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5 deaths in a year. Suit says Missouri student gave ‘advice on how to commit suicide’

The parents of two students who killed themselves at a Truman State University fraternity house are suing the school, the fraternity and a frat brother they accuse of encouraging those deaths and three others.

The wrongful death lawsuit says the frat brother gave his friends “advice on how to commit suicide.”

The suit, filed Wednesday in the Circuit Court of Adair County, Missouri, says Alexander David Mullins of Kansas City and Joshua Michael Thomas of St. Louis both took their own lives at the Alpha Kappa Lambda house, 918 S. Osteopathy St. in Kirksville, where Mullins was living at the time. Thomas lived in campus housing.

Attorney Nicole Gorovsky links fraternity member Brandon Grossheim to the deaths of Mullins and Thomas as well as to the suicides of two others who are referred to in the lawsuit with pseudonyms: John Doe 1 was also a member of Truman State’s Xi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity. John Doe 2 socialized with the other three but was not a student at Truman State.

The suit also links Grossheim to a fifth death, a woman referred to in the lawsuit as Jane Doe. Her death is still under investigation, Gorovsky said.

All five died during the 2016-17 academic year. The suit says the four young men “committed suicide by hanging.” Mullins was found in his room at the fraternity house, and Thomas was found in a storage closet. No charges have been filed in the deaths.

Gorovsky alleges that Grossheim’s “psychological manipulation” was involved with the deaths.

She said that all five of the students were friends with Grossheim, who now lives in Alton, Illinois. He did not graduate from Truman State and is no longer a student there but “he was not kicked out by the university,” Gorovsky said.

Grossheim is no longer a member of the fraternity. The fraternity did not return calls The Star made Wednesday to the national headquarters in Carmel, Indiana.

At the time of the deaths, news reports said that Kirksville police were stumped because they could see a connection among the victims but could find no real explanation. Kirksville is 90 miles north of Columbia and has about 17,000 residents. Truman State, Missouri’s most academically selective public university, has fewer than 7,000 students.

When police reopened their investigation into the case in June 2017, Police Chief Jim Hughes told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that his department was trying to be “meticulous.” “In over 39 years in this business, all of which have been in college towns by choice, this series of events is very unusual and concerning at any number of levels.”

Mullins and one of the other students died in August 2016. Another died in January 2017. Thomas died that April. Information on the woman’s death was not available.

Gorovsky said a police investigation revealed that Grossheim had access to all five students, including keys to their rooms or apartments, and was the last person to see or talk to each of them before their deaths.

She said the investigation revealed that Grossheim had told people “that he considered himself a superhero with the nickname ‘peacemaker.’” She said he told police that “he counseled people and gave advice and step-by-step directions to people on how to ‘deal with depression and do their own free will.’” The suit says that among the directions that Grossheim gave friends was “advice on how to commit suicide.”

She said that police ran a computer voice stress analysis, a type of polygraph test, on Grossheim and “it showed some deceptions.”

The suit says that other fraternity brothers told police they had “problems with Grossheim” who “had a known fascination with death, wore the clothing of one of the suicide victims after his death” and “began dating Doe 1’s girlfriend shortly after his death.” It also says that Grossheim moved out of the fraternity house after Doe 1’s death and moved into an apartment across the hallway from Doe 2.

The suit says that both Mullins and Thomas struggled with depression and that the university and others were aware that both students “were vulnerable” but allowed “a suspicious fraternity brother to be alone and have unfettered access” to them.

“This tragedy was preventable,” Gorovsky said. “This situation had been swept under the rug.”

Warren Wells, general counsel for Truman State, said Wednesday that after the deaths the university “provided counseling for members of the fraternity. And there has been a group formed to provide ongoing support for the fraternity to help them get their house in order, and that is ongoing.”

He added, “Young people who are college age are very susceptible to this type of difficulties.” But he said that this many deaths within months involving the same fraternity “is certainly an unusual situation.”

Wells said that because the fraternity house is not on campus and is owned by Alpha Kappa Lambda, the university has no jurisdiction except to decide whether the frat can remain a recognized student organization. It has. “AKL is still an active fraternity at Truman State,” Wells said.

The parents — Melissa Bottorff-Arey and Suzanne and Michael Thomas — hired an attorney because they were confused about what happened and wanted to know why, Gorovsky said.

Bottorff-Arey, Mullins’ mother, said in statement that her son “was funny, caring and smart. He went to Truman to build his future. Instead his life ended.

“When Alex died our hearts and our world split wide open; at college, in a ‘brotherhood,’ you think your kids are safe and cared for.”

The parents are seeking monetary compensation to be determined by a jury. But Gorovsky said that if there is a settlement, the parents would want the university to get faculty and staff “training so that they can recognize dangerous behavior so no other students are hurt.”

The Xi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Lambda was founded in 1953 at Truman State, and lists 20 current members. On its website it says it prides itself “on emphasizing Judeo-Christian Principles, Leadership, Scholarship, Loyalty, and Self-Support.”

To get help

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.
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