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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Chapter Nine - Links and Knots


***

Every other year, I came back to Kalamazoo from Phoenix to visit the family, and to escape the broiler oven heat of Arizona. I am one who enjoys the journey as much as anything else, literally a matter of planes, trains and automobiles. And taxicabs. And shuttle buses. Rarely would I spend the extra bread for a flight directly into AZO - it was almost always a lot more complicated than that.

In '08, I flew into O'Hare and rented a car for the week, a brand new Dodge Avenger (the smaller cousin of the 4-door Charger). It had sky blue paint, satellite radio and a V6 engine to stomp on... Sweet!

You miss the growing up of your nieces and nephews when you move away from home. They're bigger every time you see them. One of the first things I wanted to do was take Theresa and Charlie to the beach, because it looked to me like he was big enough. On windy days, Lake Michigan gets more than a little choppy; it becomes outright crashing surf, with pipelines and shit, six-foot whitecaps throwing you around in our fresh-water inland sea.

It was a very windy day. Charlie, then five years old, had a "floatie", a big duck-shaped ring with a saddle-seat in the middle that he could put his legs through. It kept him from going through the ring or getting thrown out of it by the indifferent violence of Mother Nature. Theresa and I teamed up. I towed him out to the waist-deep water where the waves break the hardest, and Theresa played backstop behind me if Charlie were to get tumbled... It happens.

We would wait for a wave, just the right one, with Charlie's reddish cheeks bunched up above his tight grin as he watched the waters pitching and rolling toward us. When one reared its monstrous white head, Charlie would pull all the breath into his lungs that he could, and grab ahold tight of his duck as I started to push him toward the irrevocable onslaught.

"Be Brave, Charlie!" I would yell as the swells would suddenly lift him high above the waterline, sending him floating and flying at the same time in an exhilarating upward heave into the air and the spray, his laughter and Theresa's carried away by the screeching gulls battling with the turbulence. "Be Brave!" 

And he was. Absolutely. Every day of his life, Charlie Wolf was the bravest little kid I ever knew.

***

Oneonta, Alabama: October 11, 2014: "A 10-year-old Blount County boy died Friday night in what police say appears to be an accidental hanging... The boy lived with his mother and three younger sisters. They had only been home about 10 or 15 minutes, and were getting ready to go to a birthday party... His mother called out to him that it was time to leave, and the boy didn't answer. When she went into his room, she found him hanging from a rope tied to his top bunk bed... The mother got him down and ran outside screaming for help. Neighbors called 911 and began CPR until paramedics arrived and took over the resuscitation efforts." Here's the link to the whole tragic story:

http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2014/10/10-year-old_oneonta_boy_dead_i.html

***

Stockton, California, January 23rd, 2014: "A big-hearted California 8-year-old boy died Sunday after his play-acting went too far and he hanged himself in his parents’ Stockton home... When the teen went to check on his younger brother, the boy was slumped over near his parent’s closet, one side of a scarf tied around his neck and the other end to a doorknob... The teen called 911 and his mother, who rushed home and tried CPR on her unconscious son. Paramedics also tried to revive the boy before he was flown to a medical center in Sacramento... Police called the heartbreaking incident 'a very tragic accident.'" Here's the link to the whole tragic story:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/parents-grieve-8-year-old-california-boy-accidentally-hangs-article-1.1589671

***

Watton, Norfolk (UK): January 10, 2014: "A nine-year-old boy has died after accidentally hanging himself while playing in his bedroom with his three younger brothers." Here's the link to the whole tragic story:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2537112/Schoolboy-9-dies-accidentally-hanging-playing-bedroom-younger-brothers.html

***

Lancaster, California, June 18, 2012: "But it became a reality for Evelyn Briggs, who entered her Lancaster, Calif. backyard over the weekend to find her 7-year-old son dead, hanging from a tree, as CBS reports in the video below... Briggs explained that she was in the house, and her son went into the backyard to play. Twenty minutes later, the yard fell silent, and she and her other son went outside to check on (him). That’s when they saw his body, hanging from a tree... 'I was screaming. But I realized I have to go grab my baby and so we got him untangled. He fell and I shook him. I did chest compression, CPR,' Briggs said. 'Words cannot explain the way I feel after losing a 7-year-old child. He was so full of life. He had so much more to do and accomplish,' she continued." Here's the link to the whole tragic story:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/18/boy-hanged-on-tree-aaris-conway_n_1606198.html

***

Those are just some of the ones I took from the first page of my Google search. All in all, "accidental hanging little boy" pulled up approximately 995,000 results. So Charlie's was just a few thousand tragic stories shy of being one of a million, at least where Google is concerned. It took the search engine 0.54 seconds to get me the information.

It's not rocket science. It's common sense: Accidental injury is the leading cause of death for boys under the age of 14.

***

Charlie slept in the car the whole way home that day, 45 minutes down M-43. He always did that. Fell asleep in the back seat. Every time.

pH 4.3o.16

***

NEXT WEEK: Chapter Ten - "Alphabetical Order"

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Chapter One - Never Trust a Normal Day


Sergeant Mike Treu’s dash-cam video starts rolling right about eight o’clock that night. It is a typical late July evening in southwest Michigan, where the rustbelt forces an interface of sorts between the pastoral and the industrial. It’s hot out, but not too hot, and the length of the day has leavened the sun down near the hazy horizon. The few clouds that are in the sky, set out in a swath of diminishing Morse code, find the time to produce a few none-too-serious droplets of rain, which are visible on the windshield of Sergeant Treu’s Ford Crown Victoria.

The call comes in. A child is down, non-responsive, on South Park Street. That’s a few miles from the station, which is located at Howard and Oakland in Kalamazoo, just down the road from the shiny new Homer Stryker School of Medicine, a private enterprise that is located on the campus of Western Michigan University. It is the place where just about every county in the region sends its bodies when the events surrounding anyone’s death is deemed suspicious by investigators for the de facto coroner. It receives compensation to the tune of $2,500 for each unfortunate soul that winds up on their cold slabs.

What is most striking about the dash-cam video is the powerful sound of the Police Interceptor engine in Sergeant Treu’s cruiser; he has the throttle mashed all the way down, and it is clear that the Crown Vic cannot go any faster than it is going. He slows only to make the right turn onto South Westnedge Avenue. Several other police cars are visible in the frame, also going (literally) as fast as they can. When it came to my nephew Charlie, Kalamazoo’s Finest did not dally.

Treu barrels over Westnedge Hill at top speed. He impatiently works his way through the intersection at Whites Road and then roars the rest of the way up to the 3800 block. Park Street is the first street East of Westnedge, at the corner of Parker Avenue. His very long night has just begun.

Officer John Stolsonburg came from East of Westnedge. He flew down Kilgore Road, coming in from the south onto Park Street. He mutters, “I’ve fucking been to this house before.”

***

It is a typically slow Sunday night at Papa Pete’s, a longtime mainstay in downtown Kalamazoo, on the corner of Cedar and Burdick, just down from the venerable State Theater. Sometimes there’s a pool league in there on Sundays, in which case the pizza kitchen would be busy, because pool players sure do like to eat pizza during their tournaments. But not this night, July 26th, 2015. For me, the guy making or not making those pizzas, it was a perfectly normal night. The ring of the telephone didn’t sound any different than it should have.

“Papa Pete’s,” I say. (What else needs to be said?) The very familiar voice, in the very familiar Kiwi accent, asks me if I can leave work right then, at that very moment. It’s me Mum. “Maybe,” I say. “What’s up?”

“Can you?” She asks again.

“If there’s a good reason,” I say. “Don’t be the Oracle at Delphi. Tell me what’s going on.”

“Can you come home now?” She asks again.

“What for?”

She draws a breath, and says the last thing I would have ever expected anyone to say. “Okay. Charlie’s dead. They’ve been trying to revive him, but they didn’t, and they’ve just now stopped. You need to come home and take care of your household.”

For some reason, this makes me angry. “Goddammit, what’s really going on? That’s sick. What do you want?”

She pauses before saying, “I can send a police car there to get you if you don’t think you can drive yourself. You need to come home now.” So I say I will be there soon, and I hang up, and I go tell the bartender what all that was about, and that I have to leave, and that I’m sorry I can’t even get the floors done before I take off.

And she says just go. Just go.

***

Charlie was my sister’s beloved son. He was 12. Built like most of us Hellers – none too tall, a little thicker than necessary. As I would write in describing him to the coroner much later, he was ebullient, effusive, had a zest for life, and had many loving people around him. He reminded me very much of myself when I was his age.

My sister, Theresa, had Charlie kind of late in life. He was effectively an only child, but not her only child. She gave up a daughter in her teenage years, with whom she had reconnected by the time Charlie was born, but still… as so many women like to say these days, her son was her world.

She and I and my parents all agreed to go in on a house together in Kalamazoo, despite all evidence that the housing bubble was at its most swollen, so that Charlie would have a stable home – not to mention the fact that he would be eligible for the Kalamazoo Promise: Those who graduate with a sufficient GPA from Kalamazoo Public Schools will get a free ride (more or less) to any college in Michigan. It is the only thing in decades that has given this town any hope for the future - an initiative that may or may not have been supported by the uber-wealthy Stryker Family (the donors to the Promise remain anonymous).

Charlie was set on attending Western Michigan University, and why not? His mom graduated there with a Master’s Degree. My father is a Professor Emeritus at the school as well. My brother graduated from Western… WMU Bronco blood flows in our family’s veins. When I came home to Kalamazoo after living in Phoenix for 15 years, I moved in with Theresa and Charlie. It made sense, as I had been sending up a third of the mortgage every month since 2007.

In the course of living there over the years, my sister’s son became very much like my son. I have no kids, and found that helping to raise Charlie was both a learning and a teaching experience for me.

Now I'm about to learn - as with most things, the hard way - that life is a precious and fleeting thing. I have no choice but to ponder that for the few miles it took me to get back home.

I approach from the south, as Officer Stolsonburg had. I park my car in the bask and strobe of the red and blue patrol car lights – so many. I duck under the yellow tape extending from the end of my driveway across the street and tell the first cop who looks at me that I'm Paul Heller, and that I live there.

The officer's name is Ryan Shank. He is about my age, with a clean-shaven head, and he is wearing the saddest look I’ve ever seen on a cop’s face. “I’m sorry to tell you, sir, that your nephew Dennis Wolf has died. We tried very hard to revive him, but we were not successful.”

Dennis Wolf is Charlie. Everyone called him that (his middle name), even his father, after whom he was named.

I nod, swallow, look over at my Mom’s stricken face, and say, “So I’m not gonna wake up?” I look at my right forearm, as if pinching it might somehow help, even though I know better.

“No, sir,” Officer Shank says. “I’m afraid you’re not.”

“All right,” I say. “Where’s my sister?”

He motions over toward Charlie’s wooden play fort, where I see my sister Theresa, destroyed in every sense of the word, sitting on the end of the little yellow plastic slide. My father, fresh off hip replacement surgery, is with her, gently rubbing her back because, what else can he do? The yard is swarming with police and emergency personnel. The sun is setting. Charlie is behind a black placard that has been placed between him and his family. A police photographer is fiddling with his camera nearby.

“Okay,” I say. And I head toward the rabbit hole down which we are all about to go.

***

I am three years old in the summer of 1971. Gasoline costs a few dimes a gallon. Pro football actually has an off-season. Richard Nixon has yet to do anything wrong. With my corn-silk hair and average teeth, I am swinging away with a big red plastic whiffle ball bat at a big white plastic whiffle ball that my Dad, the esteemed Dr. Charles F. Heller, Jr, is throwing at me in the front yard of our house on an idyllic suburban cul-de-sac. Before each throw, it’s the same thing. “Eye on the ball,” he says each time, “Big swing, now.” After a few errant windmills, I finally get ahold of one of those big, juicy grapefruits he was serving up – with a big swing. The ball sails over his head, like a comet, just beyond his outstretched fingertips. In obvious delight, he runs the ball down in the driveway while I stand there, bat still clutched in my wee grip. He turns around, holds the ball up in his big, strong hand before his vastly smiling face, and yells, “That’s the ticket!”

***

Absolutely, Officer Stolsonburg had been to my house before… Twice, in fact. The second time was on a door-to-door meet-n-greet that the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety conducted in order to better get to know the residents of our neighborhood. It was then that Stolsonburg recognized me from our first encounter.

Sergeant Treu was actually with him on the door-knocker campaign, an outreach program in which KDPS sent public safety officers out into the community to introduce themselves, ask if the folks have any concerns or questions for them, basic stuff. Of course, I was only a few minutes removed from rocking out on the electric guitar, so I must have had a pretty guilty look on my face when I answered the door. But they quickly explained that this wasn’t about that.

As our brief conversation looked to be nearing its finish line, Stolsonburg looked at me carefully and asked, “Aren’t you the guy whose truck rolled backward into the neighbor’s yard?” The guilty look returned – yeah, that was me, all right. Forgot to set the parking brake, came out of the house to find the truck not in the driveway, called in a stolen vehicle, found it a minute later leaned up against Shane and Erin’s swing set, right when the patrol car arrived… See, no big deal.

Stolsonburg, Treu, Shanks and Officer Kelly Pittelkow took over the CPR that Charlie’s mom and her life-long friend, Renee, were furiously and professionally performing on him. And they worked like the pros that they are, all of them and then more, refusing to give up, trying desperately to give Theresa what she was begging them for. The ambulance arrived, and the EMT’s went to work with the paddles and the breather bag, and they too gave it everything they had.

The fact that they were unable to revive Charlie is proof-positive to us that it was his time. If those men and women couldn’t do it… then it couldn’t have been done. The other officers had to literally force Kelly Pittelkow to stop compressing his chest.

My sister lays there in the dirt and the ants near Charlie, as close to him as they allow her to get (because it’s a crime scene now), a sound coming from her that only a mother who has lost a child would recognize. To everyone else, it is too much to bear. It is the sound of a soul letting go of a life.

Officer Pittelkow gently says something like, “Come on, Honey, the ants are crawling up your shorts.” She says that she does not care. Charlie has ants crawling on him, too. He, too, does not care.

***

It is a strange thing indeed to watch oneself on a police car dash-cam video. But there I am, in my shorts and tee-shirt, hair buzzed down to a quarter-inch for the hot summer nights working in a pizza kitchen. I cross the front yard from right to left, over to the play fort, where my poor sister is sitting at the foot of the slide with my father. Officer Pittelkow is standing near her.

I fall to my knees. My head bobs up and down. The car that is filming has its windows rolled up, so the only sound is that of the air conditioner running. I stay down that way for about five minutes.

By the time I stand up, all manner of people have started crowding in. One is introduced to me as a precinct chaplain. Another is billed as the Medical Examiner’s Investigator. I don’t catch his name – quite probably because he doesn’t bother giving it to me – but there’s something vaguely familiar about him; hardly the moment to go skipping down Memory Lane.

He hands Theresa some kind of pamphlet like you’d see in a rack by the counter at a veterinary clinic. She demands to know what is going to happen. She insists she does not “want them carving him up.” The ME guy assures her, in a soft, low, even voice that they have to take him to the County Coroner because it is an unnatural death (or, as the paperwork states, “death by violence”). He says that if there is an autopsy, it would be minimal, only to ascertain the cause of death.

I heard this conversation. My Dad heard this conversation. So did Officer Pittelkow, and it is due to the fact that her body microphone was recording everything (with the audio feeding back to the dash-cam on her police cruiser parked in my driveway) that I have no problem saying all of that. I can even link up the audio file with the video footage of this conversation taking place, shot through the windshield of another police cruiser that was parked on the lawn, pointing right at the fort… Hell, a 12-year old kid could do that.

That paltry attempt to quell my sister’s horror would turn out to be grotesquely false, but over the course of this nightmare, it turns out that a lot of the things that came bubbling up out of the ME’s office were pretty much bullshit.

***

It is getting dark. The crickets are chirping. The mosquitoes are biting. And the detectives are taking their sweet time. I guess that’s easy to do when the primary subject of your investigation is already deceased. Numerous times through this time frame in the police videos, one cop or another will periodically (by which I mean many minutes apart) mention this. What’s taking so long? Where are they? Because none of them get to leave until the detectives figure it out. And they sure can’t do that when they aren’t even there.

So we wait.

Anyway, backstory: Theresa, on this night, is two days removed from gallbladder removal surgery. That’s not nearly as invasive as it used to be, but it is still no picnic. She was in bed, on her prescribed medication, when the terrible discovery was made. For the purpose of her recovery from surgery, her friend since childhood was staying at the house to both assist her and to help care for Charlie.

Renee Corwin is a Michigan native who had the good sense to get an education and move to someplace where she could make a good living. She’s a Psychiatric Nurse who is employed by the California Department of Corrections. Not only was she perfectly qualified for the task, she was also a regular summertime visitor. She would use her vacation time to visit her family in the Great Lakes region, and to visit Theresa and Charlie.

So it is a damn good thing that she was the first one to fly out that door.

***

At 10:20 pm, nearly two and a half hours after the first 911 call was placed, the first detective flounces across the screen of Pittelkow’s dash-cam. I’ll call her Sheila Goodell, because that’s her name. She interviews Renee, which is kind of interesting, since the report of Renee’s interview ends up being written by the other detective, Kristen Cole. (I later found out through various news articles that Cole is one of our better homicide investigators.) I never saw her interview anybody, actually. I was interviewed by Goodell. So were my parents – but Cole is the author of those reports, too.

(Shrug.) Whatever. It was their tardiness that was more offensive to everyone at the scene anyhow. Goodell asked questions, some tough ones, pretty much the same ones to each person. She did her job. They took Charlie’s cell phone, even though it was without service and therefore not a communication device, a fact we conveyed to them again and again. Amazingly, a police captain showed up, even later than the detectives.

My first duty came early, a phone call, a very hard call to place. Lenise Williams is Charlie’s Godmother - well, one of his Godmothers, he has two. And she was there in no time. She, along with Officer Pittelkow, got my distraught sibling back in bed.

Lenise stood by Theresa's bed while the detective peppered her with questions. scene. She rounded up the emergency prescriptions that were called in. She took care of so much of this awful business. That’s what friends do. Even when it’s too terrible to look at.

Outside, the Medical Examiner’s Office is making their move. I stand in the driveway with Ryan Shank and other officers and watch it happen. My nephew’s death is not an abstract to me, not in any way. They zip him up in a blue nylon bag and load him into the back of a white cargo van with blue letters on the side of it. At that moment, for all I know, they could be dry cleaners. At 10:55 pm, he arrives at WMed, 1000 Oakland Drive.

Before the first police reports are typed up. While there are still cop cars with their dash-cam videos grinding away footage of our property. To them, he isn’t anybody’s little boy. To them, he's a stack of cash. And if you’ve ever seen anyone grab for money before, you know what that looks like.

***

Mike Treu and Kelly Pittelkow are the last ones to leave. It is well past 11:00 pm. Their cameras keep recording. They drive north on Westnedge, over the hill, where Westnedge and Park split into one-ways. They are in no hurry as they keep driving north, through the empty heart of a child’s hometown.

The Heller Family has nothing but love and admiration for the men and women who are charged with serving and protecting this city. That’s why Theresa and I, for the past two years, have picked up donations for the Fraternal Order of Police in both Kalamazoo and Ottawa Counties. And it’s why we were so honored to receive from FOP Lodge 98 a very generous contribution to our nonprofit organization, Flowers from Charlie the Merchant.

***

We are uplifted by the people of our community.

Tuesday morning, my oldest sister Marian had flown in from New York - and it felt great to have another hand on the family deck. She tasked herself primarily with helping my parents pick up our shattered pieces for us, because we could do very little in our grief. Renee being there the whole time is, I'm sure, the only way we possibly got through it. She was able to maintain her senses, and make sense to my bereaved sister.

Per Theresa's request, Father Al Camp came up from Mississippi. He's from the Catholic order of Octogenarians, yet he was driving up this way anyhow for a family reunion. The Lord works, he would tell you, in mysterious ways. I haven't seen Father Al since I was a little kid, and when I mentioned that to him, he replied, "My, how you've grown."

The next few days were a blur. What I distinctly remember, though, is the food. When an unspeakable tragedy occurs, people don't know what to do, because they know intuitively (if not personally) that there's nothing that can be done. So they bring food. Platters of food. Buckets of food! Good food, too. And they leave envelopes. With cash. I would say there is no way to ever thank them. They would say there is no need to.

By Friday, the day of the funeral, everything had been prepared. I don't know how. It was a monumental effort of love, a bold-print statement in the face of death. His clothes had been picked, the obituary had been published, and somewhere in there, Charlie was sent from WMed to Redmond Funeral Home. One of his uncles on his Dad's side arranged for us to have the funeral plot right next to Charlie's grandmother and her husband, and the next plot over, too, for Theresa someday.

Charlie's life truly was a fairy tale, and maybe it was the half a Valium I took that morning, but his funeral seemed that way, too. 

We are uplifted by the people of our community!

Seemed like half the town was there. There were not enough seats in the biggest viewing room to hold all the people that were arriving, that much was clear just from the parking lot. There were people I knew well, and others I had not seen in years or decades, and others I did not know at all. It was a serious crowd.

As Theresa and Dennis (Charlie's Dad) were saying goodbye to their son, my brother and I stood and blocked people from going in. They didn't mean to intrude, there just wasn't any room to put them all.

Then my brother and I went to pay our respects, before everyone could watch us do it. Vince went first. He murmured something to him and kissed his head. It was my turn.

I had never been right up close to a dead person before. Never touched one. But to me, it was Charlie. He looked a little funny - I know the procedures used in preparing a body for viewing, so I understood mostly what I was looking at.

"Okay, listen," I said to him. "I have some things for you." I pushed two pennies under his folded hands. They were cold and stiff, which was very alien to my sense of touch, hard to reconcile. "You give those to the ferryman," I said quietly. "He'll take you to the other side." Cover all the bases, I figured. 

"And I'm giving you my Winchester," I said. "I know you always wanted it. And Charlie always gets what he wants." I placed my Winchester pocket knife, which he had long coveted even after I had given him a Buck for Christmas, by his side. "I'll see you when I get there, kid."

I kissed him on his cold forehead, turned, and marched out of the room. 

I've done harder things in my life.

No. I haven't.

We are uplifted by the people of our community. 

It was standing room only. We told everyone NOT to wear black. Most people wore white. Our whole family did. Courtney (Theresa's grown-up daughter) and Marian and I had worked on singing two songs for the funeral, "Be Not Afraid" and "Amazing Grace". We nailed them both. Marian later told me that she listened while singing, and when neither Courtney nor I broke stride in the first line of "Be Not Afraid", she knew we could get through it. I'm not that strong - I told her about the half a Valium. She said, oh... Well, that explains it.

Father Al did a great job. He always does. When he hit me with a blessing before the service, it was the first time I allowed myself to believe that I might be able to get through this.

The funeral home is just across the street from Charlie's new real estate at Mt. Ever Rest Cemetery, and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety blocked traffic on Kalamazoo's main thoroughfare with their SUV's while a spontaneous parade erupted. Hundreds of mourners crossed on foot in front of the flashing red and blue lights. Theresa made the walk with another of my nephews who is about the same age as Charlie. He held her hand as they crossed the street.

Vince and I were on the middle handles of Charlie's casket. It was light enough that we could have carried it ourselves, but Charlie had two big families, and so many good people wanted to be pall bearers that I felt a bit honored when I was among the final six selected. We did our jobs as his Uncles. We carried him until the very last step.

Upon reconvening at our parents' house, the home my siblings and I all grew up in, we were bowled over to see that the entire street had set up tents and tables, and laid out all of the food and drinks. It was the closest thing to a party anyone could have pulled off. There was even some humor, as it turned out Father Al had left his car engine running for the entire gathering. He was down to a quarter-tank.

Charlie's Ranch, as we call it, is located a few golf shots away from our driveway. If you walk to the end of Park Street, where it ends at the cemetery just south of Buchanan, you can see it. There's a beautiful granite bench sitting there that makes it easy to spot. He is as close to home as we could get him. We are uplifted by the people of our community.

***

The following Monday, my Dad calls Theresa on the phone. He does not sound like his normal self, not even his sad-as-the-new-normal self. He sounds kind of distraught, which he almost never is.

"I just got the Death Certificate from Redmond," he tells her. And he asks if she needs it for any legal purposes. 

Almost distractedly, my sister asks him if they listed a cause of death.

"Yes," he says.

"Well, what does it say?"

My Dad draws breath and says, "Suicide."

***

Most of the letters begin with, "To Whom it May Concern", meaning, at the Kalamazoo County Coroner's Office (aka WMed, aka Homer H. Stryker School of Medicine). They say so many things between them all, like fragments of glass or tile that come together in a mosaic that eloquently portrays the happy life of a normal kid. I've written plenty thus far and have a lot more to say. 

The following words are nothing but the truth, told by people who knew and loved Charlie and our family, who took up the pen of their own volition to advocate for one who cannot advocate for himself. These were hand-delivered to WMed Investigator JoAnne Catania. Whether she passed them along to her superiors, I do not know. Whether she did or she didn't, they went completely ignored.

Read 'em and weep.

***

"When Charlie was first discovered hanging from an inherently dangerous rope ladder and swing, the table upon which one would stand to grasp the rope was toppled to the side. He was hanging in one of the several long existing loops in the old climbing rope. The nurse staying with Theresa Heller and Charlie at the time began and, along with Theresa, continued CPR until help arrived.

All of the physical evidence and virtually all of the investigatory work conducted by the police leads one to conclude that the death was nothing more than a tragic accident." - (Our Attorney)

***

"Having thought about this for the past several weeks, I do not believe that a twelve year old is capable of making a voluntary decision to end their life. While kids today are exposed to more toxic sights and sounds than other generations, there is still a matter of cognitive development. Parts of the brain continue to develop well into a person's twenties. Charlie could not have fully understood the consequences of his acts and I am certain that he had no intent to end his life." - Dr. Dan Farrell, Professor, WMU

***

"First, the Medical Examiner states in the subsection 'Suicide Circumstances' that there was a 'recent suicide of friend/family'. To my knowledge, this statement is completely false. The Medical Examiner also states there was a 'crisis in past 1 week', and again to my knowledge, nothing radically out of the ordinary in Charlie's life happened during the week prior to his death. The Medical Examiner then states that there were 'other relationship problem (sic)'. What is such a vague statement doing in a report about a person's death? It is meaningless." - Dr. Charles F. Heller, Jr., Professor Emeritus, WMU

***

"While making plans for his funeral, I was shocked to find that the Death Certificates I was given listed his death as a suicide. Along with many others I was at his home while emergency personnel were trying to revive him and remained there until after midnight. At no time was there any suggestion that Charlie had intentionally been hung by himself or anyone else; everyone there knew it was the result of a terrible accident, a young boy acting out his fantasy - of who knows what - who had slipped and fallen." - Rita V. Heller

***

"In April of 2015 I saw him for a rash. I also saw him in May of 2015 on two occasions for an injury, a puncture wound to the heel of his foot. I should also note that he was seen in April of 2015 by Ann Sheehan, our pediatric nurse practitioner, for a routine physical examination. Other than eczema and allergic rhinitis, no other concerns were noted." - Mark A. Blazek, MD

***

"Charlie was FULL of life - every single day." - Irene Milbrandt (Charlie's Aunt)

***

"Upon hearing of Charlie's death, and the manner in which he died, we were absolutely shocked. We think the natural tendency upon hearing how he died is to assume it was intentional, but when you think about who Charlie was, you know that is absolutely not the case, that it was a tragic accident that occurred while he was playing in his tree fort. We do not for one second believe that Charlie committed suicide, and are appalled that is how his death was ruled." - Richard and Katrine Nichols (Uncle Rick and Aunt Trini)

***

"Charlie and I began fishing together a few years ago, and I became his  outdoor mentor, teaching him and planning future excursions. We looked forward to an Autumn full of adventures, and many seasons to come, and made many plans." - Larry Haffner

***

"I am a family friend of the Hellers and have been closely associated with Theresa Heller, her son Charlie, his father Dennis Wolf and most of Theresa's nuclear family. Before retiring from a 31 year career with the Kalamazoo County Probate Court in 2012, I worked in the area of adoption search and reunion with Theresa, while her parents Charles and Rita Heller volunteered to visit many of the approximately 1,200 persons under legal guardianships or conservatorships." - Patrick Neal

***

"There is no way that Charlie committed suicide in my opinion. He had an awesome relationship with his Mother, Father, Grandparents, step-brother and -sister, his uncles, godparents and friends. He was not alone or isolated, he was not depressed in any way; he had so much happiness in his life. He had plans, dreams and goals outlined for his life. Those are not signs of someone with intention to commit suicide, or emotional problems." - Denise Booms-Pepin, Godmother

***

"When Charlie was 11, just a few months before his tragic accident, I stopped by his house to say goodbye because I was moving to Florida. During my visit I was talking to Charlie, both of us sitting at the table where his mother and I both helped him with homework assignments, served him meals and had many conversations. Charlie said to me, 'I have the coolest life.'"  - Tina Swanson

***

"In the rush to bring closure to the circumstances surrounding Charlie's death, I feel that the conclusion that Charlie died willingly by his own hand as a suicide to have been premature and misguided. Like many young boys, Charlie was a wholehearted, even reckless, adventurer. He was also very imaginative and played out elaborate scenarios and schemes given time and opportunity. It has seemed to me that the classification of his strangulation death as a suicide, in the same terms in which we hold adult suicide, is inaccurate and premature." - Kathryn White

***

"In the case of Charlie, he was a remarkable 12 year old who always possessed a zest for life and the next adventure. As a young boy he was always a bit behind in maturing, however this was not of concern because he was innocent, imaginative and full of life. We all grow up at our own pace and become wise to the ways of the world. I am 100 percent sure Charlie was not able to commit suicide in any way, for Charlie was blessed with a positive world with roles of fantasy and not the roles of today's reality." - Kevin Fallon

***

"I would request that his cause of death be changed, as we all know it was NOT suicide. I truly hope that the decision to change this will happen sooner than later, so that we may all complete the grieving process, without something that we know not to be the truth hanging over our heads." - Irene Milbrandt

***

"In the autopsy report, it is stated that Charlie had a close friend commit suicide by hanging only days before. I find this the most disturbing bit of misinformation." - Vincent J. Heller

***

"Ruling his death a suicide is a serious mistake. I am left feeling that his tragic accidental passing is being mislabeled to distract attention from the fact that the investigating detectives were over two hours late arriving at the accident scene. From that dismal beginning, the focus has been misplaced." - Patrick Neal

***

"Of all the reasons people commit suicide, because they are depressed, psychotic, impulsive, crying out for help or trying to achieve some kind of high, none of these are remotely descriptive of Charlie. Based on logic, suicide does not add up." - Denise Booms-Pepin

***

"In summary, there is nothing in any of the contacts that we have had with Dennis in the year prior to his death that would have caused concern on our part for his death to have been self-inflicted." - Mark A. Blazek, MD

***

"I think Charlie's is an accidental death, and I see no clear evidence to the contrary." - Dr. Charles F. Heller, Jr.

***

"I would like to know why this report was sent out with so many untruths and why the ME wrote/authorized this report. I want to know why the Suicide Circumstances are made up. I want to know why 'unknown persons' are quoted on page 3 under Ante-mortem Events - seriously, a ME is going to quote unknown people in such a serious case in the death of a child?" - Rita V. Heller

***

"For everything my son Charlie did and was... to be blackened this way breaks our hearts." - Theresa Heller

***

"Charlie lost no close friend or anyone for that matter in the prior days/weeks. This is horrifyingly irresponsible and absolutely must be stricken." - Vincent J. Heller

***

"I carry Charlie with me, so he'll still go to the woods and the river." - Larry Haffner

***

"This is a request to correct the erroneous conclusion of 'suicide'. 'Suicide' is not supported by a fair reading of reports and listening to the tapes. It is not only factually incorrect, but it brands the life and memory of a remarkable and happy young boy with failure and waste. It results in an unfair social pronouncement of failure by the immediate and extended family's supportive involvement in Charlie's life. It is a painful scar that is neither accurate nor justified by the evidence." - (Our Attorney)

***

"In closing, the people close to him know it was an accident. My only wish would be for you to spend one day with Charlie and you would understand." - Kevin Fallon

***

All right, that's enough. Those are just a few shreds of the testimonials that WMed didn't care about. They say everyone who knew Charlie all of his life is wrong. We don't know shit, and they, who knew him not at all, are the only ones who figured it out.

The case is closed, and if we don't like it, we can call the cops. That's what some clown named Tom Zavitz at WMed sent in a room-temperature email to my sister. Before we're done, you'll have his email address so you can respond to him with your own thoughts. Be sure to add lots of grunting and squealing, though, as he may feel more comfortable conversing in his native accent.

(By the way Tommy Z, we did call the cops. And guess what? They're investigating. But they won't have to do much, because we already did it for them. If you had paid any amount of attention at all to what we've been saying, you'd already know that.)

However, this stack of missives doesn't at all quote the letter that Renee sent. As the first responder at the scene, and as the most qualified medical professional here that night, she told the police that Charlie's death was an obvious accident (I have the audio). She reasserts such in her letter, and demands to know who overruled what she considers to be her authority on the matter. She vows to testify against whoever did so once this thing gets to court, which is where it looks like it's headed, given WMed's cruel, senseless and pig-headed stance.

They failed the citizens of Kalamazoo County, big-time, in almost every aspect of this case. And I am here to prove it. The story isn't just heartbreaking. It's also disgusting, seamy, a story that will expose you to the worst elements of society.

You can't make this stuff up. What has been done wrong must be put right. What was done in the dark will be dragged to the light.

Here it comes.

***

We've Got Mail!

In the old days, the Inbox was always empty, because readers had the good sense to understand that I would take their emails and make great sport of them online.

I'm not going to do that this time. I'm just going to share, that's all, the disturbing thing that was sent to me last night at 9:14 pm by Tom Zavitz, Compliance Officer and Dean of Finance at Homer H. Stryker School of Medicine.

***

"Hal,

I know he doesn't have a lot of readership, but Joyce and my name are laced throughout the blogs the past several days. This is out on the web, and we've both been highly disparaged.

Will you consider some type of legal notice or action at some point? I really don't appreciate this out in the public sphere......

Tom."

***

No, I'm sure he doesn't.

Tom was trying to get that email to go to Hal Jenson, I suppose. That's the Dean at WMed. But Tom's not that bright, so he sent it to me instead. Do you see what we are dealing with here?

My sister's little boy, who I was raising like a son, died in our front yard. My sister and her childhood friend gave him CPR, to no avail. Every cop in the city was here trying desperately to bring him back to life. He was left laying in the dirt for almost three hours.

Then these vultures come along, lie about the circumstances, steal his body and mutilate it. Then they ignore our pleas to change it for nine months...

And then a push for legal action to be taken against me for writing about it. That's how they want to treat a family who has been in this town, and tied to WMU, for over 50 years.

Tom Zavitz's email address is tom.zavitz@med.wmich.edu

pH 4.28.16