Tragedy At Well No. 2
Beth Eiken sat shielded from the crisp October air in a friend’s van at Moberly High School. As she watched her 13-year-old daughter play softball, her thoughts turned to her 17-year-old son, Stuart. She hoped he’d awakened early enough to get to work mowing grass — he hadn’t responded to her wake-up calls and texts, despite his request the night before that she call and wake him. It wasn’t the first time he hadn’t answered her calls.
Her cellphone rang. Caller ID told her it was an unknown number. When Beth answered, she found herself speaking to a Columbia policeman.
Detective Bryan Liebhart introduced himself and the reason for his call: Stuart.
“My heart just sank,” Beth says. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what has he done now?’ I thought they were going to tell me, ‘He’s down in jail. You need to come bail him out.’ ”
Instead, Liebhart told Beth: “Your son, Stuart, is dead.”
Stunned speechless, Beth finally composed herself enough to ask what happened. She expected Liebhart to describe a car accident, a drug overdose or even a fight, but nothing could have prepared her for the detective’s answer: “He hung himself.”
Ten miles south of Columbia, 12 water wells rise 20 feet above the straw-colored floodplain near the Columbia water treatment plant in McBaine. Well No. 2 is no different from the others; it’s the same size, color and shape. But on the morning of Oct. 3, 2009, Well No. 2 differentiated itself with a gruesome addition to the structure.
Two motorists heading south on Burr Oak Road called 911 around 7 a.m. after spotting Stuart Eiken’s limp body dangling from a ladder on the north side of the tower. By 7:25, Columbia Police Officer Robert Bennett was en route to McBaine. When he arrived, he found fresh tire tracks in the grass surrounding Well No. 2; Bennett surmised that Stuart was heading north on Burr Oak Road in his black Ford Ranger before he pulled off, made a U-turn and backed up next to the well.
The officer found a bottle of Tanqueray gin in the Ford’s cab and several empty Bud Select cans under the seat. One lone can stood next to the open toolbox in the truck bed. Apparently, Bennett says, Stuart finished his last beer, walked from the truck to the well — nylon cord in hand — and climbed the ladder of Well No. 2. He tied one end of the yellow towrope around the 11th — the highest — rung. With the other end of the rope fashioned in a noose encircling his neck, Stuart climbed down the ladder into strangulation.
The truck, bearing license plate STU22, remained at the base of the well. The keys were still in the ignition, the driver’s door was ajar, and loud country music drifted through the open windows.
Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009, was the last time Brad Eiken saw his son alive. Stuart’s lawn-care business was responsible for mowing the grass at Inside the Lines, Brad’s commercial interior supply office. The teenage entrepreneur had about 20 other clients for the company he called Bert’s Lawn Care, a play on his middle name, Bernard.
A constant preacher of responsibility and hard work, Brad remembers being especially impressed with his son’s attitude that particular evening.
“That was an awesome night,” the 47-year-old recalls. “We had our differences, but that night was a great time. We didn’t get into it about anything. I noticed he committed himself to doing a good job. He was more gentle with the equipment and took responsibility.”
Even though his son was supposed to cut the grass at Inside the Lines for free, Brad knew his ex-wife’s birthday was coming up at the end of the week. He gave Stuart some money so he could take his mother out to dinner Friday night.
Beth remembers Stuart as unusually quiet — almost serene — during those last few days of her son’s life.
“It was the first time in a couple of weeks that he had been as calm as he was,” she says. “Knowing what I know now, that was a prelude to what was going to happen. Normally that means they’ve made their decision.”
Beth’s 44th birthday arrived on Oct. 2, and Stuart went out to dinner with his mother and his sister, Maribeth. The trio dined at G&D Pizzaria; Beth recalls that Stuart ordered spaghetti but didn’t eat much, unusual for a boy both parents say “loved to eat.”
“He saw some of his friends [at the restaurant] and probably ended up spending more time with them than with Maribeth and me,” Beth says. The family’s conversation over dinner consisted of obligatory small talk about the day and plans for the evening.
“Normally, I give him a hug and tell him to be safe and to come back to me, but I didn’t do it that night,” Beth says. After the trio returned home, Stuart left to join his best friend and backyard neighbor, Kyle Willcoxon.
“As he was leaving, Stuart said, ‘You need to call me in the morning, because I need to get up and cut grass. I have a lot of work to do in the morning,’ ” Beth recalls. Her son did not flash his signature smile as he walked out the door.
Stuart and Willcoxon headed to a friend’s house in Columbia where they met up with about eight other teenagers. Willcoxon recalls seeing Stuart drinking and using cocaine that night. Alcohol was relatively common in high school, Stuart’s friends admit, and although drugs appeared less frequently, they often showed up at parties. Stuart’s cocaine use had begun about six months earlier, Willcoxon says.
Around 11:30 p.m., Stuart drove the duo back to his house so Willcoxon could borrow a pair of football socks for the Rock Bridge-Helias game the next day.
“I literally walked out of his house and across the backyard like I would have every other night,” Willcoxon says.
“That was back when I still prayed every night,” he says, noting he had never prayed for Stuart before that night. “I prayed to God to keep him safe and watch over him, because I knew what he’d been doing.”
Stuart, who no longer played football, wasn’t ready to call it a night. After his best friend went home, he went to another friend’s house until about 2:30 a.m.
After a Saturday morning team breakfast at Cracker Barrel, Willcoxon and the rest of the Rock Bridge varsity football team boarded the bus to Jefferson City. In the locker room before the game, Willcoxon sat on a bench and listened to music through earbuds on his iPhone. Suddenly, his phone lit up with a text from a friend: “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, why?” he responded, and then immediately thought of Stuart. Assuming the worst — a car accident or a drunk-driving arrest — Willcoxon finally learned his best friend had chosen to end his own life only hours after they parted ways the previous evening.
Brad was in Kansas City when Beth called him with the news of Stuart’s death.
“Everything was a blur from there,” he says. Arriving back in Columbia, Brad and his brother, Dan, drove to the Boone County Medical Examiner’s Office, where Stuart’s body awaited identification.
“Dan kept trying to talk me out of it,” Brad says. “He said, ‘You seem like you don’t know what’s going on’ — like I was out of it, in shock — and I said, ‘Maybe so, but I have to do this.’ ”
He says he doesn’t cry often, but when Brad saw his son’s body laid out on the examining table that day, the tears were impossible to hold back.
In May 2010 — nearly a year after she and Brad divorced — Beth moved out of the Eiken family’s house on Moss Oak Court in the Oak Ridge subdivision, where she’d lived for four years. Visitors to her new home in the Southampton Villas are greeted at the door by a flurry of paws and sniffs from her two dogs, Stella and Roxanne. A calendar featuring photos of Stuart hangs on the kitchen wall (Brad and Beth have a new one made up every year and distribute them to family). A small, left-leaning plastic Christmas tree sits above her sink year-round. The faux evergreen used to sit in Stuart’s room in the old house. Photos of Stuart are plastered all over the refrigerator, almost outnumbering those of Maribeth. Magnets offer suicide prevention information, crisis hotline numbers and a list of warning signs for depression.
Beyond the kitchen table is a view of the patio decorated with white Christmas lights — they remind Beth of similar lights Stuart once kept in his room. Maribeth, now 16, has inherited Stuart’s old truck, which sits outside the house. A sticker on the rear window reads: I remember Stu.
“I was the person in the background who really saw him for how he was really feeling,” she says. “Whenever he was around his friends, he was a totally different person. He was laid-back and loose, and had a good time. I think he was unsure of what he was feeling and didn’t want to share that with his friends because he was afraid they would look at him differently.”
Beth first noticed a change in her son’s behavior shortly after his eighth-grade graduation from Columbia Catholic School in 2006, when his family moved to the house in Oak Ridge.
“Stuart didn’t like change,” Beth says of the family’s new home and the one year Stuart attended West Junior High School before enrolling at Rock Bridge. “All that change made him more agitated,” she says. “He was never really a sad kid, but all that change just never really settled with him.”
Her son faced one big blow in his life, Beth says. “And that’s when his dad and I announced we were getting a divorce in January 2009. Right after that, I remember he was sitting in the computer room. I walked by and looked at him, and he looked at me. He just started crying.”
“That’s a hard memory,” she says. “He said he wished it could all go back to the way it was.”
Shortly after their conversation, Stuart — usually a very private person — asked to see a counselor. Beth scheduled biweekly appointments with Erika Waller, a behavioral health specialist at the Psychological Services Center who specializes in child psychology. The sessions, along with prescribed antidepressant medication, seemed to work for a while. But eventually, Stuart said the pills weren’t helping anymore; he wanted a stronger dosage. Beth says the Eikens’ family doctor doubled the dosage at Stuart’s request; even so, she soon noticed the pill bottle remained full, and Stuart started skipping therapy appointments. He became more agitated.
Frustrated with counseling and his parents’ questions, Stuart insisted everyone allow him more space.
“That kid got pretty poetic with cursing,” Beth says. “He could string words together like you wouldn’t believe. Sometimes he would really jump down my throat.”
Not knowing what else to do, Beth withdrew and allowed him the space he demanded. She now regrets that choice.
“The space I created between the two of us was the wrong thing to do,” she says. “He was actually wanting someone to hold onto him and make it better. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to deal with his feelings, and I didn’t realize at the time just how bad things really were.”
Beth feared for her son. “I was so afraid Stuart was going to hurt himself that I stayed away from him,” she says. “I didn’t want to start trying to control him. He didn’t like being controlled. I seriously thought about committing him, but I thought that would be the ultimate act of control.”
In the fall of 2009, Stuart’s truck needed new tires. Brad took the opportunity to talk to his son about suicide.
“I’m not getting new tires if you’re not going to be around to use ’em,” he remembers telling Stuart.
“What do you mean by that?” Stuart asked.
“I know you’ve been going through ups and downs,” Brad replied. “We’ve tried to get you into a counselor, but you’re skipping appointments, so I just have to know: Are you wanting to improve yourself? Are you thinking about suicide?”
“No,” Stuart answered.
Beth remembers an earlier conversation with Stuart during which he asked her to listen to the Counting Crows song “Round Here.”
“He had me sit down and listen to this song,” she says. “It’s about a girl who just doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere she goes.” At first, Beth thought the song was catchy and nothing more. But “after Stuart passed away, I went back to that song and realized that he was probably trying to tell me that’s [how he was feeling],” she says.
“Can’t you see my walls are crumbling?”
Then she looks up at the building
Says, “I’m thinking of jumping”
She says, “I’m sick and tired of life”
Everybody’s tired of something.
— “Round Here” by Counting Crows
Beth remembers another conversation with Stuart, when he asked his mother what she thought of suicide.
“I told him I think it’s kind of a chicken way out of things. ‘I think that’s running away from your responsibilities. Plus, look what you’d be leaving behind,’ ” she pointed out to him.
“I should have been aware enough at that time to ask him, ‘Are you considering doing this? Is there a problem? Is there an issue?’
“But that’s very scary territory whenever you don’t know anything about it,” she says. “I was one of those people who buried their head in the sand. Suicide was a little taboo, a little weird, a little freaky. I didn’t want my son to be that person. I pictured Stuart being a very strong person who could handle anything. I attributed a lot of [his behavior] to teenage hormones, just like any other person probably would.”
Before Stuart’s death, Beth says she thought of suicide along the same lines as “one of those commercials about the starving kids in Africa. You just don’t want to watch it. With suicide, you just don’t want to talk about it. I thought people who did that were crazy, and there was something wrong with the family.”
Since their son’s death, Brad and Beth have dealt with their naïveté by educating themselves about suicide and mental illness. They’ve studied warning signs and protective factors for depression, how and where to get help, who is most vulnerable, and how to handle situations more effectively.
“At first, there was a lot of guilt,” says Beth, who admits she still cries over losing Stuart. “You need to be able to forgive yourself and move forward, but every once in a while that guilt trickles back in.”
In those moments, Beth reminds herself that neither she nor anyone else is responsible for what happened, she says, not even Stuart. “When somebody takes their life, they’re in an altered state of consciousness,” she says.
In November 2009, the Eikens started the Stuart B. Eiken Foundation “to promote awareness for the prevention of teenage suicide and to assist teens with the overall health of their body, mind and heart,” says the organization’s website, www.stu22crew.org. The foundation hosts an annual 5K run/walk, as well as a tournament with Stuart’s childhood football club, the Columbia Youth Football league. Brad, Beth and Maribeth are all active in the foundation’s events.
In September 2010, almost a year after Stuart’s death, Beth established the Boone County Suicide Prevention Coalition, which officially launched in January 2011. The coalition, funded in part by funds raised through the Stuart B. Eiken Foundation, aims to educate the community about mental illness and suicide.
A Public Face
Like Beth and Brad, Stuart’s friends were blindsided by his suicide. They remember their friend as a (respectful) class clown, sometimes jittery, a little goofy and always laid-back. They remember Maribeth’s big brother, who took his sibling duties very seriously, especially when Brad and Beth’s marriage began to unravel. They remember a guy who laughed so hard during a late-night Wendy’s run that his head hit the horn, causing him to laugh even harder. They remember seeing his “pasty white butt” almost as many times as his perpetually big smile.
To the outside world, Stuart Eiken was happy and popular, a star athlete who excelled at football, basketball and baseball. With his athletic build, brown eyes and light-brown hair, he could have been the poster boy for mid-Missouri. When it came to sports, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound teen “did damn near everything,” Brad says.
To his friends, he was the introducer.
“No matter where we went, he was the one person everybody knew. I don’t think I ever introduced Stuart to anybody,” says Matt Herman, who met Stuart in the third grade and grew up playing football with him. The two remained good friends despite attending different high schools.
Always suiting up as No. 22, Stuart was quick and aggressive on the football field. “In grade school, one of the coaches nicknamed him ‘Semi’ because he used to hit like a truck,” Brad says.
Rock Bridge head football coach A.J. Ofodile coached Stuart from ninth through 11th grade.
“He was an intuitively good athlete and football player,” Ofodile says. “He was born a running back.” As a 130-pound freshman, Stuart’s all-day-long-attitude left such an impression on the coaching staff, he traveled with the varsity team to an out-of-town 7-on-7 tournament. In his junior year, Stuart was the Bruins’ second-leading rusher with 457 yards and two touchdowns.
Stuart quit football before his senior year.
“Stupid,” says Channing Tillman of his friend’s decision. Tillman, who played football with Stuart since fifth grade, remembers a friend’s goofy, lighthearted antics on the field. “For some reason he loved to rap,” Tillman says. “Well, he rhymed.”
Friends and family can only speculate on Stuart’s reasons for giving up sports.
“He got into other things,” Willcoxon says. “Drugs and alcohol. He started smoking cigs, too, which probably didn’t help. He would show up to practice and then the next day he wouldn’t, kind of like a roller coaster.”
Stuart’s teammates didn’t see their friend’s increased drug and alcohol use as anything out of the ordinary. He was just enjoying the party scene as far as they were concerned — alcohol and marijuana were common among Columbia high schoolers, they say.
“Some drink more than others,” Herman says. “On one occasion, I saw something hard — cocaine, I think. When I saw it, I went in the opposite direction.”
Stuart’s parents were aware of Stuart’s substance-abuse problem — to some extent.
“I knew that he’d been drinking and delving in and out of marijuana,” Beth says. Once, during his freshmen year, Beth found a Coca-Cola can rigged into a pipe and reeking of marijuana in Stuart’s bathroom trash can.
“I had a very serious heart-to-heart with him after that,” she says. Although the Eikens suspected Stuart might have tried drugs in addition to marijuana and alcohol, they were surprised when the autopsy report revealed cocaine in his system.
Willcoxon still has his last text message thread with Stuart on his phone, but he has replaced his friend’s name with one word: Remember. The pair spent 90 percent of their time together, best friends by every definition, Willcoxon says.
For the rest of the 2009 Rock Bridge football season, Willcoxon wore jersey No. 22 in memory of Stuart.
“After this all happened, I started drinking a lot more,” he admits. About two months after Stuart’s death, after too many drinks, Willcoxon took some back roads toward Well No. 2 in McBaine. Before he got there, however, he crashed his car and was cited for driving while intoxicated.
“It was like Stuart was there watching over me,” Willcoxon says. “There’s no telling what I would have done if I had made it to the well.”
Despite the pain, grief and guilt associated with losing Stuart, his family and close friends are trying to see some good come from his death. Stuart’s decision to end his life alerted them to the devastating effects of mental illness — and how to support those who suffer from them.
Willcoxon makes it a point to be friendlier to strangers since his buddy’s death. He says he can easily recognize people who are lonely and takes it upon himself to strike up a conversation.
“There’s a feeling that maybe you can save somebody’s life today just by saying hello to them,” he says.
Stuart’s circle of close friends — Willcoxon, Herman, Tillman and Kyle Asbury — hope the Putting Kids First initiative on the Nov. 6 Boone County ballot will spark an increase in communication about suicide and mental health in the public school system. “When we were growing up, I’d never encountered some authority or some teacher who talked about suicide,” Asbury says. “No one opened up the subject.”
Herman urges activists to raise awareness. “Employ someone who can go around to schools and talk about suicide and mental illness,” he says, adding that stories from friends and family members of suicide victims would really hit home in a teenage audience. “I remember when Mothers Against Drunk Driving came [to Hickman] and showed the picture of the car, and a mom told her story about how she lost her son to drunk driving,” he says. “I think that’s the best way to do it.”
Beth Eiken is collaborating on education with Kestrel Homer, assistant director at the Psychological Services Clinic in Columbia. The two women have traveled to area schools, speaking to students about available resources, warning signs and protective factors of suicide. Eiken and Homer believe education on these issues will go a long way in erasing the stigma that causes many to shy away from seeking help — or from helping those struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Herman, Willcoxon, Tillman and others are also participating in a program called 8 to Great, which Brad Eiken hosts at his office. The proactive prevention program teaches people of all ages the life skills that promote healthy bodies, minds and hearts. 8 to Great is still in its beginning stages, but eventually Brad and the boys plan to share their new knowledge with high schools in central Missouri. The Rock Bridge football team and Coach A.J. Ofodile are first on the list.
“We’re trying to prevent others from going through the same thing,” Brad says.
Well No. 2 still carries reminders of Stuart Eiken’s tragic end. “Stu #22” is emblazoned in black spray paint across the well’s gray base. At one time, the structure was covered from top to bottom with messages to Stuart from friends and family. Most have all but faded away, but a few are still legible. One, dated Feb. 12, 2012, reads: Hey Buddy, Came down to smoke my last one with you today. I love you, Dad. Another says: Rest in Peace Baby Boy. All My Love, Mom.
The well site is a magnet that draws people to McBaine where they feel connected and closer to Stuart than they do at his tomb in a Jefferson City cemetery. Brad and Beth go to the well a couple of times each year in addition to annual visits on Christmas, Stuart’s birthday and the anniversary of his death.
The well also serves as a place where troubled souls may find company. Recently, a message from a man named Robert appeared behind the ladder. In it, he confesses to Stuart that he wishes they could switch places. He admits multiple failures in his life, and contemplates why a teenager with so many friends and family who cared for him would want to take his own life. He concludes his message: These people and I will never forget you. May we rest in peace.
Next to Robert’s note, Beth scribbled a response offering the stranger some encouragement and reassurance. Hope is not lost, she wrote. You ARE loved and you ARE cared about. She left her phone number and told him to call if he needed to talk.
She’s still waiting for his call.
Putting Kids First
Five months after Stuart Eiken’s death, the city of Columbia placed thin metal sheets over the bottom rungs of each well ladder in McBaine. Although the flimsy barricades might logistically prevent other incidents at the wells, Stuart’s parents — Brad and Beth Eiken — believe the only way to prevent similar deaths is to improve the availability and quality of mental health services in Columbia and Boone County.
According to a needs report compiled by the University of Missouri Institute of Public Policy in August 2011, mental health services is one area in which Boone County is subpar.
“The assessment came up with about 3,000 kids and families going without services in Boone County,” says Christine Corcoran, director of Lutheran Family and Children’s Services.
In addition, the report noted that more than 60 runaway and homeless youth are turned away from places such as Rainbow House and True North, agencies dedicated to sheltering abused and neglected children, because there are not enough beds. More than 350 youth are going without counseling services due to a lack of service providers or, in some cases, insurance coverage.
Beth Eiken teamed up with Corcoran — and a coalition of more than 20 local social service agencies — earlier this year in a five-month effort to place the Putting Kids First initiative on the local November ballot. Organizers collected more than 8,200 signatures on their petition to establish a Community Children’s Service Fund in Boone County, financed by a countywide ¼-cent sales tax increase.
Appearing on the Nov. 6 Boone County ballot as Proposition 1, the measure asks: “Shall Boone County, solely for the purpose of establishing a Community Children’s Services Fund (authorized under RSMO 67.1775) for the purpose of providing services to protect the well-being and safety of children and youth nineteen years of age or less and to strengthen families, be authorized to levy a sales tax of one-quarter of a cent in the County of Boone?” Passage requires a simple majority of 51 percent.
If passed, supporters believe the new tax would bring in $5.4 million annually to fund services for youths up to age 19 in Boone County. Funded services could include:
- Crisis intervention
- Outpatient psychiatric treatment
- Substance-abuse programs
- Counseling and therapy
- Home- and school-based prevention programs to combat drug and alcohol usage, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and conflict management
- Teen parenting support
- Respite care
- Temporary shelters
- Transitional living programs for abused, neglected, homeless or mentally ill youths
For a current list of mental health resources available in Boone County, visit www.InsideColumbia.net.
Suicide By The Numbers: Taking Stock In Boone County
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. For every suicidal death, there are an estimated 100 to 200 attempts, says Kestrel Homer, assistant director at the Psychological Services Clinic in Columbia.
“Suicide is definitely underreported,” says Homer, who has been researching childhood depression and anxiety for the past 10 years. “There have been suicides that weren’t labeled as suicides because the parents didn’t want them labeled as suicides on the death certificate.” Often, she adds, individuals who choose to end their lives are labeled insecure and foolish, and the families are left to cope with questions and no answers.
In Missouri, the state’s 2009 Vital Statistics Report (published in 2011) reveals:
- 860 suicides were recorded in 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available. That’s a rate of 14.4 per 100,000 people, and higher than the national rate of 12 per 100,000.
- 14 suicides occurred in Boone County in 2009.
- Since 1999, the number of suicides per year in Missouri has steadily increased.
- According to the Behavioral Health Profile for Boone County, “approximately 9.2 percent of Missouri residents ages 18 to 25, and 6.8 percent of those 26 and older, have had at least one major depressive episode (an extended period of depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, and impaired functioning), in the past year. Typically, females are more likely to report having a major depressive episode.
- Of Boone County students in sixth to 12th grade, 13.4 percent had considered suicide in the last year (2009); 8.9 percent made a plan, and 1.9 percent actually attempted suicide, resulting in injury.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, warning signs of suicide include:
- Observable signs of serious depression that last for more than two weeks: unrelenting low mood, pessimism, hopelessness, desperation, anxiety, psychic pain, inner tension, withdrawal, sleep problems
- Increased alcohol and/or drug use
- Recent impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks
- Threatening suicide or expressing a strong wish to die
- Making a plan: giving away prized possessions, sudden or impulsive purchase of a firearm, obtaining other means of killing oneself (such as poisons or medications)
- Unexpected rage or anger
Visit www.afsp.org for advice on how to help an individual who exhibits some or all of these signs. More resources are available at www.stu22crew.org.
Currently, the following mental health resources are available in Boone County:
Lutheran Family and Children’s Services of Missouri
Burrell Behavioral Health
Pathways Community Health
Girls and Boys Town of Missouri: A Great Circle Agency
Children’s Foundation of Mid-America
Preferred Family Healthcare
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri
Downtown Optimist Club
Heart of Missouri CASA
Family Health Center
One Hope United
Child Care Aware
Daybreak Treatment Center
Wakonda Family Institute
Crisis and warm lines:
Mid-Mo Crisis Line 888-761-4357
Burrell 800-395-2132 (crisis)
National Suicide Line 800-273-8255 (crisis)
The Trevor Project 866-488-7386 (crisis)
NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Health) 800-374-2138 (warm)
United Way 2-1-1 (warm)
The Dora Project Warm Line 314-952-8274 (resource for survivors)
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