The Tragedy of Madison Holleran and Suicides at Penn

MO-madison-holleran-collage-940x540

Family, friends and scenes from Madison Holleran’s Instagram feed.

Doors were beginning to open for Madison Holleran. She racked up straight As, ran track, and pushed her Northern Highlands Regional High School soccer team to two New Jersey state championships. As she entered her junior year in 2011, Lehigh University soccer coach Eric Lambinus became a regular at her matches. Lambinus hoped to recruit Holleran as his center-midfielder, the most physically taxing and important position in his system. “What impressed me about Maddy,” he says, “is that she was exceptionally skilled in the fundamentals. She was very good, and she made the players around her better.”

At home, Holleran mothered her siblings. On the field, she led without seeming to try: first downfield to hug a teammate who scored, chattering to keep everyone’s energy up. Lambinus admired Holleran’s easy charisma, watching as even his Lehigh squad — college students — gravitated toward the younger girl when she arrived from Allendale, New Jersey, on visits. He also noticed something else: “You could just see, in social situations, her being very aware of the other girls’ reactions,” he says. “She seemed to need approval. But you figure that’s something to work on.”

Lambinus thought he had a good shot at recruiting Holleran. But during her senior year, competition emerged. Holleran was also a standout middle-distance runner, and Harvard’s track program flew her to Boston, took her to dinner and gave her a tour of the campus.

“What would you think about my playing soccer, too?” she asked.

These were words no track coach longs to hear. Harvard never made an offer. But the University of Pennsylvania called.

Lambinus says Holleran seemed particularly troubled by selecting a school. Though she offered Lambinus a verbal commitment — “I think she was very comfortable with Lehigh,” he says — she still appeared “unsteady” about the choice.

Lehigh offered the small, bucolic environment she enjoyed in high school, and soccer, the sport she loved most. But what kid knows herself so well that she can announce, at 18, to parents, relatives and friends, that she’s choosing personal happiness, the safer option, over a shot at big-time Ivy League success?

“Could you stop with the drama?” Holleran would say every time her little sister acted like the sky was falling. She was always the mature one, the young girl with an adult’s capacity to plan. So whatever pressure she felt along the way, when Holleran pulled out of Lambinus’s program and chose Penn, the moment looked like a triumph. Holleran went Ivy, accepting a reward commensurate with her young life’s achievement.

What shocked everyone is what happened next. On January 17, 2014, just as her second semester got under way, Madison Holleran trekked about a mile and a half from Penn’s campus to Center City and killed herself. Her death was one of five among the Penn student body in six months’ time, including four confirmed suicides. The tragedies cast a sudden pall over Penn’s image as a dream destination for every high-achieving kid and his or her parents. Criticism centered on Penn’s notoriously competitive student culture and understaffed mental health services. But the question raised by the Penn suicides is broader and more fundamental than any campus policy, reaching into every home where parents send their sons and daughters off to college with big dreams and bright futures:

Why would these kids — top of their class, the elite, bound for success — choose to kill themselves?

The search for answers, and potential remedies, suggests a radical shift — a new way of looking at suicide, our children and ourselves; a more honest way of handling a problem we usually treat with silence.

WE SPEAK SO LITTLE OF SUICIDE that the issue might seem esoteric. But according to survey data by suicide experts, about 10 percent of the country’s college students think about killing themselves (what health professionals call “suicidal ideation”) at some point in their college careers. Almost one percent make an attempt. If these numbers sound small, do the math: Penn has about 24,000 students, meaning that roughly 2,400 of them will suffer so profoundly from a sense of pain or depression that they’ll consider killing themselves; within that group, 240 students will make an attempt.

The biggest dangers are neurobiological: The human brain isn’t fully developed until we are about 25 years old, particularly in regions associated with impulsivity and emotional regulation. In this context, even a healthy kid is likely to struggle with transitioning from the childhood home to whatever comes next. Now consider that mental illness often first manifests itself between ages 16 and 25.

The risk is clear. But what happened at Penn recently still surprises:

Last August, the death of 24-year-old Wendy Shung, a popular graduate student and resident adviser whose kids called themselves “Wendy’s Wolf Pack,” was declared a suicide.

Pulkit “Josh” Singh, a 20-year-old engineering and Wharton business-school junior, was found dead on January 12th in an apartment he rented off campus. Speculation over his cause of death continued until a city health department official deemed it an accidental drug overdose in April.

Holleran took her own life five days later. Over Thanksgiving break, she told her parents she had contemplated suicide. Her father told the New York Post that she’d been happy in high school but that after going to Penn she had “worries and stress.”

• Sophomore Elvis Hatcher, 18, hung himself in his fraternity house on February 3rd, and later died in the hospital. He first confessed suicidal thoughts to his parents at age 15, and had been in treatment ever since.

• Almost two months after Hatcher’s suicide, the public learned of a fourth — Alice Wiley, a graduate student in social policy who died over winter break, just before the New Year.

Mental health experts say suicide never results from one fight, one conversation, one lost job. More likely, a person struggles against some preceding, often untreated mental illness, like depression. Then a series of stressors adds weight until the inexplicable happens. In this formula, no one burden — be it college, Ivy League or otherwise; family and relationship problems; drug and alcohol use — is to blame any more than others. “I think one of the things we struggle against in the world of suicide prevention,” says Christine Moutier, chief medical officer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “is that we’re always trying to explain it. We’re always asking, ‘Why? How could someone do this?’ But there’s not one explanation.”

Moutier and other experts maintain, however, that despite suicide’s myriad causes, prevention is possible. Between 1990 and 2010, suicide rates dropped slightly among adolescents, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. And in a sense, academic success is protective — kids who don’t attend college are twice as likely to die by suicide as those who do. Still, the four suicides at Penn in just six months are cause for reflection on the pressure today’s highest achievers are under: to ace the toughest available courses; excel at sports; join extracurricular clubs; and then find time on the weekends to volunteer.

These overscheduled kids strive for perfection, spending their adolescence collecting medals, first-place finishes and congratulatory handshakes. But when they arrive at Locust Walk, they are suddenly surrounded by thousands of peers who were also the smartest and best. They experience failure, perhaps for the first time in their lives. They feel like they are letting down their families. And just as they are beginning to gather power in the world, they might be at their most vulnerable.

MADISON HOLLERAN’S FIRST SEMESTER at Penn was tough, despite her 3.5 GPA. She had a big, close social circle in high school, a support system built from childhood. That chapter of Holleran’s life can still be seen online — playing sports, singing with friends, dancing with her old teammates on a hotel bed.

Those bonds aren’t forged overnight at a new school. But Holleran was probably a lot more popular in college than she believed. The new friends she made remember her stopping, repeatedly, anywhere she walked, to say hello to people she knew. Later, media coverage would fixate on her looks — her thin frame, delicate features and joy-bomb smile. Her track teammates simply thought she was relaxed and confident.

“She was just one of those people who had an effortless glow about her,” says Lauren Murphy, a fellow runner. “She did everything with elegance and grace.”

Holleran did confide in a couple of new friends. She told Ashley Montgomery, another freshman on the track team, that Penn wasn’t what she’d hoped. Running track wore on her. She missed her pals back home. She talked, a lot, about what she wanted from life — a home in California, maybe, and plenty of outdoor time. “It sounds funny to say, but she was very serious about being happy,” says Montgomery. “She’d try to figure out what happiness is, like a formula, and she’d get really analytical.”

Holleran and Montgomery ran together, frequently, through the city. Holleran often paused to take pictures of pretty views. On a fall evening, after track, Holleran hauled Montgomery to the top of Franklin Field. The sunset cascaded before them, swirls of orange and pink decorating the sky. At the time, Montgomery considered the constant picture-taking an eccentricity. Later, Montgomery came to believe that for Holleran, happiness was “more a thought than a feeling” — something she caught sight of, outside herself, and tried to capture before it disappeared.

LIZZY HATCHER REGISTERED the sound, buzzing through her sleep.

The phone.

She could feel her husband, Kevin, rouse beside her. And as the world around her came into focus — still dark, phone ringing — she could feel fear, like a flatworm, twitch and curl in her stomach.

She remembers only the key words the doctor told her husband: “Son. Elvis. Attempted suicide. Critical.” From there, her every act — sitting up in bed, putting her feet to the floor, standing — felt unreal. The university arranged travel from Florida, but snow in Philadelphia forced an agonizing series of delays at the airport. “It was just an awful, awful day,” she says. “Such a helpless feeling.”

By the time the Hatchers landed, it was after 9 p.m. Someone from Penn — Hatcher doesn’t remember who — picked them up and drove them straight to the hospital. Elvis was already on life support. “The next morning,” says Hatcher, “he passed away.”

Hatcher posts on Facebook regularly, intermixing fond remembrances of Elvis with exhortations on treating depression. She speaks proudly of her son — a multi- instrumentalist and dancer with a furious wave of curly hair who loved wearing bow ties. He’d made friends at Penn and joined a fraternity. But over the course of multiple phone conversations, her voice weakens. “Life is just … so different now,” she says. “We just try to get through the day.”

Two days after Hatcher’s death, Penn acted swiftly, announcing the hiring of three new mental health counselors at Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, and, weeks later, the formation of a Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare. Penn president Amy Gutmann wrote about the changes in a university-wide email, simultaneously touting the expansion of services and denying any connection between the counseling center and the suicides.

“While all evidence indicates that the recent student deaths are unrelated to each other,” she wrote, “and certainly unrelated to the work done at CAPS, we know that the needs of the community are placing greater than ever demand on our valuable student support teams.”

In the same memo, Gutmann noted that in the past eight years, CAPS had grown its senior staff by 10. The message struck some as cold politicking when a tender hand was needed; in one line, Gutmann used the acronym “FTE” to denote the hiring of “Full Time Employees.”

“I think the whole response just reflected a kind of corporate mind-set,” says Toorjo Ghose, a member of Penn’s faculty senate and an assistant professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice. “She wrote as if she was responding to shareholders — not to young people who might be grieving and in pain.”

In terms of mental health, Penn students face a unique challenge. The school culture is notoriously competitive, a battle among valedictorian-level intellects where a Work harder, play harder mentality runs from the Wharton Business School to the humanities and sciences. Last year, 34th Street Magazine published a survey that found 71 percent of Penn students got blackout drunk at least once in college. For close to 25 percent, blacking out was the goal. Some kids also talk about a phenomenon called “Penn Face,” in which students express how stressful their lives are without ever showing any strain.

This culture may not be responsible for Hatcher’s death, or Holleran’s. But should it change in some way so that the next Hatcher or Holleran might be helped?

University spokesman Ron Ozio didn’t make any Penn administrators or professors available for interviews. Late in February, however, Penn’s silence was broken: The dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, Richard Gelles, told me one of his students — later identified as Alice Wiley — had died by suicide over break, prior to Holleran and Hatcher.

Penn can’t exactly be accused of hiding Wiley’s death; the school says it wasn’t aware of it until January. No law requires universities to track or disclose suicides among their student bodies. Experts also present strong data demonstrating that publicizing a suicide can encourage further suicides — a phenomenon known as the “contagion” effect. And out of respect for privacy or liability concerns, universities usually defer to the deceased student’s parents, rendering a campus suicide a secret.

History suggests, however, that a cluster of suicides brings change. Drexel University responded to a pair of suicides last year by forming a task force, which is still making recommendations. Penn’s fellow Ivy League school Cornell suffered a cluster of suicides from 2009 to 2011 and moved swiftly to upgrade its mental health services. And momentum is developing for changes at Penn and beyond.

An online petition promoting “The Madison Holleran Law,” to be presented in the New Jersey state legislature, is gathering thousands of signatures, seeking to force universities to publicly report suicides. CAPS also faces pressure to further increase its staff size. A scoop by Penn’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, turned up documents that revealed students often endure three-to-four-week waits for an initial visit — an eternity for someone struggling with the sudden onset of a mental illness. Those documents lent support to similar reports Penn students gave me. CAPS’s 38 full-time staff members are a mix of psychiatrists, social workers and interns. Cornell, in the wake of its own spate of suicides, has roughly 3,000 fewer students than Penn but an equal number of staffers. Even the most progressive aspect of Penn’s response — the mental health task force — seemed inadequate, given that no student representatives were invited to participate.

There are few if any clear lines between the recent deaths and failures in Penn’s mental health services. Little is known about the suicides of Alice Wiley and Wendy Shung. Hatcher fought depression for years, and preferred to see his longtime doctor in Miami Beach via Skype. “Penn had nothing to do with his suicide,” says Lizzy Hatcher. “I think he just got tired of the fight. He enjoyed his classes and friends. He loved Philadelphia.”

Madison Holleran did seek help from CAPS after telling her family over Thanksgiving break that she was stressed and having suicidal thoughts. But Holleran didn’t stay long at CAPS. She attended one or two sessions, with an intern; seeing a senior staff member would have required her to wait several weeks. She ultimately saw a counselor closer to her home in New Jersey.

Holleran’s father doesn’t blame the university for his daughter’s death. But in response to their losses, Penn’s students took to the school paper’s opinion pages, social media and message boards. Wharton sophomore Erica Ligenza wrote of being afraid to confess that she has anxiety issues in such a high-achieving environment. Hilary Barlowe complained that CAPS dismissed her suicidal feelings as a “normal adjustment” to college. Barlowe had been on psychiatric leave.

Sophomore Alexandra Sternlicht wrote an article in the DP, “Left to Grieve Alone, Together,” decrying how Penn, unlike Yale, Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard, does not automatically send student-wide emails after anyone dies. Further, students must notify professors themselves when a friend in the student body passes away.

“Not only is Penn’s neglectful response to death an exception amongst peer institutions,” wrote Sternlicht. “[I]t is also unhealthy. And even Penn knows it. According to Penn’s Behavioral Corporate Services, when the subject of death is ‘avoided, ignored or denied,’ the grieving process is compromised. … Penn is compromising students’ mental health.”

Ghose, probably the most outspoken of Penn’s faculty members on the recent suicides, agrees that more action — and honest reflection — is needed. “It would be irresponsible to blame the university for these deaths,” says Ghose. “But it is also true that this is an occasion for the university to look at itself, and our culture, and improve our mental health services. Because this is an elite university. But our mental health on campus is not elite. … And I think the administration should just acknowledge that.”

One student on a Penn-based mental health website dubbed “Pennsive” wrote that after she survived a second suicide attempt in two years, she received a hospital visit from a Penn administrator.

“Are we going to make this an annual pattern?” the administrator asked.

“No,” the student said.

The administrator left then, handing her a business card.

MADISON HOLLERAN AND INGRID HUNG met on campus, maybe three weeks into the fall semester. The two shared at least one meal together per day, and every so often, Holleran declared a “movie night,” meaning snacks — she had a peanut butter obsession — and romantic comedies.

Dressed in a crew jacket and jeans, her black hair covering her shoulders, Hung sits in a Starbucks near the Penn campus. She recalls their last movie date, watching The Parent Trap the night before Holleran died, and their friendship. “Maddy and I bonded around feeling homesick,” Hung says of their usual conversations. “And we talked a lot about just getting through it. ‘Freshman year!’ We would say to each other, ‘We are going to make it at Penn. We will make friends. We will join a sorority. And we will be happy.’”

Hung says Holleran admitted that she missed her family, friends and soccer. She also feared that turning down Lehigh’s soccer scholarship was a mistake. Hung doesn’t cite the pressure of Penn, specifically, for Holleran’s troubles. She says that leaving home and attending any college would have been tough for Madison. Hung also saw her struggle with the burden particular to their generation — to have a great time, always, and post pictures of her revels on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

“I’m not sure how I’m even going to talk to my friends back home,” Holleran told Hung. “I look at my friends on Facebook, and they all seem so happy. They are all having these great college experiences, and I’m not.”

Today, Hung commiserates.

“On social media, everyone presents a false picture of their life,” she says. “No one ever posts a picture of themselves looking sad. Everyone is at the coolest party. And I think all of us wonder, sometimes, ‘Why isn’t my life like that? Why don’t I feel like smiling like them?’”

The version of herself that Holleran projected to the world online offered no clues to the turmoil she held inside. Her Instagram stream is rife with pretty pictures. And any stress she expressed on Twitter reads like typical schoolgirl patter.

“FREEEEEDiOM!!!!!!!!!!!! Spendin my last day in Philly with my gf before headin home,” she wrote on December 20th.

“VS fashion show is on and I’m in the damn library,” she wrote on December 10th. “Something here is not right.”

There is also a cell-phone video of a November Penn track meet that captures Holleran running a race. She rounds a corner and pulls a muscle, maybe 10 yards from the finish line. She seizes up, then jerks along, fighting, till she can finally throw herself across the finish line.

“That’s my Maddy,” says a family friend. “Tough as ever.”

“I AM VERY LUCKY to be alive,” says Jack Park. He is tall, slim and well-dressed, with dark eyes, a gentle demeanor and a soft speaking voice. A junior at Penn, Park announced in February, through social media, that he had attempted suicide in his dorm room — twice. Park has attained a kind of celebrity in recent months, a fact about which he seems humble, even bemused. “I am very pleased that you are interested in my story,” he says.

Alerting the world to his battle with mental illness was brave enough. But Park also publicly listed his phone number and email address. “My operating hours are 24/7, 365,” he wrote in a Tumblr post, taking what reads like a slap at CAPS, which only added evening hours after the recent suicides. “To make time for these calls, I dropped courses to take only the four minimum credits legally required for international kids to attend Penn. Please, please, do not attempt to kill yourself and call this number if you want to hear me out. Life is so much more beautiful than death. I taught myself this the hard way. … ”

Park took a semester off from school, returned to Penn, and completed his sophomore year before the Holleran and Hatcher suicides convinced him to go public.

“I take medication now,” he says, without a trace of shyness, “for depression and bipolar disorder, and I feel good.”

Traditionally, people who survive suicide attempts keep the topic secret. But these days, Park isn’t alone. Drexel business student Drew Bergman gives lectures about his own suicide attempts. Online, the website Live Through This has gathered more than three dozen testimonials from suicide survivors — teachers, health-care professionals, moms and dads. In April, the New York Times chronicled this new openness among suicide prevention experts in talking about suicide attempts.

In part, these initiatives spring from a growing understanding that mental health should be addressed in the same terms as our physical health. No young adult would hesitate to tell her parents that her knee hurts. But admitting that thoughts of suicide keep popping up, or that feelings of anxiousness and depression are all-consuming, still carries a stigma. The reason is easy to see: A bum knee is just something we have. We believe our thoughts reveal who we are.

Mental health, however, relates to physical workings in our brain. Researchers at Columbia who study suicide have published data showing that abnormalities in brain chemistry and structure are present in the suicidal — including deficiencies in pleasure-dealing serotonin. “These things are treatable,” says Columbia researcher J. John Mann, “with therapy and medication, and that’s what people need to understand.”

Capitalizing on this knowledge requires a bold cultural shift in which parents teach their kids to talk about their mental health as freely as they would a headache. “It’s a new and very hopeful time,” says Christine Moutier, from the AFSP. “All of these people who used to stay in the dark are coming out now, despite the stigma, and putting a face on this issue.”

For now, however, mental illness and suicide remain stigmatized, in part because of advice coming from the very same experts. The “contagion effect” is real: Publicity surrounding suicides can increase the suicide rate, and suicides often occur in geographical clusters, like one from 2000 to 2003 in which six Cherry Hill teenagers took their own lives.

Mental health experts endorse strict guidelines for publicizing suicide: Don’t mention the location or method; avoid depicting the mourning of family members; and resist stories that might make anyone who died by suicide appear attractive or celebrated.

“We struggle with this,” says Alison Malmon, “throughout the community of people working on the issue of suicide prevention.” Malmon was a student at Penn 10 years ago when her brother, a senior at Columbia, killed himself. She founded a nonprofit, Active Minds, to combat mental illness and prevent suicide on college campuses.

“There is already such a huge stigma around suicide and mental illness in general,” she says. “And some of us fear that if we’re too strict about what we should or shouldn’t say, we’re actually adding to that stigma and keeping the subject in the dark.”

People who attempt suicide are usually convinced that all of their distorted thinking is true. They have often spent a long time formulating a plan and display incredible calm, despite the pain they’re in, because they believe they’ve found the only way out. Many are saved, even then, by reaching what could be called a “bend” moment — some unexpected turn of events that makes them rethink the plan they spent so long crafting.

Sometimes a restriction on the means they intend to use is enough: Cornell put barriers around bridges on campus to discourage jumpers, and some hospitals install break-away shower rods to prevent hangings. Penn spokesman Ron Ozio responded to an email asking if the university employs any of these methods by saying, “University buildings are built to existing state and local codes.” But what, exactly, will divert someone from a suicide plan is difficult to calculate.

“Often,” says Moutier, “you’ll hear some story, after the fact, and think, ‘This was the moment’ that might have saved them. But sometimes the person suffering has adopted a kind of tunnel vision. What looks like a rational way out to the rest of us doesn’t look that way to them at all.”

Holleran may have believed that quitting Penn would comprise such a heavy blow that everyone would be better off if she died. In this sense, people like Park and Bergman can be a tremendous resource, not only because they can speak about what they thought and felt while suicidal, but because they’re the figures often missing from stories like this — those who provide, in this dark space, a sense of hope. The fact is, most who suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts survive. Go back to the math: Out of the projected 2,400 Penn kids who will consider suicide, nearly 90 percent will choose to go on.

The answer to reducing suicide — or part of it — might be to simply tell more stories, particularly of people who’ve survived their suicidal thoughts, so that tales like those of Holleran and Hatcher are placed in context. And so we can understand the real depth of the tragedy here: These lives are over when they might yet have been transformed.

OVER THE HOLIDAYS, at Thanksgiving, Madison Holleran told her parents how she was suffering. She felt unhappy at Penn. The academics were demanding. Worse, her track coach required two-a-day practices, even with classes in session. She was overtaxed. She’d thought of suicide.

The Hollerans, in response, took all the expected steps. They got her help — a counselor who told her to call if she ever formulated a suicide plan. When she didn’t feel comfortable at CAPS, they looked for a private psychologist. On the drive from North Jersey to Penn after the semester break, Holleran said, “Dad, I don’t want to go back.”

“I understand,” her father, Jim, replied. “You should look at transferring.”

But she declined. She wanted to make Penn work.

Holleran and her friend, Ingrid Hung, arrived on campus the Saturday before spring classes began. They attended a Penn women’s basketball game. That evening, Holleran told Hung she’d been thinking of transferring.

“Oh, no,” Hung replied. “I knew you were sad, but I had no idea you were this sad. …”

Holleran, seeing her friend’s reaction, stopped the transfer talk right there. “No,” Holleran said, “it’s fine.”

Over the next couple of days, she peppered Hung with text messages: “We’re going to have so much fun,” Holleran wrote. “We’re going to love it here.”

“I don’t think she fully wanted me to know how bad it was for her,” Hung says now.

On Friday, January 17th, Holleran went into Center City. She stopped at various stores and bought gifts for her family. Her dad called around noon. He wanted to visit her. But she told him not to worry. She had sorority rush events, and the Penn track team was scheduled to run at Lehigh that weekend.

She sent pleasant text messages throughout the day. At 5 p.m., she texted a friend who’d been trying to reach her. “I just got back from a run,” she wrote. “Whatcha doing?”

Around 6 p.m., she walked to Rittenhouse Square. The park was still decorated for Christmas. Holleran took a cell phone picture: Big balls of light glow in the trees, capturing an idyll Holleran was unable to preserve or nurture in her own heart.

At 6:27 p.m., she walked south along 15th Street across Locust and felt a hand grasp her arm. She turned and saw Eric Lambinus, the Lehigh soccer coach.

Of course, this was it — the moment when the arc of Holleran’s story might have bent toward life. Symbolically, Lambinus was an ideal candidate to play this role. Decades ago, his sister, a nursing student, died by suicide at roughly the same age as Holleran. “She was unhappy,” he says. “And she was convinced that if she quit school she’d be letting everyone down, and she couldn’t go on.”

That evening, though, he was just glad to see Madison. He wanted her to know he bore no hard feelings over her choosing Penn.

“Madison,” he said, “how are you?”

“Things aren’t going great for me here,” she said. “I’m not so happy, running track.”

Lambinus had to be careful. NCAA regulations prohibit tampering. But he tried to let her know the door was open. “There is a process you have to follow,” he told her. “But talk to your parents. Talk to your coach. … You should be happy.”

Lambinus was in town for an NCAA athletics convention and scheduled to meet friends at Fadó for dinner. He needed to get back to them. But before he left Madison, he gave voice to something that bothered him.

“What are you doing by yourself on a Friday night?” he asked.

In all his time recruiting her, he didn’t think he’d ever seen Madison Holleran alone.

“I was just doing some shopping,” she said. “But I’m meeting some friends for dinner.”

They parted. About 15 minutes later, Holleran reached 15th and Spruce. She climbed the stairs to the fifth floor of a parking garage. She didn’t have to do it. But at the moment, she couldn’t see how to do anything else.

For confidential support if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Learn about the warning signs of suicide at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Originally published as “The Penn Suicides” in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Without a Trace

without-trace-imbo-petrone-940

Richard and Danielle six months before they vanished.

To most anyone watching, they were just another couple, out on a Saturday night at Abilene’s on South Street, drinking a few beers and watching a band.

Never much for dressing up, Richard Petrone wore a gray hoodie, jeans and sneakers. But the night no doubt meant something special to him, because she was there.

A few weeks earlier, Danielle Imbo had ended their on-again, off-again relationship. She’d begun dating Richard during a long separation from her husband — a separation she was intending to punctuate with a divorce. She wanted time to focus on the transition from married woman to single mother. Richard said he understood; he’d raised a daughter on his own. But inside, he hurt. Danielle, five-foot-five, trim and pretty, looked like the real thing. She fronted a rock band around New Jersey and boasted a singer’s outgoing personality, and after the trouble she’d had with her estranged husband, she’d responded to Richard’s gentler approach.

They hadn’t spoken since she broke things off, blowing right through Valentine’s Day without even a text message. But tonight, on February 19, 2005, he had been alone, eating in a South Philly bar and working his cell phone, searching for someone to meet up with for a drink. He reached his sister, Christine, and found her enjoying a ladies’ night out with their mother, Marge, and two longtime friends, Felice Ottobre and her daughter.

Danielle.

Richard and Danielle’s relationship always bore this extra wrinkle: Danielle was his sister’s best friend, dating back to high school. Their moms enjoyed a friendship of their own.

“Want to come have a drink?” Richard asked.

Christine said no. But she put the invitation to Danielle. And two hours later, the reunited couple looked happy together. They sat close, smiling and laughing. They kissed. They compared notes on what their ensuing Sundays entailed: Danielle had a hair appointment at 11 a.m.; her ex-husband was scheduled to return their son after that. Richard, a NASCAR fan, planned to watch the Daytona 500. At around 11:45 p.m., they got up to leave.

Richard said he’d drive Danielle home to Mount Laurel before returning to his place in South Philly. And so, on a night when the temperature was about 27 degrees and the crowd at 4th and South was probably a little thinner than usual, Danielle and Richard walked out of Abilene’s toward Richard’s truck.

And vanished.

NOTHING HAS EVER BEEN FOUND — not a bolt, not a screw, not a purse or a hair, no clue at all — to explain what happened that night more than nine years ago. In the early hours and days after Richard Petrone and Danielle Imbo disappeared, their families banded together, frantically phoning each other the next morning when Danielle didn’t turn up for her hair appointment and both her cell phone and Richard’s kicked straight to voicemail.

Danielle’s brother, John Ottobre, had a key to Danielle’s house. He went in and found the place dark, still and undisturbed. But panic didn’t really set in until 3 p.m., when Danielle’s son, little Joe, was due to be dropped back home by his father.

“She wouldn’t have missed that,” John says now. “No way.”

Police often wait as long as 48 hours to consider adults missing. That night, John and Richard Petrone Sr. set out on a nightlong drive, John behind the wheel, rolling slowly along darkened city streets, tracing and retracing every major highway route and side road leading from Philly to Mount Laurel. Richard Sr., in the passenger seat, peered out into the dark, searching for his son’s truck. The pair crossed and recrossed the Walt Whitman, Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross bridges. At dawn, they returned home, exhausted.

Friends also swarmed into the picture. Volunteers fanned out a hundred miles in every direction. They carried pictures of Petrone’s black Dodge Dakota truck, knew its license plate — YFH-2319 — and the image of its NASCAR decal by heart. John paid $1,200 to get a Camden police officer to take him up in a helicopter to search. But in the end, they all found nothing — no truck off the road, no hulking shadow flickering beneath the water. A police officer tried to prepare John: “No one,” he said, “is ever going to find anything.”

“What do you mean?” John replied.

“It’s too clean,” the cop said.

Penn Dean Reveals Third Student Suicide Since End of Last Semester

In the wake of the high-profile suicides of Penn students Madison Holleran and Elvis Hatcher, Philadelphia magazine has learned that a third university student had committed suicide since the end of last semester. Dean Richard James Gelles of the university’s School of Social Policy and Practice said he made no announcement through the university because he believes in the “privacy concerns of the family … and the possibility of contagion.”

While Gelles would not reveal the name of the student, he says he is revealing the suicide out of concern for student welfare.

The unnamed social policy graduate student, who committed suicide off campus over semester break, can now be added to the list of Penn students who recently committed suicide, including Holleran, a freshman who took her life on Jan. 17, and Hatcher, a sophomore who killed himself just weeks later.

Read more »

Dad Files: Why Every Philly Parent Should Check Out Nest

Parents and kids play at Nest / Photo via Facebook

Parents and kids play at Nest / Photo via Facebook

Our boys ran in circles at first, so overwhelmed by their options they couldn’t settle in and play with any single toy till they inventoried them all. The place was almost empty, with just a couple of other children inside, so we could hear Jack and Eli babbling and cooing as they toddled, fast as they could go, from one side of the room to the other.

My wife and I have not been shy about getting our boys, 18-month-old fraternal twins, out into the world. We’ve fed them in highchairs on the beach and in Rittenhouse Square and on the sidewalk in front of Shake Shack. We take them to the neighborhood playgrounds, around the Graduate Hospital area, and, weather permitting, to the merry go round at Franklin Square. We’ve taken them to the Please Touch Museum so many times that they smile contentedly and wait to be strapped into their car seats as soon as we tell them we’re going. But this last weekend we took our first and second trips to Nest, an indoor play space at 13th and Locust.

Read more »

The Fight for the Future of Philadelphia’s Newspapers

CRASH OF THE TITANS Clockwise from upper left, Lexie Norcross, Bob Hall, Bill Marimow, Nancy Phillips, Lewis Katz and George Norcross.  Illustration by Britt Spencer

CRASH OF THE TITANS
Clockwise from upper left, Lexie Norcross, Bob Hall, Bill Marimow, Nancy Phillips,
Lewis Katz and George Norcross.
Illustration by Britt Spencer

The meeting is lore, now: a story about a table for two that likely caused all South Jersey to wobble, ever so slightly, on its axis. The setting: Lamberti’s, aflutter with white tablecloths, occupied by the swellegant, an Italian seafood restaurant that serves as something of a home field for one of the men at the table, George Norcross III.

His name means different things to different people. Norcross earned millions in the insurance business, as executive chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew. He earned a scary reputation as the grinding stone of the Democratic Party in South Jersey, choosing who ran for what political office till he accumulated so much wealth and power that he became downright kingly.

Critics plaster Norcross with uncomplimentary terms, like “the Jersey Devil.” Admirers cite his more recent run of philanthropy, thanking him for building a better South Jersey. Friends and enemies often see his avalanche of thick white hair at Lamberti’s, in Cherry Hill, but the 57-year-old Norcross added this March 2012 stop to his calendar upon request, and reluctantly. He would maybe order a bowl of linguine or something.

Across from him sat Lewis Katz. His name also means different things to different people: An entrepreneur of many trades, Katz has worked, successfully, as an attorney, a political power broker to governors Jim Florio and Ed Rendell, a shareholder in the New York Yankees and New Jersey Nets and Devils. But he made his biggest bundles of loot in comparatively schlubby businesses like parking lots and billboards. Tall and trim, with thinning hair he combs over a wide bald spot, Katz was the one who called and asked for this meeting.

Read more »

Dad Files: How to Stay Happy in Marriage—Even When You Have Kids

Shutterstock

Shutterstock

On an average day, I wake up a little after 6 a.m., make myself a cup of coffee and prepare breakfast—oatmeal with bananas, or maybe eggs (followed by bananas)—for my 18-month-old boys. I sing to them, usually beginning my set list with “Seven Nation Army,” thumping out the beat on the trays of their highchairs.

By 8 a.m., I probably have sung four or five songs, danced for several minutes, and tickled both boys till they are red in the face. The tickling, these days, occurs in the circus tent we erected in our living room. And no, I am not kidding. There is a circus tent in our living room.

Given that my mornings revolve around silly games, open displays of affection and music, I was a little surprised to see a controversy erupt last week over a new set of studies, one of which concludes that childless couples are happier than parents.

Really? I asked, unable to wipe the smile from my face.

Read more »

Newspaper Guild Jumps Into Inquirer / Daily News Ownership Fray

The-inquirer-building-with-sunset-reflecting

The Philadelphia Newspaper Guild, which represents more than 500 employees at the company, filed a petition to intervene today in their parent company’s ongoing ownership dispute.

A status hearing took place this morning at which attorney Lisa Lori appeared, representing the Guild. “The Guild has seen nothing but pay cuts [in recent years]” she said afterward. “Unpaid furloughs. … They want an equity stake.”

Read more »

Inquirer Ownership Battle: “Darling … Eliminate the Daily News

Lewis Katz (center) walks to court in November. Photo | AP / Matt Rourke.

Lewis Katz (center) walks to court in November. Photo | AP / Matt Rourke.

According to an email leaked to Philadelphia magazine, Nancy Phillips, as her long-time companion Lewis Katz was contemplating purchasing a controlling interest in the city’s biggest media company, made sweeping recommendations about strategies for turning around the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, including specific executive firings and the possible elimination of the Daily News.

“Darling,” the March 17, 2012 email, from Phillips to Katz, begins.

Read more »

Did Bill Marimow Ask for $1 Million to Leave the Inquirer?

Bill Marimow. Photo | AP / Joseph Kaczmarek

Bill Marimow. Photo | AP / Joseph Kaczmarek

The two sides in the dispute among owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com got hung up on one issue in last-ditch settlement talks: the fate of Inquirer editor Bill Marimow.

According to a person with knowledge of the negotiations, Marimow requested four years salary, equal to about $1 million, to vacate his editor’s position.

Attorney William Chadwick, who represented Marimow, rejects this account.

Read more »

George Norcross Now the Majority Owner of Inquirer, Daily News, Philly.com

George Norcross III

In a move that has deep ramifications for Philadelphia’s entire media ecosystem, George Norcross III has become the majority owner of the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com.

Norcross is expected to announce his purchase of tech industry titan Kris Singh‘s shares in Philadelphia’s largest news organization later this afternoon. The move, which doubles Norcross’s holdings, figures to have massive implications for the ongoing battle for control of the papers between Norcross and Lewis Katz.

Read more »

« Older Posts