Who Killed John McCloskey?
A compelling series on the suspicious death of an 18-year-old man arrested and placed in the care of a mental institution, the cover-up that followed, and the family's on-going grief and confusion. Originally published in The Roanoke Times in June, 1999.
Dead, but at Whose Hand?
For more than a year, this was John McCloskey's life: a hospital bed, ceiling tiles, a television screen. A steady procession of hovering, masked bodies who tended the softball-sized hole in his stomach. Loneliness. Fear. And shame at being so exposed, so dependent at 18, then 19 years old. For 14 months, this was his family's world: helplessness as John drifted from coma to consciousness, from surgery to surgery. Rage at what had been done to him. Pain. Fear, too. And questions.
What they knew was this:
On Dec. 15, 1994, John slipped out the back door of their Rockbridge County home. He was mentally ill, manic-depressive, and he'd stopped taking his medication again. He walked to a convenience store and made a spectacle of himself. Deputies arrested him, and he was committed to Western State Hospital, a mental institution in Staunton.
Three days later, he was rushed to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. His bowels were punctured and bruised, his liver torn. He was vomiting his own feces.
The trauma surgeon suspected a broom handle had been shoved up his anus, rupturing his intestines. The wounds were 48 to 72 hours old, the surgeon believed, meaning the 173-pound teen-ager had been assaulted while in custody of either the sheriff's deputies or Western State.
Now, here they were, almost at the end, the familiar hospital room, the hole, the tubes, watching their beloved boy - now 267 pounds, full of fluids - slowly die.
Eventually, there would be investigations by Virginia State Police and the FBI. A federal lawsuit would be filed in Roanoke. There would be finger-pointing, dead ends, accusations of botched police work, and allegations of a state cover-up.
And there would be the McCloskeys, 4 1/2 years later, the pain and frustration still just a scratch from the surface, with their questions: How did this happen? Who did this? And why?
A normal childhood
Most good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. John McCloskey's may never be a good story, for there may never be an end.
Here is the beginning:
In 1974, as the Vietnam War rumbled to a close, a 20-year-old Marine named Carl McCloskey, stationed at Subic Bay in the Philippines, met a young local woman three years his senior in a restaurant. That September, Carl, known to friends as Pete, married Rebecca Masario. The next July, their first child, Joanne, was born.
Months later, they were transferred to Parris Island, S.C. There, on Father's Day 1976, they had a son, John William, named for Pete's father. Julie followed 11 months later, and Joey the year after that.
In 1978, Pete, out of the Marines after a 7 1/2-year stint, moved his family to his hometown of Newville, Pa., a 1,300-resident farming community 30 miles southwest of Harrisburg. While Rebecca stayed home with the kids, Pete worked briefly at a Kinney shoe factory before his twin brother, Chuck, talked him into joining him in the trucking business.
The McCloskeys were close-knit, and John's childhood was full of football in the back yard, shooting BB guns and collecting baseball cards, building model cars in the garage, and - when Pete's work allowed - trips to Philadelphia and sometimes to the Poconos.
Within the family circle, John was the prankster who could easily rile his siblings. To outsiders, he seemed quiet and laid back.
At school, he and his siblings were in the minority, their half-Filipino blood shading their skin a buttery brown. There were the occasional cracks of "gook" and "chink," but mostly they blended in well. John made decent grades and played football in junior high, but dropped it in high school in favor of more time with friends, and work.
His first job had come at 13. In the afternoons, he'd bike to a nearby farm to help plant cabbage. At 15, Joanne drove him to The Horizon restaurant, where she worked as a hostess and he as a dishwasher. When she quit and he no longer had a ride, he got a job at a truck stop washing rigs. By the time he turned 16, he had scraped together $3,000 to buy his first car, a 1986 Dodge Charger.
This car was his passion, which he lavished with weekly washes and waxes. If he had a serious school pursuit, it was his vocational-technical classes. He hoped to learn the trade well enough to open his own auto shop one day.
But a few weeks into his junior year, something happened in John's head. Like a soaked sponge, his brain went heavy and dull. Depression hit, and he stayed in bed all day and slept.
Then, something sparked, flamed, and he was awake 24 hours, 48 hours, roaming the house with nonstop chatter and thoughts racing wild like a wide-open engine. There were fights at school and calls to friends at 3 a.m., forcing Rebecca to hide the phone. He'd change clothes several times a day, often wearing three or four shirts at a time.
"He knew something was wrong with him," said his older sister, Joanne, "he just couldn't control himself."
At night came the phantom sounds. The motorcycle that buzzed by, which he knew was after him.
Staring out the window, "Mom, did you hear that?"
"No, Johnny," said Rebecca, her second straight sleepless night. "No."
At first, Pete suspected that drugs and a rebellious adolescence fueled his son's behavior. He and John would get into yelling matches, during which Joanne would counsel, "Just listen to him, John. Just listen."
Finally, in January 1993, they checked John into the psychiatric ward in the nearby college town of Carlisle.
During his two-week stay, he was diagnosed as bipolar, or manic-depressive, a mental illness that causes extreme, uncontrollable mood swings. He might have inherited it. Pete's sister was bipolar; his other sister had two bipolar children. A distant cousin had committed suicide years before, though no one knew why.
Doctors prescribed the usual treatment, lithium, which seemed to throttle the mania revving John's brain.
Back home, John returned to his job, to school and, as long as he took his medication, to his old self.
But some days, he'd forget. Or he'd get tired of the monotony. Or he'd think he was all right again. Or he'd get upset with the weight the pills made him gain. And he'd quit, sparking anew the psychosis.
In one manic escapade in the summer of 1993, he went outside to his beloved Charger, sanded it down and spray-painted it navy blue. Later, he busted out the sun roof and pretended the car was a tank, sticking his torso out the top and mock machine-gunning an invisible enemy.
Other times, he'd shower with his clothes on, call his girlfriend in the wee hours, speed off from a gas station without paying for his gas, or stay out all night.
Once, as he stood outdoors, washing the interior of his car with a garden hose, his mother yelled at him and he snapped back, sending her in tears into their home. He followed a few minutes later.
"I'm sorry I yelled at you," he told Rebecca. "Sometimes I don't know what's wrong with me. Am I crazy?"
In October 1993, during his senior year, John spent 18 days in Carlisle Hospital. He got back on his medication, and the rest of the school year passed without incident. Despite his illness, John graduated on time in June 1994, with second honors.
The Pennsylvania trucking business hadn't been good to Pete. In June 1993, his company closed, and he took a trucking job with another outfit. But it was nonunion and the pay was low.
Three months later, he followed his brother to Virginia to work for Yellow Freight out of Rockbridge County.
Pete soon found himself getting six trucks a week, taking over for drivers out of New England and heading on to Charlotte, Atlanta or Nashville. His were busy weeks, but he still made it home on weekends.
In the fall of 1994, the McCloskeys sold their house, and Pete and Rebecca moved to Natural Bridge Station in Rockbridge County. Their youngest children - Julie, now 17, and Joey, 16 - tried a Virginia school for a week, didn't like it and returned to Pennsylvania to live with Joanne, then 19.
John found himself at his own crossroads at age 18, now that he'd graduated. He tried enlisting in the Marines but was rejected because of the lithium. He got involved in "the wrong crowd," said his father - alcohol, marijuana and, once, crack cocaine. He quit taking his medication and stopped showing up regularly for work at a Carlisle car dealership, where he cleaned and maintained the vehicles.
"In the beginning, he did a good job for us and was really pleasant," owner Jim Buckley remembered. But after John showed up for work one day with no shirt, Buckley called him into his office and gave him a warning.
"Go f--- yourself!" was John's reply, and he walked out.
"I never saw him again," Buckley said.
In September, John drove off again without paying for gas, got into a high-speed chase with police and totaled his car. He was arrested and spent a couple of days in jail.
The first of November, John again was hospitalized on the Carlisle psychiatric ward. He checked out Dec. 7, moved into Joanne's mobile home and immediately went off his medication.
During the day, when his sisters and brother worked or were at school and he was alone, he'd blare music from the stereo, angering the neighbors. He'd run up phone bills and throw things at the slightest provocation.
After six days, his siblings realized they couldn't handle him. They called their parents, who drove up on Tuesday, Dec. 13, picked John up and returned that night to Natural Bridge Station.
"It just seemed impossible to make sure he was staying out of trouble up here with us working," his younger sister, Julie, later explained. "We just wanted to make sure he was all right."
Added Joanne, "That was the beginning of a nightmare."
Welcome to Virginia
Wednesday morning, Dec. 14, 1994, John awoke to a new world in Virginia, hundreds of miles from his friends, his girlfriend, his sisters and brother, and his familiar Pennsylvania home.
He sneaked out of the house and strolled down the road to Arnold's Valley Trading Post. He tried to buy a six-pack of beer with no identification. He told the clerk he didn't need ID where he came from. When the clerk still refused, he yelled and stormed off.
The next morning, Thursday, Dec. 15, Pete awoke early for a southbound truck. As Rebecca worked in the house, she kept her eye on the front door to make sure John didn't leave again and repeat the previous day's escapade. John slipped out the back.
About an hour later, a Rockbridge County deputy knocked at the door. He described John to Rebecca and asked if he was her son. He told her John had been arrested at the convenience store for causing a disturbance and exposing himself. It appears, he said, that John had cursed at the store's employees. When told to leave, John had pulled down his pants, showing his genitals.
Rebecca explained that her son had mental problems and gave the deputy his medicines. He gave her the Sheriff's Office number and told her to call if she had questions.
When Pete found out, he was furious.
"I'm tired of this s---!" he exclaimed when he called the deputy. "I hope you keep him awhile!"
That evening, the McCloskeys got a call saying John had been taken to a mental hospital called Western State, 30 miles away in Staunton. They told the caller to take care of their son, but they weren't worried; they'd been down this road before. John would get back on his medication and be fine again.
They called Western State on Saturday, Dec. 17, to see if they could visit, but were told John was sedated and in seclusion.
Sunday evening, Dec. 18, Western State called them. John had complained of stomach pains and had been transferred to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. At 11 that night, a UVa doctor called for their permission to do exploratory surgery.
"Yes," Pete said. "Certainly, yes."
Another call came a couple of hours later. John had a punctured colon.
Pete and Rebecca didn't know what to expect when they arrived Monday morning at the hospital's intensive care unit. Doctors were telling them their son was in critical condition and not expected to survive the day. To see their son, they had to put on masks and gowns. And then they stepped into the room.
Tubes ran into John's arms and legs and chest, into his nose and penis. Other tubes flowed through a gaping hole in his stomach, sucking yellow fluids into a plastic sack. His face was pale, his body bloated, but he was conscious.
"John, do you know these people?" a nurse asked.
John's eyes flickered.
"Yeah," he croaked. "That's my dad."
He then faded into unconsciousness. He would remain silent for nine months.
When UVa surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Young first cut into John's belly to explore his insides, he expected to find a burst ulcer, the usual diagnosis for someone John's age with acute abdominal pain. He peered at the place ulcers usually are found, the junction of the stomach and small intestine, but found nothing.
"What is this?" he asked his staff.
He began uncoiling the slender small intestine. To his shock, he found feces flowing throughout the abdominal cavity. He found pus-filled fluid and free air, indicating a perforation somewhere in John's bowels. Then a small tear. Another. Another. Pushing aside the glistening guts, he saw that John's liver was almost ruptured in half and freely bleeding.
Then farther down, the most critical injury of all, a quarter-size hole at the sigmoid colon, where the large intestine dips to become the rectum.
John McCloskey had come in as a routine general surgery patient. But what Young was finding was neither routine nor general. These wounds indicated a serious assault, and the operating room quickly transformed into a trauma unit.
Nine liters of saline were pumped in to stabilize John's traumatized body. Four pints of blood and six pints of plasma went to replace the quart of blood he'd lost.
Young closed the bleeding liver and colon hole. He performed a colostomy to divert bodily waste from the damaged intestine to an exterior plastic sack. He packed dressings into the surgical incision he'd made and left it open because the dressings would need to be changed regularly.
Before sending John to intensive care, Young searched the young man's body for evidence of how he could have suffered these injuries - the kind Young was accustomed to finding in victims of 10-story falls and serious car wrecks.
He rolled John onto his side to see if he'd been stabbed. He checked John's anus for trauma. He examined the abdominal wall and skin for telltale bruises from a bad beating. Nothing. Still, he wondered aloud whether someone had jammed a 10-inch baton or broom handle up John's rectum.
He couldn't pinpoint what had happened, but he could make a good guess when it happened - 48 to 72 hours ago.
Sometime while John was in the custody of Rockbridge County or Western State.
The holiday season
It was to be their first Virginia Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, Joanne, Julie and Joey left their home in Carlisle and headed south for Natural Bridge Station. They looked forward to seeing their parents. And despite the recent turmoil, they looked forward to seeing their brother.
Over the years, each had fashioned a unique relationship with John. To Joanne, the oldest, John was the one who had accompanied her through the rites of adolescence: the freedom of a driver's license, the first job, the cigarette smoking in their mother's backyard flower bed. To Julie, John was the protective older brother, who grilled potential boyfriends and offered advice. To Joey, John was an idol, the big brother he mimicked and one day hoped to be.
They headed down Interstate 81, through the cornfields and farmland of south-central Pennsylvania, over the 12-mile strip of Maryland and across the Potomac into West Virginia, picking up the pace as the speed limit rose to 70, then easing off the gas 26 miles later to enter the state where, unbeknown to them, John's life had fallen apart.
They knew there had been trouble in Virginia. An arrest. And a mental hospital called Western State. But there had been psychiatric stays before, and they knew John would get better.
When they arrived that night, their parents seemed skittish and spoke in hushed tones. Rebecca's brown eyes, always so bright when beholding her children, were dull, and her usually full face was deflated of its joy. And their father - normally so self-assured and erect, the mold of a Marine - seemed fragile.
"I guess you better tell them," Joanne overheard her mother whisper to her father. "I guess you better tell them now."
It took Pete time to get out the words. Emotion for him had never come easy; he never wanted to burden his children. And he still couldn't comprehend it all. He'd first thought John's problem was poor health. But the doctors had described an inhuman assault - a horror his mind couldn't articulate.
When the phrases finally came, they tumbled over each other like dropped bricks: John's really sick right now, he was at Western State complaining of stomach pains and they rushed him to UVa and he's in critical condition he's on life support he's not breathing on his own or anything he could die.
That was it. That was all he could say before his throat went tight and the tears came. As Rebecca answered her daughters' cries and confusion, Joey stared at Pete. It was the first time he'd ever seen his father cry.