Nightmare on Greenleaf Circle
The first sign of life at 30 Greenleaf Circle came early, on that particular day last summer, when a man stepped out the front door and into the sun.
Greenleaf curves gently, a broad street in a nice neighborhood, dotted with tidy houses that all look somehow similar, a study in variations of muted siding, shutters and trim. The man, sandy-haired Andrew Detwiler—Andy to his friends—climbed into his pickup truck and pulled onto the street, on a mission to find some breakfast. He didn’t seem at all interested in killing his wife.
Inside the house, the teenaged Detwiler boys—Corey and A.J.—snoozed in their beds, sleeping late on a June Saturday. Their mother, Suzanne, bustled through the house, preparing for a brief trip away from their home in the Pennridge area. She knew Andy didn’t want her to go.
The house was a small gray one-story affair, but Suzanne sold real estate for a living; she would have called it a cozy slate ranch. It sat on a downward slope, so that the front door stood level with the road, but its back door opened onto a second-story deck. The deck overlooked a sweeping valley, and its wooden steps descended to a grassy backyard.
A few minutes before 10 o’clock, 15-year-old Corey woke to the sounds of a struggle in the house. Shouting. Thumping. He rolled out of bed and emerged from his bedroom about the same time his older brother, 17-year-old A.J., emerged from his. Their father had returned. They found him in the living room, where he had pinned their mother in the corner. He muttered threats through breath that smelled of eggs and horseradish. He held a knife to her throat.
“Dad!” Corey shouted. “Let Mom go!”
Andy Detwiler answered with a wild swipe of his knife in their direction. The boys retreated to their separate rooms, where they each kept hunting shotguns in their closets. They returned to the living room with the unloaded guns and waved them at their father: “Let her go!”
The boys both wrestled for the local high school, but Andy Detwiler—a powerful 44-year-old ironworker—snatched away Corey’s shotgun and stalked into the garage, looking for ammunition. Corey took A.J.’s gun, ran to his room, and hid in the closet. He heard more thumping. Shouts. The door to his bedroom opened, and his father entered. He walked a tight circle around the room, searching for his son. Corey stayed silent in the closet, and his father left.
The hidden 15-year-old heard more shouting, footsteps creeping, running, and then, strangest of all, the doorbell. Ding-ding.
Corey crept from his closet and into the living room. The house swallowed all sound, empty. Was everyone hiding?
He reached for the front door and unlocked it. He found his brother standing outside—why? How? “Corey,” A.J. said. “Dad shot Mom.”
Later, people would whisper about everything that had happened so far that particular morning at 30 Greenleaf, and everything about to happen. They called it senseless and unimaginable. But people used those words to look away, to feel secure, to lock the windows and bolt the doors of their minds; to not interfere, or rush to help. Because an honest gaze, held long, would have revealed that each action in the Detwiler house did make sense, of a sort, and its eventual conclusion required no imagination at all.
As Corey Detwiler stood there on the doorstep, listening to his brother’s message, he considered the unloaded shotgun he still held in his hands. So practical. So clean.
He said, “Where are the bullets?”
AS A CHILD, Andy Detwiler seemed like an archetypal American boy. He was tall and handsome and athletic. He liked to hang out with his pals, Tom Koehler and Doug Geib. They grew up in the Pennridge area, a tangle of townships half an hour north of Philadelphia with covered bridges and town clocks and plenty of room for baby strollers on the sidewalks.
Andy’s buddies knew he held something inside, something dark, but he never talked about it. His father, a war veteran, viewed silence as the better part of expression. Pack it tight. Tamp it down. So the details of Andy’s grandfather’s life—how and why it ended, even the man’s name—drifted into the past, because no one talked much about him or his death. It was simply too tragic, and no one wanted to meddle. Andy’s grandfather had killed himself.
Andy grew stronger and taller and handsomer as a teenager. He and Tom and Doug played sports in school at Pennridge; Andy particularly enjoyed wrestling, with its tense locks and holds followed by a violent release of energy. When they weren’t talking about wrestling, the boys talked about girls, or cars, or summer jobs, all the sweet crises of teenage life.
Everything changed one day when Andy was 15. On that day, at home, he heard a BOOM. He opened the sliding parlor door, and there sat his father, dead from a self-inflicted shotgun blast. Other family members rushed in and stood in shock, but young Andy grabbed the gun and ran from the room. He disappeared.
The hours stretched into the next day. People searched the town and the surrounding forest, and Doug Geib marveled at his friend’s disappearance. Where could he have gone? Finally, searchers returned with word: “They found him in the woods, sleeping.” The shotgun lay mangled at Andy’s side. He had exhausted himself thrashing it against a tree.
Geib says the only help his friend received was a visit to the 10th-grade guidance counselor, who said, “Hey, you okay?’”
Andy appeared to recover, in the stoic manner of his father. His friend Tom Koehler says Andy never talked about his father’s death. The boys continued to focus on girls, cars, jobs. They laughed about the time Andy drank too much and decided to drive his Jeep down the Boardwalk at the Jersey Shore. He got arrested for that. Crazy Andy.
But Andy never, ever spoke of his father. The boys dirtied up and washed their Jeeps together, attended class, stayed at each other’s homes, and somehow never pushed into deeper conversation. Certainly not suicide. “I was never really aware of that,” Koehler says. “I never knew.”
Andy did change in some ways. He quit sports at Pennridge, for one thing. He took up the lonelier endeavor of scuba diving, at which he excelled, and after high school he made his way to the Gulf Coast. There, with no professional or military diving background, he got work as an underwater welder, one of the most life-threatening jobs in the world. His friends marveled at his recklessness. Geib says, “It seemed like he didn’t have a fear to die.”
ANDY DETWILER, NOW A father, stood outside his home and surveyed the street.
“All right,” he said to his boys. They were six and nine. Old enough, he felt, to run laps around the block. “Start running,” he barked. “Let’s go!”
After his diving stint on the Gulf Coast, Andy had returned to Pennsylvania, and found work as a welder and ironworker. He hit it off with a high-school friend named Suzanne: She was good-looking, and like Andy, she had attended Pennridge High School, where she’d starred on the softball team. And she, too, came from a strife-ridden home, the product of a split marriage.
The couple had three children—Brittany, A.J. and Corey—and as the children grew up, they started sports. Brittany played softball, like her mother. Corey and A.J. took up wrestling, their father’s sport.
When Brittany turned 12, the Detwilers invited softball coach Dave Souder to visit their house. They wanted him to train Brittany privately. She needed a proper pitching motion. A snappier wrist action. How could she ever play first-class ball with slushy wrist action?
Souder signed on to tutor Brittany, and he remembers the stark training regimen the Detwilers imposed on their children: Constant, driven movement. Never stopping. Never resting. He watched Andy push his sons hard. “He’d give the boys marching orders,” the coach says. “He had them out there running around the block, he’d be yelling at them, and they were little guys. I mean, little guys.” Souder didn’t approach Andy about his behavior—how could he?—but instead turned back to his pitching drills with Brittany.
Suzanne pushed their daughter as hard as Andy pushed the boys. She took Brittany out to local softball fields as a toddler, which might have seemed merely enthusiastic. But as her daughter grew up, Suzanne drove her several times each week on seven-hour round trips to Virginia, where Brittany played for a softball team called the Shamrocks.
Brittany, from her everlasting view in the passenger seat, considered her mother “competitive.” But such a competitive life was all the girl had ever known, so she didn’t question it. And besides: Such extreme devotion required no explanation, Suzanne felt. The Shamrocks were the best.
Souder, the softball coach, said Suzanne was “competitive” off the field as well, working male coaches for influence. “She was absolutely the best at it. I called her the Schmooze Queen,” he says. “You’d get the Wawa coffee every day, you’d get the schmooze, you’d get the big smile, the beautiful eyes.” But if Suzanne didn’t get her way, she could freeze a man’s blood with an icy glare. She wanted to win.
Andy earned a reputation for his overbearing manner at sports events, disrupting practices and getting tossed from games. Souder once saw Andy flare up at a softball game in Norristown; he started a tussle with an old man in the bleachers, and was kicked off the property. “Boom bang boom—gone,” Souder says. The coach gathered the girls on the field—Brittany included—and told them to ignore the commotion in the stands. “Focus on the field,” he told them. That was his job: get his players to focus on the field.
The pressure in the family increased in 2003, when Andy injured his shoulder while working on the construction of the Phillies’ ballpark. He received a settlement through workers’ compensation, and spent most of the next two years at home. He was a fiercely proud man—proud of his opinions, of his skill with his hands, of his ability to support his family—and his injury left him feeling trapped; little things, small losses of control, like the day A.J. earned his driver’s license, sent Andy into a rage. It didn’t help that Suzanne Detwiler spent longer hours selling real estate, to make up the lost income.
Andy never talked about his grandfather’s suicide, and had always allowed his children to think his own soldier father had died at war. But now, increasingly, Andy started to talk more about his father and his resentment of that suicide. He regretted quitting sports after his father’s death, and told his children so: Rage on, boys. Shake your fist at death. Don’t be quitters.
And now Andy swiftly approached the age his father had been when he’d emptied his head in the living room, with his family right there.
THE CHILDREN NEVER understood Andy Detwiler’s anger as much as they felt it. When the boys started wrestling at Souderton High School, Andy hovered nearby; coach Mike Salone asked him once to leave the gym, because parents weren’t allowed to watch practices. “Some kids are intimidated by their parents,” Salone says. But a few minutes later he saw Andy standing outside the gym’s window, watching his sons between slats in the blinds.
One day after A.J. lost a match, another parent approached Salone. “You need to call his dad,” the parent said. “He’s going to beat the shit out of that kid.”
Salone knew somebody—somebody—should say something. But like Souder, the softball coach, he felt frozen. What could he, a first-year instructor, do or say? He was a coach.
Sometime later, Salone walked into the locker room before a wrestling match. He heard one of his students retching in a bathroom stall. “That’s A.J.,” another wrestler told him.
Salone prepared to chastise A.J. for eating too much before a match. Probably a hamburger. Classic. This, the coach could handle.
“No,” the other boy told Salone. It wasn’t a hamburger. “He does this before every match.”
IN 2003, THE Detwilers made an effort to move the boys from Souderton High School to Pennridge, about four miles away, where Andy had wrestled as a boy.
Everything in the Detwilers’ lives seemed aimed at Pennridge High School. Suzanne, for instance, had taken a job selling houses for John Rittenhouse, a real estate agent who also happened to coach wrestling at Pennridge.
Andy took an apartment—ostensibly because of marital discord—in the Pennridge school district so that A.J. could wrestle there. “There were some marital issues,” Rittenhouse confirms. Others say different.
“When I first read in the paper how he was leaving his wife and they were separating, I laughed,” says Souder, Brittany’s softball coach. “I knew the Detwilers. That’s how they operate. You know they’re doing it for some special reason, to get ahead. And the angle there was to get their boys out of Souderton.”
About the same time, the Detwilers and another family accused the Souderton wrestling coach, Mike Salone, of abusing the boys by hitting them with plastic Wiffle Ball bats and using the wrestlers as weights for his arm curls. The other family was that of Doug Geib, Andy’s childhood friend, whose sons wrestled alongside A.J. The atmosphere in Salone’s gym was so unpleasant, they said, that they preferred to wrestle elsewhere: at Pennridge, specifically.
Trouble was, accusations of abuse at school don’t go over lightly. “I don’t think my parents ever intended it to go as far as it did,” Brittany says now. The Detwilers ultimately bought a house in the Pennridge school district so both boys could wrestle there. But by then, the accusations had taken on a life of their own.
Doug Geib sighs when he remembers the episode. “We didn’t really want to see Mike go to jail,” he says. “We just wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to coach our kids or other kids, because of his tactics, and he was not experienced enough to be in that position yet. He was an assistant coach about a year, and they handed him the coaching spot.”
After the accusations, the school forced Coach Salone to resign, and he appealed to the school district. “He went and started this big thing up with District 1,” Geib says. “Then it hit the papers, and that started to snowball.”
The Montgomery County district attorney decided to prosecute Salone, and set a trial date for June 15th last year, a Wednesday.
TOM KOEHLER, ANDY'S childhood pal, had grown up to become a policeman. He had stayed close to the Detwilers, and sometimes met Andy for breakfast at Gracie’s diner in Sellersville, or played a round of dominoes at the Detwiler house.
He knew that Andy and Suzanne had started showing up at parties in separate cars, and that often Suzanne would pointedly exclude Andy from conversation. And then, on the Friday before the trial, Andy approached him at a charity poker tournament holding a Glock automatic pistol. “Can you hold this for me?” he asked. “Suzanne doesn’t want it in the house.”
“Yeah, sure, Andy,” Koehler said, taking the gun. The request seemed odd, but he give it much thought. He didn’t mind holding a gun for a buddy. He locked it in his truck.
The next night, Saturday, Koehler and his family celebrated his birthday with ice cream in his backyard. John Rittenhouse—Suzanne’s boss, and the boys’ new wrestling coach—showed up, and said he needed to talk. Urgently. And in private. The two men climbed into Rittenhouse’s car and took a ride together.
Earlier that day, Rittenhouse and Suzanne were leaving the real estate office after hammering out the details of a deal. Andy showed up, squealing to a stop in the parking lot, and accused them of carrying on an affair.
Koehler called his house. “Lock my truck,” he told his daughter. “And if Andy comes over, don’t let him near it.”
Meanwhile, Doug Geib, who remembered the Detwiler family history and knew that Andy was approaching the age his father was when he killed himself, had been offering Andy various advice: Maybe he could do something more creative, and work with his intellect instead of his hands. Maybe—and here’s an idea—maybe he could work with Suzanne in real estate. But Andy’s ideas of manliness and breadwinning wouldn’t allow it. So one night, after Andy blew up over dinner at the local Cracker Barrel, Doug walked with Andy onto the porch outside. He offered one final piece of advice, a suggestion about suicide:
“Don’t do this in front of your family,” Geib told him. “Go to the mountains, go away somewhere, and if this is what you need to do—if this is how you strongly feel—do not do it in front of people you love.”
On the Sunday before Coach Salone’s trial, a constable arrived at the Detwiler home, prepared to serve legal papers related to the proceedings. He rang the doorbell, to no effect. Music blared from the garage, so apparently someone was home. The constable listened: Was a car running, in the garage?
Andy Detwiler was sitting in his running truck, with two suicide notes and a shotgun at his side. Police pulled him from the garage and took him to the hospital. But the two notes, the untouched shotgun and the blaring music all formed the cry of a man who didn’t really want to die just yet. He wasn’t quite ready to head into the mountains.
Brittany Detwiler had by now escaped her family by earning a scholarship to play softball at Boston University. When she received word of her father’s suicide attempt, she felt a mix of anger and relief. “I couldn’t believe he would do that,” she says. “But then I thought, well, at least he’ll get some help.”
Tom Koehler, the policeman, offered advice to Suzanne Detwiler as she sat in the waiting room at Grand View Hospital. “Listen, Suzanne,” he said. “You cannot allow Andy to sign himself in. You need to make sure you have him committed.”
Suzanne seemed distracted. “Okay, okay,” she said. But Koehler insisted: “No. You have to make sure that’s done.”
It didn’t happen. Andy checked himself in for mental help, a technical detail that would prove critical. “The ball was dropped that night,” Koehler says.
The next night, Suzanne asked Koehler to stop by the house and collect Andy’s guns. In the basement, Koehler found two or three shotguns, a couple of rifles and a crossbow. He locked them behind the seat of his truck, and left. He thought he’d found them all. He didn’t know that in their closets, the boys had each hidden an unloaded shotgun, ready for brandishing if the need arose.
Since Andy had checked himself into the hospital, he could check himself out again. After three nights there, on Wednesday—the starting date of the trial against Coach Salone—he did just that.
In the courtroom, Salone and his witnesses refuted the testimony of the Detwilers, the Geibs and their witnesses. Salone contended that he never abused the boys, and that—furthermore—the Detwilers and Geibs had invented the accusations in a zealous effort to switch their kids to the Pennridge wrestling program.
That Friday, the jury acquitted the coach.
ANDY DETWILER SETTLED into his regular seat at Gracie’s diner early Saturday morning.
He ordered a plate of scrapple, eggs and horseradish. Everybody knew by now that his marriage was falling apart, and of course the result of the trial the day before was fresh on everyone’s mind, but he seemed chipper and content that morning. He told the guy behind the counter that he needed to stay in town because his wife was celebrating her birthday.
What he really wanted to do, he said, was go to the mountains.
SUZANNE DETWILER SOUNDED tired, that morning.
About 9 a.m., while Andy ate breakfast at the diner, Suzanne called John Rittenhouse, her boss and friend, and the two talked a while about her plans for the weekend. The Geibs had a house at the Shore, and had invited her to come down to celebrate her 40th birthday, which had been overshadowed by the trial. They had invited Andy to come down Sunday, the following day. He didn’t appreciate that. “C’mon, Andy,” Doug Geib had told him. “Let’s let the wives have a night to themselves. A girls’ night out.”
About 9:20 a.m., Suzanne suddenly told Rittenhouse, “Andy just pulled up—I’ve got to go,” and hung up.
When Andy didn’t come inside right away, she looked out and saw him apparently loosening the lug nuts on her car’s wheels. “What are you doing?” she demanded from the front door. “You know your sons are going to ride in that car.”
Usually Suzanne could soothe Andy, appease him, calm him. But on that morning, the couple went inside the house and continued arguing, until Andy grabbed a knife and pushed her into a corner. That’s when the boys appeared with their unloaded shotguns. Andy wrestled Corey’s away and headed into the garage to find bullets. One of the boys locked the door to the garage so that their father couldn’t come back into the house. Though he might open the big garage door, and come into the house through the front door. So they locked that, too.
Andy, having found the shotgun shells, pounded on the door leading back into the house. Instead of grabbing birdshot, he had loaded the gun with rifled slugs, solid lumps of metal. He blasted a first shot into the door’s lock, and crossed the profound line that separates an angry husband from a man who discharges a weapon inside his home.
Corey took A.J.’s shotgun and ran and hid in his closet, while A.J. shoved his mother into the closet in his bedroom. Along the way, she grabbed a phone and dialed 911. Andy, meanwhile, successfully blasted his way out of the garage and entered Corey’s room, which appeared empty. Then he moved to A.J.’s room.
Inside the closet, Suzanne whispered to the 911 operator, but for whatever reason—maybe the rush of blood in his ears—Andy didn’t notice. He roared at A.J., “Where is she?”
The son pointed behind his father. “She went in the basement,” he said.
Andy moved down the stairs and turned on a light, slamming open various cabinets and rummaging through closets. Suzanne and A.J. fled to the front door. They had locked it moments before, but now the panic of the moment paralyzed them, and they couldn’t undo the lock. They heard Andy downstairs, exhausting the basement’s possibilities. And so, having passed within a wrist’s turn of freedom, the mother and son turned and dashed for the back door. Downstairs, Andy heard feet running above, and he charged back up.
A.J. hustled his mother across the deck and down the stairs. She still held the phone. “Mom, come on!” the boy said.
“A.J.,” she said. “I think I’ve been shot.”
The son hadn’t heard any gunfire. “No, come on—”
“I think I’m going into shock,” she said.
She slid down to the ground at the foot of the wooden steps. She looked up at her son. “Tell everyone I love them,” she said. And she was gone.
Above A.J., his father stood at the dining room window. He had shot down and through the window at a remarkable angle, and the bullet had entered Suzanne’s back, then ricocheted throughout her rib cage.
A.J. thought of his brother Corey, and ran around to the front of the house. But the door there was locked, of course, so A.J. punched his finger into the doorbell several times.
When Corey opened the door and A.J. told him about their mother, they went to the garage, where Corey loaded his shotgun with slugs.
They emerged in the kitchen, where they saw their father through a window, standing over their mother. Corey raised his gun and shot his father—boom—in the hip.
Andy turned and ran, hobbling across the grass toward a neighbor’s house. Corey shot him again, in the back this time. Andy fell, draped over the wooden fence at the edge of the yard.
JOHN RITTENHOUSE HAD sensed the edge in Suzanne’s voice, and later that morning, on his way back from running an errand—a course that took him close to the Detwilers’ home—he became nervous when he saw a helicopter circling their development.
At the neighborhood’s entrance, he saw people emerging from their homes, looking toward the curve leading to the Detwilers’. That’s odd, he thought.
Then he rounded the curve and saw the police cars and ambulances piled up outside 30 Greenleaf Circle. Oh, no. No no no—
Moments earlier, A.J. and Corey, still wearing what they’d slept in, were talking to a police officer. A.J. kept saying, “I need to call my coach. Let me call my coach.”
THE BEIB FAIMLY HAD spent the night decorating their beach house with streamers and banners, and planning their surprise greeting: Happy birthday, Suzanne!
The phone rang Saturday morning, and Doug answered it. He said, “Hey, John.” Then his face fell.
BRITTANY DETWILER WALKED down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, headed to a meeting with her project partners in a marketing class. Saturday was her 20th birthday.
About noon, her phone rang. Louise Geib, Doug’s wife, told her to buy a ticket for the next flight home, and gave her a credit card number to make the purchase. Wow, Brittany thought, as she entered a building on Commonwealth and climbed the stairs. I know it’s my birthday, but that seems a little urgent.
Louise gave her the news gently and directly: “Brittany, both your parents are dead.”
Brittany stumbled into a bathroom, where she hung up the phone and collapsed. “I know this seems weird,” she says now, “but all I could think was about how I had all our class project stuff on my laptop, and how was I going to get it to my partners?”
The next flight didn’t leave until night, so a friend drove Brittany home that afternoon. Along the way, her friends called, offering bubbly shouts of “Happy birthday!”
Her friend pulled the car out of traffic several times, so Brittany could vomit on the roadside.
PEOPLE MARVELED, IN THE aftermath of the Detwilers’ deaths. They placed flowers and balloons on the house’s front lawn, and shook their heads.
No one, they said, could have seen it coming. Where were the signs? A longtime co-worker of Suzanne’s told an Allentown newspaper, “Nobody can speculate about what happened. This was not foreseen, not expected. This was not what their marriage was about.”
Life continued much as it had. The district attorney found Corey’s actions justified and filed no charges. A.J. participated in a recent wrestling match in a Norristown gymnasium, and the faces around the mat were familiar: Andy’s buddy Tom Koehler. Doug Geib. John Rittenhouse. These men had spent their whole lives here, all shoulder to shoulder in the same emotional room, watching the same struggle play out in the arena before them, and yet none really seemed to know the others.
They had buried Suzanne in the town of Ambler. Hundreds of people attended her funeral and paid their respects; some chattered about the open casket, how she looked different, not so good: You could tell she had died a violent death, they said, just by the expression on her face. Horrific.
Andy’s funeral scandalized the population by its separateness. You would think a man should be buried with his wife, in Ambler, they said, instead of 15 miles away in Hilltown. But then, everything about this family just seemed so—so—senseless. Unimaginable. Who could understand anything about Andy Detwiler or his household?
Andy had requested the grave site, specifically, in a suicide note. He wanted to be buried with his father.