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Truman State University

The campus of Truman State University in Kirksville, photographed on Saturday, April 22, 2017. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

The families of two young men who killed themselves at a Truman State fraternity house are suing a fraternity member, claiming his “psychological manipulation” led to their deaths and the deaths of three others who died by suicide within the same year.

The lawsuit filed this week claims that over one school year, five friends of the defendant, Brandon Grossheim, died by suicide. Grossheim had keys to four of their rooms and was the last person to see each of them alive, the suit says. It also claims Grossheim wore one of the dead student’s clothing after he died, carried money that went missing from his room weeks earlier and dated his girlfriend after his death.

“There were too many similarities, one person in common and so many questions,” Melissa Bottorff-Arey, the mother of one of the students, said in a written statement. “It’s time for answers.”

The parents filed suit Wednesday in north Missouri’s Adair County against Grossheim, Truman State University and Alpha Kappa Lambda, the fraternity of which Grossheim and three of the suicide victims were members.

Bottorff-Arey’s son, Alex Mullins, of Kansas City, was one of three Truman students and Alpha Kappa Lambda members to die by suicide at the fraternity house at 918 South Osteopathy Street in Kirksville, Missouri, from August 2016 to April 2017. Jacob Hughes, of Eureka, died less than three weeks later. Josh Thomas, 18, of St. Peters, was found in the fraternity house in the early hours of April 6.

Michael and Susan Thomas, the parents of Josh Thomas, joined Bottorff-Arey in the suit.

The suit links the three deaths to the 2017 suicides of an unnamed woman and man in their early 20s living in Kirksville, about 160 miles northwest of St. Louis. The man, 21, was the third of the four men to die by suicide. The woman’s death was not previously reported publicly.

All five were friends of Grossheim, who “aided” and “encouraged” them as he claimed to counsel depressed students, according to the lawsuit filed by St. Louis-based attorney and former federal prosecutor Nicole Gorovsky.

All three fraternity members battled depression and discussed prior suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide in front of other fraternity members, the suit says. It claims school officials knew the students were “vulnerable and suffered from depression” but allowed Grossheim “unfettered access” to them.

“This situation had been swept under the rug,” Gorovsky said in a written statement. “The University held a short symposium on suicide and the fraternity seemingly shrugged their shoulders and everyone went away quietly. But, no one told the public, parents or students on campus about the psychological manipulation that had been involved … that a fellow student and fraternity brother was a danger.”

An attorney for 6,000-student Truman State denied the allegations.

“We strongly disagree with the allegations as stated in the lawsuit and will defend the suit vigorously,” attorney Warren Wells said in a written statement. “As the litigation proceeds, it will become clear that the university is not responsible for the deaths of these students.”

Warren declined to comment further. Grossheim could not immediately be reached for comment. An attorney for Grossheim was not listed in court records as of Thursday. Jeremy D. Slivinski, executive director of Alpha Kappa Lambda, said he had not reviewed the suit and declined comment.

The deaths stumped Kirksville police, who told the Post-Dispatch in June 2017 that investigators saw a connection among the victims but found no overarching explanation. No criminal charges have been filed.

Kirksville Police and Adair County Prosecutor Matt Wilson’s office could not be reached on Thursday for comment.

The four men each died by hanging, according to the suit: Mullins and Hughes were found in their own rooms at the fraternity house, and Thomas was found in a storage closet. The unnamed man died in his apartment — across the hall from Grossheim’s later residence.

Police investigators found that Grossheim had keys to all four men’s rooms, and was the last person to see or talk to all five people before their deaths.

Grossheim was the “House Manager” at Alpha Kappa Lambda, and was the building manager at the apartment complex where the unnamed man died, the suit says. Grossheim allegedly was the first person to find Mullins and Hughes dead in both cases, the suit says. Thomas was allegedly found dead near a scrap of paper with Grossheim’s name and contact information on it.

Two fraternity brothers in supervisory roles told police that they had problems with Grossheim and that he had been acting “strangely,” according to the suit. Grossheim allegedly told people he considered himself a “superhero” with the nickname “peacemaker.”

“He counseled and gave advice and ‘step-by-step directions’ to people on how to deal with depression and do their own ‘free will,’” Gorovsky said. “The victims then each committed suicide in a very specific and tragic way.”

Mullins and Thomas told fraternity members that they had stopped taking their prescribed medications, the suit says; Truman State counseling services emailed Mullins about missed appointments but otherwise didn’t follow up.

Grossheim was asked by fraternity members to “watch” Hughes the night before he was found dead Aug. 26 because he was openly making suicidal statements, the suit says. But when police found Hughes, he allegedly had blood on his face, chest and forearm and a head injury he didn’t have earlier that night.

Grossheim began dating Hughes’ girlfriend shortly after his death, was seen wearing his clothes and had cash that went missing from Hughes’ room, the suit says.

Shortly afterward, an unnamed woman was found dead “under suspicious circumstances,” the suit says. Grossheim allegedly stated he was the last person to see her alive, too.

A police polygraph test “detected deception in his statements to police about her death,” the suit says.

The suit seeks monetary damages that would be determined by a jury.

Grossheim, 20, now lives in Alton, the suit says.

Gorovsky said he left Truman State in 2018 but was “not kicked out.”

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.