Oct. 6th, 1985 - Sept. 2nd, 2010
The Phone Call
On September 3rd, 2010, I received a phone call from Scott, my friend, former roommate, and fraternity brother, around one o'clock in the afternoon. The timing of the call was odd since it was a Friday afternoon and he knew I was at work. My team was in the middle of a monthly luncheon we scheduled to review business numbers, present monthly recognition awards, and initiate plans for the following month. I stared at the Caller ID on the screen for a few seconds, index finger almost pressing "Decline," just thinking, "This is weird. Why is he calling now? Something doesn't feel right." I excused myself from the meeting and took his call in the adjacent hallway. He was audibly shaken and stressed and barely squeaked out, "Hey Don." I reply, "Hey, is everything okay?" I knew it wasn't, something big had happened. He took his time, carefully choosing his words, almost like he was reviewing each word with disbelief before speaking. "My sister, Michelle... she's gone." Usually you can't get me to shut up, but this was one of the few times in my life I was genuinely and utterly speechless. Seconds seemed like hours, and I had to force my eyes to open wide in order to yank myself out of this confounded state.
Michelle was 24 years old at the time; I assumed what most of you would assume (or maybe just me): Car accident. I didn't want to, but I questioned what happened. His reply, "The department has ruled her death a suicide," taking me from the generally dazed frame of mind earlier to one of absolute confusion and sadness. After expressing condolences, I assured him I would be down there to see him and his family immediately. I walked back to my desk to get my car keys, then decided to sit down for a moment to collect my thoughts. To say I was "in shock" doesn't begin to describe my emotions at that moment. With hands trembling, I stared into the blank computer monitors until they faded into obscurity. If you asked how much time had passed, I couldn't tell you. Eventually our manager walked up to my desk, gasped and asked, "You're as white as a ghost! Are you feeling okay?" I stood up on unsteady legs, looked her in the eyes with an evergrowing lump in my throat, and hoarsely whispered, "I need to leave." She didn't protest, press the matter any further, or try to offer assistance in any way — she just let me walk off.
I sat in the car for another 10 minutes with thoughts swirling around like a tornado before I felt comfortable enough to safely operate a vehicle. The trip was made in record time, and before I knew it, I was in the driveway of his mother's house. Good Lord, facing his mom Patty was the hardest thing I've ever done, because I knew saying "I'm so sorry," wouldn't cut it; adding, "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help," is extremely cliche. Condolences were conveyed to her before I retired to a couch in the living to talk with Scott and his sister, Jen. We talked for a while, even snuck in a few happy moments that brought a much needed smile and a little laughter.
The O'Connells had been like a second family. The closest relative I have is five hours away by car; Scott's mom and siblings are only 40 minutes away. Since meeting Scott in 2001, his family has welcomed all of his friends with open arms. They immediately made us feel like part of the group, as if we had known each other for years before our initial introductions. Inside jokes were just as common as friendly ribbings. His mom would always offer to cook us dinner and even tried a few times to pass me $20 to "have some fun over the weekend." Though, I never accepted. Michelle was in high school when we met and I had the pleasure of seeing her grow from a teenager into a great mother and a wonderful person over the years. Her and I would always team up together to tease Scott about some "inside dirt" she always had on him from one time or another. She's been truly missed.
From the beginning, enormous speculation surrounding the question of whether or not this was a suicide has plagued this case. This morning, The New York Times ran a very in-depth investigative article surrounding the inconsistencies involved. Furthermore, to accompany the article, a PBS special, "Frontline: A Death in St. Augustine," will air tomorrow night (November 26th) from 10pm-11pm EST. I will be watching and implore you to do that same.