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N. Ireland town alarmed by teen suicides

The deaths of three high school classmates leave many in a small town speculating about an Internet suicide pact.

July 06, 2007|Alicia Lozano | Times Staff Writer

CRAIGAVON, NORTHERN IRELAND — The nighttime streets of this small town in the green hills outside Belfast are eerily quiet these days. Parents don't want to let their children out because they might kill themselves.

This spring, three classmates at Craigavon Senior High School, all age 15, committed suicide within a month of one another, leaving residents fearful and confused.

"The community feels so disabled," said local official Paul Berry, a family friend of Lee Walker, the most recent suicide victim. "What do we do here? How do we get this resolved?"

The unexplained suicides have led to rumors of an Internet suicide pact involving as many as 12 teens. Police say, however, that there is no evidence of such a pact and are not treating the deaths as suspicious.

But local whispers persist that the teenagers logged on to suicide websites before killing themselves. Some residents fear that perpetuating rumors of an Internet pact will only instigate suicides by youths who somehow feel left out.

"It's causing panic and hysteria in the community," said the Rev. Brian Harper, a pastor who knew two of the teenagers. "It has to be stopped."

The first of the suicides came in May, when Wayne Browne hanged himself from a tree on a busy corner in Laurelvale, just down the road from Craigavon. Three weeks later, James Topley, who had attended Browne's funeral, tied a noose to a lamppost inches from Browne's tree and killed himself. A week later, Lee Walker's father found his body hanging in his bedroom.

None of the boys left notes.

"I held my son for three hours before letting the undertaker come and take him away, and I still didn't want to let him go," a stunned and grieving Tony Walker told a local reporter just days after burying his second-born. "I didn't cry. I bawled."

The three boys attended Craigavon Senior High and had known each other casually since childhood. Residents said they went to parties together and rode on the same bus.

Classmates say Walker was friendly and well-known throughout the school. Just days before he killed himself, he was heard bragging to friends about opening a bank account with money saved from his after-school job. On the night he died, he asked his father to grab him if his girlfriend called.

"We just can't believe it," said a classmate. "When's it going to stop?"

"These boys came from good homes, a good close-knit community," said Berry, the local official. "That's the sad thing. They must have thought there was no more happiness in life and this is the best way out."

Flowers and pictures memorialize the young men. Notes scattered near the lamppost read, "Why'd you do this?"

In the final days of the school term, classes continued at the high school in an attempt to maintain normality. Teachers watched anxiously as students tiptoed through the hallways and grief counseling was offered through the nurse's office.

"At worst, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and young people start to take their own lives," said Richard Bullick, communications officer for the high school. "Suicide has become a fixed part of the landscape. Who knows when the end of it is?"

Suicide is a leading cause of death for men younger than 35 in Northern Ireland, according to government statistics. In this small province, which has seen so much sectarian strife and hatred, the suicide rate is 50% higher than in the rest of Britain, said a spokeswoman for Samaritans, a suicide prevention group. The rate nearly doubled from 2005 to 2006, from 150 deaths to 291, and is highest among men.

"I have celebrated maybe 10 or 12 funerals of young men in the parish, and every one of those is like a ripple effect in a lake," said Father Aidan Troy of Holy Cross Church in Belfast.

Troy has seen what suicide can do to a community. Four years ago, the priest found Philip McTaggart, 17, hanging from a tree behind his church. Since then, several people have hanged themselves from that same branch.

Troy, sitting in the rectory, somberly recalls two brothers who killed themselves just weeks apart last summer. Mark Mailey hanged himself from a tree close to his home. Soon after the burial, Troy saw the family at a wedding, and spoke candidly with Mark's brother, Patrick, about the suicide. A few days later, Patrick was found hanging from a tree near his home.

Residents and church leaders have pleaded with Troy and even city officials to cut down big trees in the area. Troy refuses, and, unlike other priests nearby, invites the troubled youths of Belfast into his congregation.

Often he finds youths sharing a beer by his tree, but the priest doesn't shoo them away; he's just happy to know they're safe, at least for the moment.

"There are some priests not a mile from here that won't allow music, not even a flower, at the funeral of a suicide," he said. "I think that's horrendous stuff."

The spate of suicides in Northern Ireland remains inexplicable to residents, officials and experts alike.

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