Young people in a Missouri college town kept killing themselves. A parent of one victim is convinced that her son’s friend encouraged the deaths. Has a sinister figure been exposed, or is it a case of misplaced blame?
By D.T. Max | 12 April 2021
THE NEW YORKER — Truman State University, in northern Missouri, is sometimes called the Harvard of the Midwest. For the past twenty-four years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked it as the top public university in the region. “I love the atmosphere here,” a student named Deanna commented on Unigo, a Web site that evaluates colleges. “I love that my professors actually care about me as a person and know my name. I love that I am challenged every day—even if it means losing some sleep or passing on an opportunity to hang out with friends. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Other students feel stuck at a provincial grind school, and jealous of peers attending more glamorous universities. Truman State is in Kirksville, a faded town with seventeen thousand residents. St. Louis and Kansas City are each three hours away. Johanna Burns, a 2018 graduate, told me that the school “is the best for those who can’t afford the best.” Many students receive scholarships based on merit, but they must maintain high grades, and it often seems to recipients that they’re about to be thrown off a treadmill. “You’ve heard of the Typical Truman Student?” Alaina Borra, a recent graduate, asked me. “Truman students are high-achieving in high school, and they get to college and they can no longer compete with everyone here, and they get depressed. Whoever can say ‘Everything sucks’ more is the better Typical Truman Student.”
The university, which has about the same number of undergraduates as Princeton and an endowment that is more than five hundred times smaller, offers counselling services, but many students have found them inadequate. Four years ago, a sophomore named Max Copeland interviewed students and alumni about their experiences with school counsellors, and delivered an informal report on his findings to the administration. One student told Copeland a Truman therapist had said that anxiety was “all in their head.” A student who spoke of possibly being trans was advised that “they were, perhaps, a ‘butch lesbian, like Ellen DeGeneres.’ ” Tristen Weiser, who was overwhelmed by her course load, says she was told that her real issue was an incident of abuse from her childhood. “It felt like they weren’t really trying to help so much as blame it on something else,” Weiser told me. (The university said that it was not aware of such stories, and emphasized that its counsellors are held to the highest standards.) To cope, Weiser turned to heavy drinking. “My entire friend group straight up became alcoholics,” she said. “We all kind of just sat around and were, like, ‘Truman did this to us.’ ” Weiser eventually dropped out and left the state.
In an eight-month period that started in August, 2016, three members of a fraternity and a young man who was close to some of its members killed themselves. Truman State put out a notice stating that students with complex mental-health issues should consider going somewhere with more resources, as they “may not find the expertise or availability of services they need at Truman or in the Kirksville community.” Melissa Bottorff-Arey, the mother of Alex Mullins, the first of the students to die by suicide, told me she read the notice to mean, “If you’re suicidal, basically don’t come to us—we can’t help.”
Mullins, a twenty-one-year-old rising junior, had returned to Kirksville partway through the summer, to prepare for the school year. He lived a few blocks from campus, in a house belonging to a chapter of the fraternity Alpha Kappa Lambda, at 918 South Osteopathy Avenue. (Osteopathy was pioneered in Kirksville.) Mullins came from the Kansas City area, where he had been a standout in high school, completing a rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma program and playing varsity baseball. But he had struggled at Truman State, and during his sophomore year he was put on academic probation. Mullins briefly saw counsellors at the mental-health clinic, then stopped.
Still, he was known as a promising, gregarious young man; his mother compared him to the affable Finn Hudson character in “Glee.” She also told me that, when he returned to campus that summer, after five weeks with his family, he had seemed in good spirits. If not, she would have sensed it. “I was very—I am very—close to all my kids,” she said.
On a Saturday before the start of the semester, Mullins played video games with a good friend and then went out to a local bar. According to a police report, he bumped into a young woman he had been involved with, and they hugged and exchanged texts. Around 1:30 a.m., Mullins texted his stepfather, Phillip Fees, asking if he was still up; Fees attempted to get in touch with him but received no answer.
Around noon the next day, a rising sophomore in the fraternity, Brandon Grossheim, tried Mullins’s door and found it locked. Grossheim, who had transferred the previous winter from Lewis & Clark Community College, in Illinois, once referred to himself as the Peacemaker, because he prided himself on helping people get along. A friend of his noted, “He almost always started a conversation with a question about my mood.”
Mullins had been the fraternity’s house manager, and Grossheim was his successor. The house manager’s job was to make sure that the lawn got mowed and the toilets continued to flush, and that if someone vomited it got cleaned up. Alpha Kappa Lambda was a rowdy place, but Mullins took pains to remind his fellow-members of the fraternity’s commitment to public service, and Grossheim saw him as an exception to the house’s culture. “I thought people were being very negative in general,” Grossheim told me, in a conversation at a café in Kirksville, not long ago. “I thought, Why not be nice and support each other rather than be assholes.” Grossheim liked to get high with Mullins and watch him play the video game Overwatch.
The fraternity was in a nondescript two-story building that had been erected, in the nineteen-nineties, to withstand the carousing of young men. The house manager had keys to all the rooms. But Mullins had changed the lock on the door of his room, No. 105, after it broke, so Grossheim went outside and peered in Mullins’s window. The blinds were partially raised, and he could see his friend’s body hanging from a wardrobe. […]