In the words of his pastor, 19-year-old University of Dayton freshman Larry Cook “enjoyed life and wanted others to live.”
But according to his death certificate, Cook died from multiple blunt trauma after he “jumped from window.”
Cook’s family and their attorney, Christopher Chestnut, have strongly contested that April 9 finding by the Montgomery County Coroner’s office, suggesting that the university and Dayton police have engaged in a cover-up.
“I know that it wasn’t a suicide,” Cook’s mother, Jennifer Rucker, said Thursday.
Any potential suicide is a profound mystery, one that is usually played out in private. In this case, it has been painted on a very public canvas, as the family’s grief has spilled over into accusations that have put the university in the uncomfortable position of comforting the family and the student body while defending its actions.
Dayton police are still investigating, but Dayton Homicide Sgt. Richard Blommel said “there is absolutely no indication that there is any foul play.” Blommel added that his investigators are awaiting testing on forensic and electronic evidence.
Cook, a popular student nicknamed “Smiley,” fell to his death April 2 from a sixth-floor window at Stuart Hall. The autopsy has not yet been completed pending results from toxicology and other tests..
Rucker says she won’t rest until university officials and Dayton Police investigators publicly declare that her son’s death wasn’t a suicide. “I’ll be relentless until they tell the truth,” she said.
Family alleges cover-up
The family and their attorney are alleging a cover-up by university officials and Dayton police. Chestnut said an independent investigator has determined that it wasn’t a suicide, but he hasn’t presented any evidence or specific information. Chestnut did not return numerous phone calls from the Dayton Daily News.
Students found Cook’s body at the rear of the Stuart Complex outside the Meyer wing in the heart of the campus. Though the original calls went to the UD police, Dayton fire and police department personnel were also called out, according to a Dayton police incident report. “In this case we turned the whole thing over to the homicide squad,” said Bruce Burt, UD police chief. “We called them within minutes of being on the scene. We wanted to make sure it was a thorough investigation.”
Chestnut has stated publicly that the “university has thrown Larry under the bus.”
UD officials say there have been four previous student suicides on campus since 2002. In each case, the university made it a practice to share information from the coroner’s reports with the student body, though the university does not make suicide rulings on its own. Burt said he was frustrated by the cover-up claims, adding that his willingness to involve another agency showed there was no ill intent.
“The Dayton police are the primary investigative agency in this matter, and we are doing everything we can to assist them in their investigation,” university spokeswoman Teri Rizvi said. “If there was a cause of death other than what the coroner determined, we of course want to know that. We share the family’s desire to find answers about their son’s death, and we offer our cooperation to reach that common goal. Our heartfelt prayers are with the family, and with our entire campus community grieving his loss.”
UD president Daniel Curran said in a statement, “Larry’s death is a tragedy, and we’re all mourning the loss of such a promising life. His spirit will always be a part of this campus community. We have offered our cooperation to the family toward our common goal of finding answers.”
Chestnut gained fame as the attorney for the family of Robert Champion, Jr., a drum major at Florida A&M University who died in a November 2011 hazing incident. Chestnut has suggested that Cook’s death, too, could have been the result of hazing, but university officials said that Cook had never registered to pledge a fraternity.
Chestnut has represented other high-profile clients, including Christopher Chaney, a Jacksonville man accused of hacking into the e-mail accounts of celebrities such as Christina Aguilera, Mila Kunis and Scarlett Johansson and posting nude photos of some of them online. Chaney is now serving a 10-year prison term.
Chestnut also represented the family of Delvonte Tisdale, 16, of North Carolina, who had been a stowaway on a flight from Charlotte to Boston when he fell to his death from a wheel well. That lawsuit, which claimed that the airline and airport failed to warn the boy of the dangers of riding in a wheel well, was dismissed in March.
“I just felt like it was premature,” Chestnut told the Associated Press when the judge dismissed the Tisdale case. “We filed this lawsuit to get answers, but we’ve never had them.”
In this case, too, Chestnut has repeatedly said that the family is looking for answers.
High-profile cases such as the Trayvon Martin case in Florida have shown the potential effectiveness of family involvement in police cases. Experts caution, however, that research on suicide shows tremendous pressure on coroners and medical examiners to not rule deaths suicides, whether that pressure comes from grieving families, churches or military officials.
That pressure stems from the stigma that continues to surround suicide, said Ryan Peirson, a psychiatrist and chief clinical officer for the ADAMHS Board of Montgomery County. Those who are mentally ill or do commit suicide are often thought as weak, he said: “There’s no other health condition in this country that generates the stigma that mental illness generates. We struggle in this country with accepting that mental illness happens.”
Peirson declined to comment on the specifics of the Cook case but said it is often difficult to retrace the warning signs after a suicide. “When people do commit suicide, it can be very difficult to understand why,” Peirson said. “It is often an impulsive act.”
Adolescents and young adults are more likely to commit suicide due to an impulse, generally over issues such as the loss of a relationship or not performing up to expectations in school or other activities, Peirson said.
Younger males also are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors. Drug overdoses and car accidents can sometimes be suicides, but usually aren’t — and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, unless an obvious indicator like a suicide note is left behind, Peirson said.
Some suicides are planned for long periods, but others are not. Often people who commit suicide have depression or some other mental illness, but not always. Some leave notes, others don’t. “Not everybody who commits suicide is actually depressed,” Peirson said. And those who are often hide it well, he added.
Despite the ambiguities, one thing is certain: survivors and loved ones will be deeply affected, Peirson said. “You really have to respect the pain and suffering that it causes families,” he said. “It just devastates families.”
Suicide challenges relationships and belief systems, Peirson said, leaving survivors wondering what, if anything, they could have done to prevent it. Denial is common, as it is in any situations of extreme emotional stress, and so is divorce. “It’s a deeply personal thing when this happens to families,” Peirson said.
‘It isn’t in my baby’s DNA’
Family and friends of Cook don’t believe it was suicide in part because such an action would be so contradictory to his upbeat nature. “It isn’t in my baby’s DNA, I promise you that,” Rucker said during a recent press conference. “We called him ‘Smiley’ his entire life. He was always a glass is half full kind of person, awesome person, inspired me to be a better mother, couldn’t have met a nicer, happier kid than my Larry.”
Chestnut said at a recent press conference, “The indications for suicide are a suicide note, pre-death depression, and withdrawal from activity. None of these are characteristic of Larry. There was no pre-death depression and he hadn’t discussed suicide.”
Tricia Marks, president and CEO of the Suicide Prevention Center Inc., said that there are no warning signs in 15 percent of suicides, and that in many other cases the signs are so subtle they are overlooked. “People think it won’t touch them, but it’s an equal-opportunity killer, cutting across all races, ages, religions and socio-economic classes,” she said. “And it has become an epidemic.”
That won’t change, Marks added, until the stigma goes away: “Nobody wants to talk about it or take the positive steps. If we can teach people what to look for and what to do, we can make a difference.”
Cook’s pastor, the Rev. Doug Ervin of Belfast United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, described the first-year mechanical engineering student as an extraordinary young man. “He was a mentor for troubled students at Sycamore High School,” he said. “He was there to teach and to mentor. That’s Larry. Larry was not a person who had racial and cultural boundaries.”
Ervin added, “He believed in excellence and exemplified that through sports, academics, his engineering scholarship at UD and his interaction with people, showing his genuine love and compassion. He had a tremendous spirit of joy and happiness and he enjoyed life and wanted others to live.”
That sentiment was echoed again and again by speakers at a memorial service at the UD chapel Thursday night.
“Larry’s smile could make you feel as if everything was OK,” one friend recalled, adding, “Larry, I am almost embarrassed to say that I am jealous of the angels that get to see that beautiful smile every day.”
The Rev. LaKendra Hardware, UD’s campus minister for international ministry, said Cook’s death leaves “more questions than answers,” but added, “I have peace knowing that Larry knew God, and had a relationship with a God whose love for him never stopped…Larry was young man of laughter, love, smiles, athleticism, ‘yes ma’ams, no ma’ams,’ and faith.”
Warning signs of suicide
• Prolonged depression
• Talking about/asking questions about death or suicide
• Feeling hopeless and helpless
• Music, art or writings with a sad or death theme
• A change in eating or sleeping habits
• Drug or alcohol involvement
• Recklessness or risk taking
• Previous attempt or gesture of suicide
• A drop in grades
• A loss of concentration
• Negative or hostile behavior
• Running away or acting out
• Having no sense of a future
• A loss of interest in activities
• Withdrawal from family or friends
Signs someone may be in the attempting stage
• Saying “goodbye”
• Giving away personal possessions
• A sudden improvement in mood or disposition
Source: Suicide Prevention Center, Inc.
24-hour suicide prevention hotline
229-7777, staffed by Suicide Prevention Inc., which serves 24 counties in southwest Ohio
Ohio suicide rates
Suicides in Ohio have risen from 1,265 deaths in 1990 to 1,420 in 2010, the latest available figures from the Ohio Department of Health.
Ohio Total suicides (2010): 1,420
Montgomery County: 90
Age: 180 of 1,420, or about 13 percent of the suicides were by people between the ages of 15-24
Source: Ohio Department of Health