Depression, addiction were companions of man found dead in Ham Lake pond — (The Star-Tribune)

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The Star-Tribune

By Paul Walsh Star Tribune staff writers

March 10, 2009 — 9:22pm

The man whose body was found in a Ham Lake pond had a history of fighting mental illness and disappearing for days.

Courtesy of the O’Donnell family

Jeffrey O’Donnell, 42, was found dead on a golf course in Ham Lake.

Jeffrey Scott O’Donnell would disappear for months, lost in a fog of severe depression and alcoholism, with thoughts of suicide. But when he went to a meeting for recovering addicts in October, his mother “took that as a good sign.”

Sherri O’Donnell, of Andover, asked her 42-year-old son that afternoon if he would be home for dinner.

“Why don’t you go ahead without me?” she recalled him saying.

For Jeff, it was not an unusual response, she said. “We left the porch light on all night.”

Until O’Donnell’s frozen body was discovered Friday in an iced-over pond on a Ham Lake golf course, nobody apparently had seen or heard from him since Oct. 20.

Although an autopsy completed Tuesday showed “no anatomic cause of death, no injury or trauma,” the Anoka County Medical Examiner’s office said it would continue its study. Results of a toxicology report are not expected for days.

O’Donnell was hospitalized at Unity Hospital for having suicidal thoughts in January 2007, his mother told Coon Rapids police later that year. He left a suicide note, blood drippings and a knife in his Coon Rapids apartment before disappearing in September of that year, according to a police report. A building manager also found several cases of beer in O’Donnell’s kitchen after O’Donnell was reported missing more than three months later.

“We’d report him missing and the police would say, ‘He’s 42 years old!’ Nobody was going to search for him,” said Michael O’Donnell, his father. “After a while, we stopped reporting him missing.”

“Jeff would be gone and four, five months later we’d get a call from the Salvation Army somewhere saying he’d been found.”

A divorced father of two teenage sons, O’Donnell was unemployed and “seemed even more depressed than usual,” his mother said Tuesday, recalling the last day she saw him alive.

“Jeff was always a quiet person, and he would sit in the morning at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and stare into space,” she said.

He’d battled the demons of addiction for years, his father said. At first, it was marijuana, when he went to Blaine High School, his dad said. Later came the heavy drinking. Then, maybe 12 years ago, he was diagnosed for depression, his dad said.

When his body was discovered by groundskeepers at the Majestic Oaks Golf Club, O’Donnell was trapped 2 feet under frosted ice.

He’d been flat on his back before.

He drifted through so many chemical dependency treatment centers in Minnesota and Wisconsin that his parents lost track of the names. He’d spent months in a halfway house in Anoka, and he was seeing a psychiatrist and taking antidepressants, his father said.

For a while, the medication appeared to work. Jeff appeared to stay sober for five years. His anxiety appeared under control, his father said.

“Out of the blue, the medication quits working,” Michael O’Donnell said. “He’d get himself squared away and the medication goes to hell.”

He’d try to wash away his depression with alcohol, which only fueled the depression. And life’s sucker punches kept knocking him down.

Once, while unemployed, he was offered a job as a sheet-metal worker with a Connecticut plant that built submarines. He moved his family to Norwich, Conn., and went to work — only to learn that the plant’s union was on strike, his father said. The job was just a temporary stop between extended unemployment.

“Jeff didn’t want to put up with the abuse of being a scab,” his father said.

His car was reported stolen in 2006, said Lt. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office. In 2005, O’Donnell reported having problems with tenants in a Blaine building, where he apparently was a caretaker, Sommer said.

For all his demons, O’Donnell was “a loving and wonderful father, son and brother,” Sherri O’Donnell said. He loved the outdoors, particularly fishing with his father and brother, Sean, his mother said.

“A homeless bum he wasn’t.”

A private family memorial service is being planned.

pwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482 plevy@startribune.com • 612-673-4419