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A teen's death by suicide with her father's gun divides a small Missouri town
Kansas City Star - 4/7/2021
Apr. 7—SEDALIA, Missouri — Soon after she turned 16, Riley Garrigus secured her driver's license and her own car, giving her the freedom to drive to her job, school, sports games or just cruise around with her girlfriend. She seemed happy.
But underneath, she was struggling. For two years, Riley had faced unrelenting bullying at Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia.
When she died by suicide with her father's handgun April 8, 2017, the news rocked and divided her town of about 21,000 people, an hour and a half's drive east of Kansas City.
At a public demonstration on the day of her funeral, dozens of students, parents and community members confronted school officials over their handling of the bullying. At the same time, many in town blamed Riley's parents, and said so both on social media and during upsetting in-person confrontations.
In the years since, Riley's death has sparked conversations in Sedalia about bullying, suicide and mental health among teens. With each subsequent suicide, people have been less ready to make quick judgments. Those changes have boosted the efforts of local, grassroots suicide prevention efforts and, organizers said, led to a greater understanding of the causes of suicide.
At the time, Riley's death blindsided her parents. They knew she had been dealing with bullying at school but they had not realized how much she was hurting.
"You talk to your kids about drugs, about pregnancy, about alcohol, but no one ever has to talk about suicide," her father, Ralph Garrigus said. "It's just nothing that enters your mind about your kids that you would have that talk."
As much as it shocked her family, Riley was the the second student at Smith-Cotton High to die by firearm suicide in 16 months. They were among seven in the county during the two years surrounding her death, most of them young. The rate of gun suicides for people ages 15 to 24 in Pettis County is nearly twice as high as the state overall.
Across Missouri, 93 people in that age group died from firearm suicide in 2019, the most recent year data was available.
Many communities lack education and resources to deal with the firearm suicide problem, say prevention advocates, public health experts and survivors.
What happened in Sedalia — the bullying, the lack of understanding, the shock and the division — could happen in many Missouri towns, said Chris Davis, the vice president of prevention and youth support at the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, based in Springfield.
"That could happen anywhere," Davis said. "Silence may unintentionally perpetuate that thought in someone's mind that people do not care. But that doesn't mean they don't care, it just means that they just haven't been equipped to see the signs that someone is struggling."
To break that silence, a group of Sedalia residents touched by suicide started a grassroots advocacy group in 2015 that they named DeFeet, after a 5K memorial walk they hold each year.
They have handed out nearly 2,000 T-shirts bearing the words: "Are You Okay Today?," put up billboards and are planning a community outreach event on May 1.
"A big thing we are getting over is that suicide isn't preventable. The whole notion that suicide can be prevented is something that's hard for people to get," said Chris Stewart, CEO of Katy Trail Community Health, a primary care provider for underserved communities in central Missouri.
"If you have somebody in front of you that says they want to kill themselves, if you can stop them for five minutes, the chance of saving them is greater."
Among the biggest steps that could be taken to reduce suicide would be ensuring people who are in crisis do not have access to guns, advocates and mental health professionals say.
That could mean safe storage laws, especially for homes where children are present. And it could mean red flag laws that allow law enforcement to temporarily seize guns from people at risk of hurting themselves or others.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why did we report this story now?
This story is part of a series The Star and its partners across the state are producing this year examining firearm suicide as a public health problem. Earlier this year, we reported a story on a rare teen-operated crisis hotline in St. Louis. Soon, we will publish a story on firearm suicide among veterans.
The effort is undertaken as part of the Missouri Gun Violence Project, a two-year, statewide, solutions journalism collaboration supported by the nonprofits Report for America and the Missouri Foundation for Health. The Star has partnered in the project with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Springfield News-Leader. Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.
How did the reporters research these stories?
To produce this story, a reporter on The Star's gun violence team reached out to suicide prevention advocates in Sedalia, who connected her with the Garrigus family. The reporter interviewed them by phone, and at their home in Warsaw. The reporter and a photographer also visited Sedalia, interviewed public officials there and reviewed local coverage from the time of Riley Garrigus' death. Another reporter on the team helped analyze state data on firearm deaths in Pettis County.
Garrigus is not in favor of more legal restrictions. He says parents who are gun owners have a responsibility to keep their guns locked up and to teach their children about the dangers.
He has had a lot of time to think about it since his daughter died. He does not own nearly as many guns as he used to, and went years without firing one.
But he still keeps a handgun in his home and his vehicle.
"I don't blame myself for having guns, because that's the way I was brought up and it's for protection, that's what I had those for," Garrigus said. "But I do blame myself for not putting it up that night."
'Hard to understand'
The youngest of three and the only girl, Riley grew up on the lake and in the woods, fishing, swimming and hunting with her dad and older brothers. She dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.
She made friends easily, and she defended them.
The bullying started in high school. Kids harassed Riley about her forehead, how much she ate at lunch and for being gay. Though a starter on the softball team, she was tormented by some teammates when she played basketball.
"They beat her down so far that she didn't have any fight left in her," Garrigus said. "And that doesn't happen in days or weeks. That happens in months or years.
"She was one of the strongest people you'd ever meet. So it was hard to understand that she could be put down that far to do what she did."
While Riley would confide in her mom, Angie, she also kept a lot to herself. It was only after she died that her parents learned from her friends how hard it was on her.
The day before Riley took her life, she broke down in her school counselor's office. She was inconsolable for 45 minutes. But what exactly had gotten to her that day remains a mystery.
After the counselor calmed her down, Riley promised she would go home and tell her parents what happened.
But she didn't. She came home bubbly and happy. That night, Riley talked with her mom about what she was like as a baby.
The two were laughing and reminiscing when Riley asked Angie what it would be like if she wasn't there anymore.
"Me and her, we were best friends. We talked all the time, about everything," Angie Garrigus said. "So for me and her to have conversations wasn't a sign because that's what we always did."
Early the next morning, Riley shot herself with her dad's handgun in their living room. The gun was kept on the mantle and her father usually took it to bed with him, but had not that night.
Only days later did they learn about Riley's trip to the counselor's office.
Riley's parents believe if they had received a call from the school they would have been able to help their daughter and maybe would have stopped her from taking her life.
"If we would have known we probably would have been able to talk to her and we could have noticed that something was wrong," Garrigus said. "But we didn't get that call. And then of course, we woke up the next morning to total devastation."
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
The Missouri Gun Violence Project's series on public health issues and gun violence will continue. Next up will be a story on firearm suicide and veterans. Then we will continue our series on public health factors in gun violence, with stories focusing on housing, food security, schools and living environments.
Steve Triplett, the superintendent of Sedalia 200 School District, and Wayne Norton, the principal at Smith-Cotton, declined to comment on Riley specifically.
"Any loss of life saddens us and hurts us deeply," Triplett said. "We care a lot about the safety of our students."
After Riley's death, a lawyer from Kansas City reached out to the Garrigus family about suing the school over the bullying that contributed to their daughter's suicide.
Garrigus said they agreed to the lawsuit as a chance to push for change in the school. Any money they received would go to start a foundation in their daughter's name to prevent suicide and bullying.
The lawyer said that, with sworn testimony from the people who witnessed the harassment, the suit would be successful.
But people backed out and decided not to testify, Garrigus said. He suspects it is because of the vitriol directed at him and his wife.
Many locals on social media blamed Riley's parents for her death or said she was the only one at fault. Some said the school shouldn't be held responsible.
"What a bunch of idiots," one person posted under a news article about a rally for Riley that led to a protest against school officials. "Sure they are grieving but as someone who was bullied throughout all of Sedalia schools. I can tell you that it's the kids parents (sp) fault."
Others defended the family.
"As a Smith-Cotton graduate and a survivor of a loss to Suicide (sp), I will say this family is beyond brave!" another person wrote. "To be able to step forward on the day of the funeral is amazing!"
Even some lifelong friends and extended family members drifted away from them.
"We didn't expect that we were going to be blamed and attacked and talked about in vulgar and bad ways, Garrigus said. "It's unreal how brutal people can be."
Community members organized a rally on the day of Riley's funeral to honor her memory, and to confront the school about how they handle bullies.
News footage from the day shows a crowd of people outside Smith-Cotton High, many wearing pink, chanting her name and carrying signs reading "Justice for Riley" and "Stop bullying now."
Bradley Pollitt, the Sedalia School District superintendent at the time, and Norton, the principal at Smith-Cotton, eventually came out to meet the crowd.
"I'm here to listen to what the students have to say," Pollitt said. "This isn't the time for us to give answers, it's time to listen to what they have to say."
"There is a community issue that we all need to work together," Norton said as people shouted at him to answer for the school's bullying problem. "We do have reports of bullying at our school, bullying happens at every school."
Garrigus, who had buried his daughter barely hours earlier, came forward and spoke to Pollitt and Norton.
"Change is coming now, not next year, now," he said. "We are not waiting on you anymore. You had your chance to do something."
At that point, Norton and Pollitt left the crowd, escorted away by two police officers.
"You would hope that the community would wrap their arms around you. And it was not like that," Garrigus said. "We did have some outreach at the beginning but not enough. And then as time went on, it just kind of dwindled and people moved on."
DeFeet was founded not by mental health professionals, but by volunteers.
They were driven by a conviction that their town needed to be better informed about suicide and mental health.
Anné Townsend started DeFeet right after her brother's suicide by poisoning in 2015. Her family was completely shocked by his death.
"People think they know the signs, but they really don't," Townsend said. "Once I went through training, it was very heartbreaking how many signs my brother was actually showing that I didn't know just because I wasn't educated enough."
To help educate people in Pettis County, the group provides training, hosts speakers and support groups, encourages people to talk about mental health and advocates for access to treatment.
They talk to residents about how dangerous guns are for people in crisis and advocate for what they call sensible gun safety laws in Missouri.
The group works with the local school district, the Pettis County Health Department, behavioral health specialists and Katy Trail Community Health.
Around the time of Riley's death, Stewart at Katy Trail reached out to the school district to help implement a program that trains staff to identify someone at risk and screen students twice a year starting in middle school.
"The onus isn't only on the school, we recognize that this is a community issue," Stewart said. "So we reached out to see how Katy Trail could help."
In addition to the screenings, the Sedalia school district has partnered with Katy Trail and DeFeet to raise awareness. The district makes behavioral health professionals available to students. When Riley died, school officials said she was the third suicide in recent months, including one that did not involve a firearm.
In addition to leading some of the public discussion about suicide, the Katy Trail clinics employ the 'Zero Suicide' model, which means screening every patient at each visit for suicide risk. The program trains doctors in both primary care and emergency room settings.
"Once you start screening, thinking about suicide as something you can prevent becomes a part of the thinking," Stewart said.
"DeFeet has been incredible in their work. They've created an environment where we are not as afraid to talk about suicide. While it will take several years to get there, we are well on our way to making things much better."
Living with the pain
More than two years after Riley's death Ralph and Angie Garrigus left Sedalia.
They had both lived there all their lives. They sold their family home and bought a small lake house in Warsaw, about 30 minutes south.
That had always been the plan, but it happened sooner than they intended. Their hometown is not the same for them anymore.
As of early April 2021, Riley was the last Smith-Cotton student to die by suicide. At what would have been her high school graduation in 2019, a seat was left open for her, with a rose, cap and gown sitting where she would have.
Ralph and Angie say it's on everyone to learn about suicide and the warning signs, something they wish they had done before they lost their daughter.
"Everyone in a school, from the janitor on up, should be trained on how to recognize the signs of depression and suicide," Garrigus said. "Because if they don't have the knowledge of what to look for, then they're not going to see it. The same is true for parents."
The day Riley died, her older brother took all the guns out of the house. Apart from the handgun on the mantle, Garrigus had kept the others locked up. But he didn't want them there anymore. It didn't feel safe.
Garrigus still values gun ownership and the protection he believes they afford. Over the last few years, he gradually reintroduced some firearms to his home — including hunting rifles, and a handgun for protection.
But he didn't fire a gun for nearly four years, until last November.
Garrigus and his son went deer hunting together last fall. As in past seasons, it was not an easy experience for Garrigus.
This time, they came across a buck in the woods. Garrigus had a rifle in his hands. He paused. His son encouraged him to take aim.
He lifted up the rifle. He wondered if he was ready. He didn't know if he would do it. A few moments passed.
Finally, he pulled the trigger.
The Star's Humera Lodhi contributed to this report.
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