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Truman State University

A campus photo from Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. Photo courtesy of the university

Police in Kirksville, Mo., are stumped after a succession of four suicides, seeing a connection among the victims, but finding no overarching explanation.

Three of the deceased men were Truman State University students and members of the Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity.

The fourth was a local man, 21, who police say shared a social circle with the other three, though he was not a Truman student. His death has not been previously reported, though he was the third of the four men to die. He died in January.

While it’s mostly a technicality, Kirksville police have reopened the investigations of the deaths of students Alex Mullins and Jacob Hughes in August and the Kirksville resident in January while they continue to investigate the death of a third Truman student, Joshua Thomas, in April.

“It’s not unusual that in a small town, males of the same age group might know each other, especially if they socialize in the same areas,” Kirksville Police Chief Jim Hughes, no relation to Jacob, said. Kirksville, about 160 miles northwest of St. Louis, has about 17,000 residents. There are fewer than 7,000 students at the university.

“There was certainly a loose social affiliation that we know about, but at this point in time we have no credible information to lead us to believe it was any more than loose,” Hughes said.

One victim’s mother called the suicide victim who was not a Truman student an honorary fraternity member.

In the absence of any clear answers, the parents of some of the men are starting to share information as they communicate with police. Among them is Melissa Bottorff, of the Kansas City area, whose son, Mullins, died in August.

Bottorff said a few parents had leaned on each other for support, exchanging text messages every so often and sharing new information as they hear from detectives.

It’s been a devastating and frustrating nine months for Bottorff.

Her son’s case has been reopened, but she never would have known had she not pushed police for information after the fourth death. Like the other parents, she’s hoping for answers.

Chief Hughes said he feels for the families and said his officers are working hard to make sure they haven’t missed anything.

“In over 39 years in this business, all of which have been in college towns by choice, this series of events is very unusual and concerning at any number of levels,” he said.

He said the reopening of the cases is the police department being “meticulous.” As the investigation has moved forward, he said, there has been no “aha moment” that would offer an explanation tying the four suicides together.

Lou Ann Gilchrist, vice president of student affairs at Truman, said she has been impressed with law enforcement’s thoroughness.

“Police went over these cases with a fine-toothed comb,” she said.

Suicide clusters

Scott Poland, a psychology professor and researcher at Nova Southeastern University in Florida who specializes in suicide, said events in Kirksville definitely merited close scrutiny. He described the grouping of suicides in Kirksville as a “cluster,” a term that denotes that there have been at least three suicides in close proximity within one year.

Poland said when a suicide cluster is identified, it should trigger not only greater investigative efforts, but also a more focused response to make sure others in the social circle aren’t likely to follow.

Among those at risk after even one suicide are people within a physical proximity, those who have had a history of trauma or mental illness and those who intersected with some or all of the victims. Those risks are compounded with each additional suicide in a cluster.

The Kirksville Police Department, Truman State University and the national Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity have sought outside help to address mental health issues that Poland says contribute to 9 out of 10 suicides.

Karen Hughes, of Eureka, whose son Jacob died in August, said her biggest concern was that the string of suicides stops.

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“Just like Alex’s parents, we were completely blown away,” she said. “He was a really caring individual. He wanted nothing more than to make other people happy and to cheer them up.”

Offering support

Gilchrist said Truman leaders were doing what they could to support students. The school expanded the counseling center’s hours to accommodate the needs of “not just the immediate friend group,” but also for the “many students that are vulnerable.”

Truman State partnered with the JED Foundation, a national organization that specializes in suicide prevention among teens and young adults, to provide programming on campus during the spring semester.

The university is focusing on Alpha Kappa Lambda in particular, though Gilchrist said the Greek community is also working on a few initiatives they can take to help the community work through grief.

Bottorff is continuing to work through hers.

She’s remembering her son as the fun-loving man she raised.

Days before her son died, he and his mother had a lengthy chat. Maybe he could move home and finish up his degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

He had been having a difficult time for a few months before his death, but his mother said he bounced back from that and had a great summer. Mullins saw a counselor a few times and had taken medication for a few weeks to ease his depression. His mother never expected he would harm himself.

“He was Alex,” Bottorff said about her son. “Alex sings in the shower. Alex is the life of the party. I don’t want to be that mom who says things posthumously like, ‘He was the greatest person on the planet,’ but he was that kid who did show choir and was a baseball player.”