Monday, September 14, 2009

Life after tragedy

Amid swirling speculation in the aftermath of a tragic Dec. 10 shooting, victims' families endured in silence

Chase Schneider didn't know he'd been shot until he was lying on the floor, unable to move. His whole body felt like it was asleep and his blood was on the wall near the kitchen counter where he'd been drinking juice. The shooter was Kevin Michaud, 15 at the time.

"I saw Kevin take the magnum out of his backpack on the way from the school bus to his house and put it in the front of his pants," Chase said, recalling the events of Dec. 10, 2008. There were five boys at the Michaud home the afternoon of the shooting, but only Kevin, 14-year-old Aidan Neary and Chase, then 14, were in the room when the gun went off.

Inside the Michaud home, Chase remembers Aidan, who'd had gun safety training, taking the bullets out of the gun because Kevin was acting irresponsibly and pointing it at people. Chase said Kevin put a single bullet back in the gun and began pointing it at different things again.

"I told him to knock it off, that he was being stupid - moments later the gun fired," Chase said, now 15. The bullet struck the side of Aidan's torso and continued on to strike Chase.

"No, I counted!" Chase remembers Kevin yelling. Hours later, Aidan died.

Dareen Puhlick, Chase's mom, said it was a miracle her son survived.

"Chase was hit in the back, in the spine. He could have died from his injuries or been paralyzed. It is just a miracle that Chase is doing OK. His doctors say it's a miraculous injury," she said.

The bullet itself will remain in Chase's body as a painful reminder.

"The bullet is lodged in his spine, but bullet and bone fragments are very close to the spine that are causing him most of his pain. These fragments are the most dangerous because they are not lodged so they can move around in the body and possibly cut into organs," Puhlick said. "He's on a seizure medication that helps to diffuse the spinal cord nerve from firing."

He's trying to be a normal teen but Puhlick says it has been difficult.

"He's not a typical teenager anymore - he can't do the things he used to do."

Virulent speculation

The police's initial public account said all five boys at the house were "playing a game with a single bullet." Many observers concluded incorrectly that they were playing Russian roulette, which conflicted with Chase's account.

Patrick and Mary Neary, whose son Aidan was killed, knew that as leukemia survivor who underwent years of painful treatments, the idea of Aidan playing a game with his life didn't fit. They found the initial reports distressing, but when Chase returned from a Seattle hospital, he told investigators his account.

"Really the only witnesses in the room were Chase and Kevin because Aidan and Chase were in the ambulance and the other two boys weren't in the room, so when the police came and asked what happened - it came from Kevin. That's what he said. I will never know from Aidan what happened and that's really difficult for me," said Mary Neary. "We knew people had misconceptions about what happened. They made comments to us and we were not really able to talk about it. We of course wanted our son to be remembered honorably."

Juvenile legal proceedings are closed and confidential, so during Michaud's adjudication the families were unable to refute the speculation or clarify the initial police and news reports.

The juvenile justice system doesn't mete out punishment in the traditional sense but deals with treatment and remediation programs. Kevin was ordered to two years in a lockdown juvenile treatment facility, the system's most severe response.

The Michauds declined to comment for this story. Puhlick and the Nearys said the Michauds expressed their regret in person right after the incident, but the families haven't spoken since. Both Puhlick and the Nearys are pursuing civil suits against the Michauds. Their lawyers advised them on what they could and could not legally discuss with the Empire.

Puhlick said the initial report of a "game" also created awkwardness in the community and she felt her son was judged and labeled as a bad kid.

"I wanted to stand up for his rights because he was a victim, not a participant," she said.

Warning signs

In retrospect, the warning signs were there.

After the shooting, Chase said he and Aidan were aware that Kevin had taken loaded guns to school at least twice. Chase spoke with Kevin about how much trouble he could get in.

"Kevin said the guns made him feel safe," Chase said.

The families believe the boys were protecting Kevin by not mentioning the guns.

"None of these boys talked about him having guns; we only heard that he was depressed," Puhlick said.

Chase told his mother that Kevin "would just go on and on about how sad he was, and I didn't know what to do."

"Just listen and be a friend; you don't have to say anything," was her response.

Gunplay was not on the parents' minds.

"I was concerned about a lot of things having to do with teenagers, but for some reason guns hadn't crossed my radar," Mary Neary said. "I thought, like many Alaskan families, there are guns in the house but they are under strict lock and key."

Aidan also had mentioned Kevin's demeanor to his parents.

"Aidan told me earlier that Kevin was depressed, and in my mind I thought, that's too bad, because most teenagers do go through depression at some point - we all know that - it just never occurred to me that there was anything dangerous," Mary Neary said.

Accident vs. mistake

The police reported the incident as an "accidental shooting," which Patrick Neary thinks is a mischaracterization.

"Accidents are unforeseen occurrences with adverse outcomes, and mistakes are choices that are made that have adverse outcomes. People like to dispel their responsibility by labeling things as accidents when in reality, if you look at things that could have been a different choice, we realize that it was a mistake," he said.

The Nearys and Puhlick know this is a tragedy for all the families involved but they try to stay positive. Patrick Neary hopes Kevin won't be "inhibited by a stupid mistake he made in his teens - that he is truly transformed and takes responsibility for his actions. We don't want to minimize the seriousness of what he did, and have it seem in any way that it was a small thing."

Puhlick and the Nearys said they want Kevin to get the help he needs and make something of his life.

"I'm sure they are suffering and they know their son in a way that no one else does, I know they want to protect him and they love him and in a way they've lost him - I feel for them," said Mary Neary. "We don't know what the best possible thing is in the long term, it is what we had hoped for - I hope that it is good for him and his family in the end of this, I know that it is very empty for us."


Both Puhlick and the Nearys kept close tabs on their kids, and yet the tragedy raised the question if they could have done more to avert it.

"Listen to your kids and take them seriously with everything - their friends and what is going on in their lives," Puhlick said. "I knew where Chase was going after school. I knew who he was with. We knew the parents; we would go to the house and check to see if they were there."

Mary Neary also kept close tabs on her son.

"We were always checking up with the Michaud family and the status of the boys. I had gone to their house; I had gone there to check on the boys and see what they were up to. When they would spend the night, I would always go over to give him his toothbrush but also to check and make sure the parents were home. Aidan had given us no reason not to give him a little freedom, which was what he really wanted as a young boy. I'm not saying that was a mistake. I'm not sure what we could have done differently."

Patrick Neary said everyone should remember to treat each other well.

"I think it is important for people to treat each other with love and respect at each and every moment because you never know if that will be the last time you see them," he said.

Aidan was a blossoming writer and a musician, his parents said. The day before he died, he and a friend recorded a music track.

"The recording got interrupted because his friend's mom came to pick him up," Patrick Neary recalled. They planned to continue the next day.

• Courtney Nelson is a writer living in Juneau and a five-year friend of Dareen Puhlick.

No comments: