepsakes are dark reminders of the young woman who seemed to follow two friends — Stephen and Brandon Cannistraci — who chose suicide as a way out of a troubled life.

“I think in her own way she was depressed, especially when she heard about Stephen’s death. Things just went downhill from there,” said her foster mother, Jenny Stefanoff.

Katherine began hyperventilating frequently after that, even to the point of having to go to the emergency room. Her drug and alcohol counselor, though, taught her ways to get through these attacks, and one of the ways she soothed herself was to sing “You Are My Sunshine.”

Katherine knew Brandon and Stephen Cannistraci from when they all lived in East Carbon — and to understand the dynamic of the friendship, and the relevance of the incident that immediately preceded Katherine’s death, one must understand the dynamic of Carbon County.

“Kat,” as some called her, was the baby of her family and had a squeaky little voice that belied a tough-girl persona. She was small for her age, and young too. She loved Winnie the Pooh.

She was born in East Carbon and raised in the community of 1,400. She went to preschool with the same classmates she joined in high school. Parents went to school together, too, generation after generation in the shadow of the Book Cliffs.

So it was a shock for Katherine to be uprooted and sent to live with a foster family in nearby Price, 21 miles northwest of her hometown.

Katherine’s home life had been chaotic. Nine months earlier, her mother had kicked her out of her house. In April 2004, the state Division of Child and Family Services placed her in foster care with Ron and Jenny Stefanoff in Price.

Price is not East Carbon.

East Carbon High is closed now, but student loyalty to the school was fierce. The prospect of returning there kept Katherine going.

“We actually thought things were turning around,” Jenny Stefanoff said.

But late in the summer, Katherine was told she had fallen too far behind to return for her senior year. The news devastated her. She lost interest in making up credits and had an “I-don’t-care attitude,” Stefanoff said.

Things got worse in late September when the state released Katherine’s 18-year-old foster sister from custody. After the sister moved out of the Stefanoff home, Katherine went on a cleaning binge, using bleach on everything and discarding clothes.

The next day, Sept. 24, Katherine had what Stefanoff called her best day ever. She helped make and serve dinner to parents and teachers at her alternative high school and laughed and giggled all evening.

At home that night, Katherine colored with the Stefanoffs’ two young children. She and her foster mother talked about pulling her grades up.

Katherine was unusually loud when she
went downstairs that night, slamming doors and making a ruckus, so Stefanoff went to check on her. Katherine would open the bedroom door only a crack. Stefanoff noticed papers on the bed that she thought was homework. She found Katherine dead the next morning. She’d hanged herself on her bunk bed.

For the funeral, a family member dressed Katherine in sophisticated clothes — black pants, a cream cardigan and a silky shirt with a red collar. Katherine’s neck was swollen from the trauma of her death, so the funeral directors pulled her soft ponytail across the front to hide the injuries.

At the service, passers-by moved the girl’s hair to see her bruises.

Now the Stefanoff family lives with the same loss and grief of any biological relative. The family doesn’t do foster care any more. They moved from the home where the suicide occurred because it became a “dungeon” for the young mother.

“We were just there to love her and to help her,” Stefanoff said. “Would have adopted that kid in a heartbeat. We loved her.”  · · ·

Today Moab officials are left to examine how the suicidal behavior started and how to prevent it from happening again.

“Really, every kid has been touched now,” said Peggy Nissen, guidance counselor at Grand County High School. “Every student in every class grew up with one of those kids.”

The school and community continue to educate themselves about mental health, depression and suicide. They participate in lectures and workshops. Teachers talk to students more, and kids talk to each other. They believe they have a system that seems to be working now. Suicide is no longer a taboo subject in Moab.

“The idea that there’s a button you can push on a kid to make them safe just isn’t the case,” Brown said. “What we have to do is listen to the kids and be in touch with them.”

But in living rooms and at coffee tables in Moab, the grief continues.

Not too long ago, Sherilyn Sowell, Kelly’s mother, called Sharla Lovato, Mario’s mom.

The two women had become acquainted through the tragedy of their children’s suicides. All the questions, all the blame, all the what ifs and worry. On that day, Sherilyn Sowell was sobbing.

“Please tell me it’s going to get better,” Kelly’s mother pleaded.

“I can’t. I wish I could, but I can’t,” Lovato replied. “It’s not going to get better.” E-mail: romboy@desnews.com; lucy@desnews.com