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.
"Dad, You Think I'm Going to Die?"
A time would come when the investigation into John McCloskey's injuries would consume his family's full attention. But not yet. At the moment, John was still with them, debilitated though he was.
A month had passed since that Sunday morning, Dec. 18, 1994, when John collapsed from stomach pain at Western State Hospital, where he had been committed for mental illness after his arrest in Rockbridge County.
A month had passed since he was rushed to the University of Virginia Medical Center, where a surgeon, after opening him up, suspected he'd been sodomized.
A month of four surgeries, attempts to repair the torn bowels, ruptured liver and punctured colon, and fight the deadly infection that had invaded his body.
A month in an intensive care unit, tethered to 10 tubes that did his breathing and eating and drinking and defecating, that pumped in gallons of fluids to stabilize his blood pressure and mind-dulling drugs so he wouldn't go crazy from the pain and constant shrilling of the monitors that kept him alive.
Yes, his parents, Pete and Rebecca McCloskey, desperately wanted to know the cause of John's injuries: the who, the how, the why. But they had the effect to cope with first. John was still here, and until the end, here they would remain.
'Comatose' to conscious
Dr. Jack Remson had heard about the patient in the surgical intensive care unit. Young guy, 18, in for several weeks with some serious abdominal injuries. Wasn't supposed to survive the first day. Presumed comatose from the blood loss and brain trauma caused by an infection.
Remson, a rehabilitation physician, regularly checked on the SICU's bedridden patients to see if he could stop the muscle loss and rigid joints that set in from prolonged inactivity. From what he'd heard of John McCloskey -- uncommunicative, eyes open but not moving, arms and fingers stiffening into gnarled stumps -- there wouldn't be much help.
The television was on when Remson entered the room. John lay on his back, arms straight and tensed, fingers splayed, toes pointed down from his contracting calves. He was puffy from the fluids, and his eyes stayed on the TV, not registering Remson's presence.
Still, Remson talked to John as he prodded and flexed John's limbs, starting with his right arm, moving down to the legs. No response.
He poked his way up John's left arm, feeling the fingers, the elbow, the shoulder.
"Do they have that TV on for you," Remson jokingly asked, "or do they have it on for the staff when they're in here working?"
John's eyes cut to Remson's and stayed there.
"Oh, God," Remson whispered, a chill gripping his flesh. "You're in there, aren't you?"
John stared harder, blinked, then flicked back to the TV.
He had been aware for a long time, Remson realized, but no one had known. He'd felt the dressings being changed three times a day, smelled the foulness wafting from his wound, heard all the gasps and whispers of visitors shocked at his condition, who had peered into his wounded belly and recoiled in disgust.
John's mind had been trapped inside a body locked in a rigid paralysis called neuroleptic malignant syndrome, a rare reaction to one of his sedatives, Haldol. As one of his nurses, Beth Turrentine, later explained, "He knew what went on. He just wasn't able to respond to us."
No more, Remson vowed.
He cut Haldol from John's drug therapy and convened the surgeons and therapists to raise the awareness that John was "in there." The tracheotomy that allowed John to breathe wouldn't let him speak. His fingers, now curling into his palms, forbade writing. But he could still communicate if they kept their conversations simple.
One blink, "yes." Two blinks, "no."
They rigged a tube next to his mouth in which he'd blow to change the TV channel and suck to call a nurse.
Therapists put splints on his hands to keep them straight. To loosen the joints, they massaged and bent his fingers and arms for as long as he could bear the pain. He was like a child, forced to relearn the simple tasks -- how to pick up a pencil, how to scratch his nose and comb his hair.
As winter turned to spring, John's health stabilized, then collapsed. The skin around the hole in his stomach became decayed and wouldn't close.
Three times a day, nurses came in to change the bandages packed inside. The blood infection, or sepsis, he'd contracted when bacteria-laden feces escaped through his ruptured colon into his abdominal cavity, routinely manifested itself in fevers of 100-plus degrees and an uncontrollably rapid heart rate. The tears in his intestines wouldn't heal, but oozed fluids that formed adhesions that clung to the stomach wall.
The sepsis almost killed him in February. In March, he slipped into a semi-coma that lasted for weeks. Other infections invaded through the intravenous needle holes and urine catheter.
In May, Dr. Jeffrey Young, the surgeon who had been treating John since his arrival from Western State, again stood over John at the operating table, removing 15 inches of bruised, torn intestine. In June, the month of his 19th birthday, John developed "overwhelming sepsis" and adult respiratory distress syndrome, a severe breathing problem caused by fluid filling his lungs.
"He just developed every complication known to man," SICU nurse Kathryn Staves said.
And still he lived.
After he recovered from each bout of infection and each surgery, his therapy would resume. More agonizing massages. Touch your finger to your nose. Try to sit up in bed. Unclip this clothespin and clip it over here.
His criminal charges of disorderly conduct and indecent exposure had been dropped so that when he got well enough, he could be discharged to a rehabilitation hospital. Western State wasn't equipped to handle his medical needs.
By August, he had stabilized enough to be taken off the ventilator. Physically, he could now speak. His mind was a different matter.
For nine months, he had been silent. For nine months, his family had awaited the moment to hear his voice once again.
"Come on, John. Say hi to your Mom," Rebecca McCloskey would plead again and again at her son's bedside. But John said nothing.
The doctors were encouraging. "Keep trying," they'd tell her. "He should be able to talk now."
She tried. Still, one blink yes, two blinks no.
Lost and Found
Whenever Pete wasn't driving a tractor-trailer, he and Rebecca were with their son. That spring, the couple had moved from Natural Bridge Station to Fishersville, near Waynesboro, to shorten the trip to the Charlottesville hospital. They left his side only when the nurse came to change the dressings packed inside his festering wound. The hole, the exposed bowels -- too difficult to watch.
One day, Pete steeled himself and didn't look away.
"I figured if John can deal with it, I ought to," he said.
Every two to three weeks, they were joined by their children, who would drive down from Carlisle, Pa. Sometimes, John's close friend Steve Oyler came along. A few times, so did John's girlfriend.
"The last time, she was crying," recalled John's older sister, Joanne. "John knew she was there, but couldn't talk because of the trach [tracheotomy]. We didn't hear from her again after this visit."
At the hospital, they would shrug on gowns and masks for fear of further infecting their brother's fragile body. The first few months, as John lingered in semiconsciousness, they would hold his hand and talk as if he heard them. Maybe he did.
Once he was aware and could blink-speak, the family's weekend afternoons would be spent watching what John wanted on TV. "Seinfeld." NASCAR and his favorite driver, Mark Martin. And the Oakland Athletics, where he'd watch his favorite player -- years before the rest of the nation would -- Mark McGwire.
Of course, some days his only visitors were the nurses and doctors and images on TV.
But the day it happened, the family, a couple of cousins and Steve were all there. They stood looking on as Rebecca gripped John's hand and began the now-familiar mantra. Come on, John. Say hi to your Mom. Say hi to your Mom. Come on, John.
A few minutes passed, then they turned toward the TV and began chatting to one another. They weren't looking when, like a diver gasping for air, they heard, "Ah, ah, ah . . . Hi, Mom!"
No one recognized the strange voice, but it didn't matter. Tears fell from every face. John's, too.
"Oh my gosh, Johnny, you did it!" Rebecca squealed.
Overjoyed, his family saw these words as steppingstones on John's path home.
Steve saw it differently. When John gasped those two words, his voice was tinny, high-pitched, as if he'd sucked in some helium. The voice Steve heard was emasculated. A child's. Not a man's.
John did cry, Steve remembered, but his tears did not spring from joy. Their source, his friend believed, was shame.
A few weeks later, John's parents asked if he recalled anything about his injuries, whether he'd been hurt during his arrest in Rockbridge County or while in Western State.
"There were four of them" was all he said. Then he began to cry, and his parents didn't pry further.
"Eventually, you come to realize just what you've lost," Dr. Remson would explain years later. "For a while, you're occupied with just trying to get back. But then you realize what you'll never be able to do again."
Somehow, his hospitalization had quelled the manic-depression that had waged war for so long in his brain. Still, John realized he would have a colostomy bag strapped to his hip for the rest of his life. He realized he'd never regain full use of his atrophied hands, and never again tinker with the car engines he loved.
This on top of everything he had missed. He'd sometimes cry when his family talked of their lives outside his hospital room. One weekend, Joanne showed him the new design of her Pennsylvania driver's license. On it, John saw she was no longer Joanne McCloskey, but Joanne Keck. She had married in March.
"I never told him because I didn't want him to get upset or anything, because I didn't know how he would take it," she said. He ignored her the rest of the visit.
Then there were the more mundane joys. The McDonald's hamburger, the chocolate shake, the slice of pizza -- delicacies his battered intestines hadn't let him taste in a year. A tube to the vein supplied his sustenance.
One day a therapist handed him a card and asked him to write something. The word he scrawled was "HOME."
One last chance
Perhaps this is what led him to try the final surgery.
Since he'd begun to speak again, John had been trapped in an agonizing cycle.
On Aug. 30, 1995, after 254 days at UVa, he was discharged to the nearby Blue Ridge Rehabilitation Hospital. There, speech and physical therapists worked with him three hours a day.
Remson and his team first got him to sit up, then to swing his legs off the bed. Eventually, they got him onto a "tilt table" that gradually rose from horizontal to vertical. Because he'd been bedridden for so long, his muscles had atrophied and his bones resembled those of an 80-year-old man.
"He looked like some of these you see on television in them starving countries," Pete said.
As the table rose and the tears of pain started to fall, therapists would support him, making sure one kept a gloved hand over his tightly bandaged stomach wound so his bowels wouldn't spill out.
But in late September, his intestines sprang a leak. Infection struck. His temperature spiked to 104 degrees. His blood pressure plummeted, and his heart raced 160 beats a minute, and he was sent back to UVa. Another operation, another stay on the SICU to recuperate, and back to Blue Ridge. This cycle repeated itself three times that fall and winter.
It became clear to Dr. Young that John couldn't survive much longer like this, tethered to the tubes, fed intravenously, confined mostly to his bed.
In early February 1996, after almost 14 months of hospitalization, Dr. Young offered the McCloskeys an option. One major surgery to remove all the adhesions, cut away all the bruised bowel, and, finally, close the stomach. In the previous operations, Young had tried to do as little invasive work as possible, hoping John's body would take care of the rest. But it didn't. In medical lingo, John had "poor protoplasm." He didn't heal like a normal person. And healing is what he needed most.
The surgery would be risky, Young stressed.
John was for it. In rehab, he'd just stood up for the first time -- a taste of independence. He knew the operation wouldn't make him normal, but it might give him something near a normal life. Food to eat. A walk with friends. Home.
John's fingers wouldn't let him pen his name to the authorization. "You can sign it, Dad."
"Dad, you think I'm going to die?"
Pete couldn't answer.
"No, John," Rebecca said in her Filipino accent. "That same doctor who operate on you the first time, he's a good doctor. He's not going to let you . . . you know."
For what felt like the thousandth time, Joanne, Julie and Joey found themselves on the road, heading south to the Charlottesville hospital. This time, though, they had hope. In three days time, on Valentine's Day of 1996, John was to have the final surgery, the final push he needed to get back home.
Careful not to disturb his tubes, they squeezed his arm and kissed him goodbye, and promised they'd return the following weekend.
But the next weekend John was too sick for visitors. He hadn't handled the surgery well. In the five-hour operation, Young had removed several feet of damaged intestine. He and a plastic surgeon had tried to find enough healthy stomach lining to close the wound. But there was too little, and by that time John had lost a lot of blood. He was in intensive care again.
The infection flared up the following week. His blood pressure and heart rate plummeted. Friday, Feb. 23, doctors pumped in five gallons of fluid to stabilize him. His body ballooned even more; his eyes swelled shut. His kidneys, heart and lungs started to fail.
Don't come to visit, Pete cautioned his children. "You don't want to see him like this."
That night, Dr. Remson stopped by on his way out of town for the weekend.
"Hey, John, do you know who this is?"
John couldn't see, couldn't speak, because he was on the ventilator again, but he vigorously nodded his head.
Always the cheerleader, Remson said, "Hey, John, we're going to get through this. You're going to be OK." Remson talked enthusiastically of the next round of rehabilitation, knowing there wouldn't be one. Then he got up to leave.
"I'll see you, buddy," he said. "I know this sucks, but you're going to be OK. I'll see you Monday."
Outside, Remson stripped off his gown, found a private place, and cried.
Rebecca was alone when she got the call.
Earlier that Saturday, Feb. 24, she and her husband had been at the hospital, where John now weighed 100 pounds more than when he had first arrived.
Before they left, Rebecca kissed her son's arm and told him she loved him.
Yellow tears trickled from his swelled-shut eyes. He couldn't speak, but Rebecca understood the words he mouthed.
"I love you."
Then Pete caught a truck heading for Nashville, and Rebecca was alone when the phone rang.
"Is Mr. McCloskey there?"
"No, he's working."
"Oh, um, somebody's looking for him," the caller said.
"Why, why you looking for him? He in trouble or something?"
"No, no, no."
"Something wrong with John?"
No reply. Then a familiar voice came on the line -- one of Young's residents.
"Mrs. McCloskey, I'm sorry. We couldn't save John. He's gone."
"No, no, not my Johnny!" she cried. "He strong! He fight for 14 months! He don't want to die! He told me that. He don't want to die!"
"I'm sorry," the doctor said. "His heart just stopped."
Rebecca called the trucking company. Pete hadn't reached Nashville yet, the dispatcher said. They'd tell him to call when he did. She called each of her children. None was home.
She flitted about the house. What will I do? What will I do? Johnny's dead. Johnny's dead.
The phone rang, Joanne calling her back.
"Mom, what is it?"
"JoJo, my Johnny's gone, my Johnny's gone," Rebecca cried.
"Mom, what are you talking about?"
"Johnny died. The doctor called and said Johnny died."
Joanne broke down in her husband's arms as her mother kept repeating into her ear, "Johnny's gone. Johnny's gone."
The funeral was five days later in Carlisle. The casket was closed. You wouldn't want it open, the funeral home told the family. You wouldn't want to remember him that way.
Each family member had brought a gift to put in the coffin. Joanne, a teddy bear whose fur John had once teasingly threatened to put gum in. Julie, a picture of the two of them taken in a mall photo booth. And Joey, a pendant of the ankh, a cross with a loop at the top, an Egyptian symbol of eternal life.
At the funeral, the three read a poem they'd written. It ended with, "The only comforting thought that comes to mind is that you are no longer in pain and no one can ever hurt you again."
At the graveside, a heavy rain had muddied the ground at the Huntsdale Church of the Brethren cemetery. Steve Young, their old neighbor and a minister, encouraged John's family to live a faithful life so they could see John again in heaven.
A couple of weeks later, the hospital staff held a memorial service -- a rarity in a place so accustomed to dying and death. But this was for John -- a rarity in himself.
"I have had no other patient like him that developed such a long relationship with everybody and then eventually died," Dr. Young explained. John had survived so much, "it was almost like he was going to get over everything."
Pete and Joey didn't flinch as the needle pricked their forearms.
The funeral was several weeks past, and the here-and-now worry of caring for John had transformed into an aching rage.
When the artist finished, Pete's arm bore a black cross with JOHN written on a blue banner. A simpler cross inked Joey's arm, the same design Julie would get on her ankle months later.
Now, John's memory branded their flesh as well as their minds, as their thoughts turned to the past.
The family had been told John was assaulted 48 to 72 hours before arriving at UVa. Seventy-two hours put him in the custody of the Rockbridge County Sheriff's Office. Forty-eight hours put him in Western State Hospital.
Forty-eight hours. Seventy-two. A flicker in most lives. In John's, perhaps everything.
Cause, but no Effect
Something horrible had happened to John McCloskey. Something so horrible his colon exploded, his intestines tore, and his liver almost ruptured in two. Something that 14 months of hospitals and nine surgeries couldn't repair.
But what? When? And by whom?
The answers, according to doctors, lay sometime between Dec. 15, 1994, when the mentally ill teen-ager was arrested by the Rockbridge County Sheriff's Office, and Dec. 18, when he awoke at Western State Hospital, screaming in pain and vomiting his own feces.
Three years later, authorities would be asking the same questions.
The Rockbridge sheriff didn't investigate his deputies for fear he'd be accused of a cover-up. Officials at the state's mental health watchdog, the Department for the Rights of Virginians with Disabilities, didn't investigate Western State because the incident was never reported to them.
So the investigation fell solely to the Virginia State Police.
But investigators first faced an unexplained delay. Then four different theories emerged of how the injuries occurred. Other problems included a victim who couldn't speak, a lack of witnesses, and everyone pointing fingers elsewhere.
And in the end, state police agents found themselves under scrutiny, accused of going easy on Western State, another branch of Virginia government.
A medical mystery
By the time Virginia State Police Special Agent Gary Pence got the case, a month had passed since allegations arose that John McCloskey was the victim of a horrible assault.
The reason for the delay is unclear. But during that month, Western State had already shifted blame from itself.
On Dec. 19, 1994, the day after John was taken to the University of Virginia Medical Center, a Western State social worker wrote in John's file, "Patient may have been physically and/or sexually assaulted prior to admission. (This may need further investigation.)"
In a memo dated Dec. 20, 1994, Western State Director Lynwood Harding wrote that he was conducting a "local investigation" and that "it appears patient was admitted with injuries."
(Years later, in court documents, Harding would admit, "I did not participate, personally, in any official investigation regarding John McCloskey.")
In a separate memo that same day, Harding said he had asked one of his security officers to notify state police.
On Dec. 22, Harding noted that he had sent his preliminary report to state police.
But the state police didn't officially open their case until Jan. 18, 1995. That was the day, state police records show, that Western State Security Chief John Arthur first called in the complaint. The McCloskeys would later say UVa doctors, not Western State, tipped off state police.
The delay was just the beginning of a problem-plagued investigation.
The story of most violent deaths is written on the body, punctuated by the bullet hole or slashing knife. But the author of John's injuries -- all internal -- had left no visible mark.
To pinpoint how and when John suffered his wounds, Pence consulted four physicians.
Dr. Jeffrey Young, the UVa surgeon who operated on John, said the hole in John's colon suggested that an object 10 to 14 inches long had been shoved up his rectum, even though the anus had shown no signs of trauma. Young put the time of injury at no earlier than Dec. 15, the day of John's arrest and commitment to Western State.
Dr. Michael Clayton, another UVa physician, said an object up the rectum would explain the colon perforation, but not the small intestine and liver damage. Those injuries were consistent with those of a car wreck victim who had slammed into a steering wheel, even though John had no external bruising. As to when, Clayton believed no earlier than Dec. 16 -- John's second day at Western State.
To Dr. David Oxley, deputy chief medical examiner for Western Virginia, it looked as if someone had hit or kicked John in the abdomen while his stomach muscles were relaxed. As to time, Oxley thought "the injuries were sustained while at Western State or shortly before he was admitted."
Months later, Dr. Marcella Fierro, Virginia's chief medical examiner, ruled that John suffered "multiple blunt-force impacts to the abdomen," most likely on Dec. 15. She didn't know how, but theorized that a "high-velocity force" had mashed John's bowel against his vertebrae.
Four different physicians. Four different theories -- none suggesting John had health problems or had hurt himself.
As Fierro would later explain, "This is the sort of case you solve on investigation, because the pathology isn't helping, because the pathology will only tell you what you already know, that there was an injury to the abdomen."
And so Pence investigated.
In the first two weeks, he questioned the deputies who arrested John. He questioned witnesses to the arrest. He questioned officers at Rockbridge Regional Jail, where John spent almost six hours, and staff at Western State Hospital. Thirty-five interviews in all.
As more people were interviewed, and as deputies' reports and Western State's medical records were obtained, a fuller, but not complete, story emerged of John's last three days spent outside a hospital room.
This is that story.
Thursday morning, Dec. 15, 1994, and the bizarre young man has shown up again at Arnold's Valley Trading Post in Natural Bridge Station. He'd come the day before and tried to buy beer, but when the clerks refused him because he had no identification, he cursed them and threw a six-pack onto the floor. By the time the deputies arrived, he was gone.
Now he's back, pouring a two-liter drink onto the floor, taking another outside and emptying it, too. He tries wiping it up with his shirt, but gives up and walks away. At the edge of the parking lot, he spins around, pulls down his pants and flashes his penis at the clerks.
One clerk, Christy Dawn Moore, calls the Sheriff's Office. Then she phones her grandfather, Calvin "Baldy" Thacker, the store's owner, who jumps into his truck and drives the three miles to his store. There, beside the road, stands the young man.
"Are you the one causing problems?" Thacker asks. Thacker grabs him by the arm and walks him back to the store.
Deputies Hugh Bolen and Richard Dudley get the call at 9:37 a.m. Same suspect as the day before: white male, about 20 years old, camouflage shorts, tie-dyed shirt, black high-tops. He is cursing at the store clerks, exposing himself, maybe has a gun.
At 9:46, the dispatcher reports the subject is starting to fight.
Bolen arrives first at 9:52. Outside the store, Thacker, Moore and a few others are eyeing a man who is standing next to an ice box.
Hand on his pistol, Bolen exits his car.
"You better have two of them f---ing guns!" the young man hollers, his right hand buried in his pocket.
Bolen draws, aims at the man's head and orders him to show both hands, which he does. Holstering his gun, Bolen approaches the suspect and turns him around. He has to push the struggling man against the ice box to cuff his wrists.
Dudley arrives at 9:54. By this time, the subject, John McCloskey, is in the back seat of Bolen's car, banging his head against the window.
The deputies move him to Dudley's car, which has a security cage separating the front and back seats. As soon as the door slams shut, John goes wild, kicking at the back windows and banging his head on the metal cage.
To keep John from hurting himself or damaging the car, the deputies cuff his feet to his handcuffs.
At 10:16, Dudley leaves with John, who is lying face down across the back seat, mumbling to himself and occasionally screaming. Twenty-two minutes and 18 miles later, Dudley pulls up to the Rockbridge Regional Jail, where John is placed in a holding cell.
Meanwhile, Bolen does a door-to-door search of the neighborhood until he finds John's mother. After learning from Rebecca McCloskey of her son's mental problems, Bolen returns to the store. He picks up Christy Moore to obtain misdemeanor warrants charging John with disorderly conduct and indecent exposure.
Weeks later, when questioned by Pence, both deputies insist they didn't harm John. The witnesses at the store tell the investigator they saw no abuse, one commenting that the deputies "acted very professional."
At 11:25 a.m., John is booked into the Rockbridge Regional Jail. For the six hours he is there, he never leaves the booking area. He is either at an interview desk in the middle of the room monitored by security cameras and guards behind a glassed-in booth, or alone in cell 211, where he is checked every few minutes.
The jail nurse notes John shows no signs of trauma.
Mark Sterling, a mental health worker called in to evaluate, writes in his report, "John was very agitated. He said he was with 3 cowboys when a man with a gun came and got him and brought him to the jail. He had the delusion that Marines were going to 'get you if you don't stop talking.' "
Sterling recommends John be sent to a psychiatric hospital "to help him be stabilized and back on his medication."
At 3:27 p.m., a magistrate signs a temporary detention order committing John to a state-run mental institution 30 miles away in Staunton -- Western State Hospital.
At 5:40 p.m. that same day, John arrives at Western State. He is given a physical examination. Temperature 98.4, pulse 80, blood pressure 142/90. Normal.
Dr. Randall Rolen checks John's eyes, ears, chest, and palpates his abdomen. Also normal. "No complaints by patient except bruises from handcuffs," Rolen writes.
Joyce Hoze is the admitting officer on duty. She later would tell state police that John "complained on numerous occasions that he had not been able to go to the bathroom in a week." Hoze would add that patients as talkative as John, who have been mistreated by police, are "very vocal about it." John had said nothing.
Instead, John laughs proudly about his confrontation with the police and cowboys. He suddenly gets up and acts like he's shooting Rolen with a shotgun.
John denies visual hallucinations, but says his mother speaks to him when he's asleep. He claims to have special power to control people's thoughts, but other people can't control him.
Diagnosis: Bipolar, manic with psychotic features. Hospitalization is appropriate, Rolen concludes. At 8:30 p.m., John is taken to the second floor, Ward B-2, and assigned a room.
B-2 is Western State's forensic ward. It typically houses about 24 patients who face criminal charges ranging from public urination to rape and murder.
In the middle of the ward are two adjoining day rooms, with a hall of 12 bedrooms branching out of each. Patients are free to roam the ward unless they act out. Then they are locked in "seclusion rooms" -- a window, a door with no inside knob, a 4-inch-thick vinyl mattress on the floor -- until they are calm.
By 9 p.m., John finds himself in such a room. He has been threatening the staff, yelling at a nurse.
Security is called. Rolen orders sedatives and seclusion for three hours.
While a patient is in seclusion, hospital policy requires staff checks every 15 minutes and that his condition be noted in "flow charts." The charts show that for the next three hours, John is tense, pacing, banging on the walls and doors. Once, he urinates on the floor. He yells at anyone who looks in on him.
By midnight, he is lying on his mattress, eyes closed, calm. At 1 a.m., his door is unlocked, but it's locked again 15 minutes later when he resumes yelling and banging on the door. More sedatives. At 2:30, he is lying on his mattress again, eyes closed and calm.
There is no flow chart notation for the next four hours -- an unexplained, yet common oversight for which Western State would be chastised in a later investigation.
Friday morning, 6:30, Dec. 16, 1994. John is lying on his mattress. He has been that way for an hour, and his door is unlocked.
At 7:30, he is let out of seclusion. Again, more yelling and "clapping fists together in threatening gesture." He's back in seclusion at 8:30, given more antipsychotics and sedatives.
At 10, a psychiatric team headed by Dr. Nickie Spears arrives to develop a treatment plan. John sits up. His movements are jerky despite the sedatives, his speech too slurred to understand.
Here's what is understandable: "I hate Clinton and Clinton hates me." "Don't call me McCloskey! Call me Chief."
Later to Pence, Spears would say that John didn't complain of any discomfort and that she doubted his psychosis and medications would have blocked him from feeling pain. A nurse would tell Pence just the opposite.
John spends most of the day in seclusion. He is released at 3:45 p.m., but he starts yelling and lashes out at a nurse. He is locked up again at 4:45. More sedatives and 15-minute checks.
He settles down by 11:30. The door is unlocked at 2:20 a.m.
There is no documentation for the next 4 1/2 hours.
Saturday morning, 6:55, Dec. 17, 1994. Nurse Peggy Climdent writes that John went to sleep at 3 a.m. Later, she writes, he bathed, took more sedatives and said "this was a good place for a young man like him to be."
There is no documentation for the next 2 1/2 hours.
At 9:30, he grabs a nurse's arm and asks her to take him "to the prison to get my coat. Just take me in the car, and we'll come right back." The nurse frees herself, and male staffers escort John to a "less stimulating environment" -- an unlocked quiet room. More drugs.
There is no documentation for the next seven hours.
At 4:55 p.m., John walks into the staff office and refuses to leave. He is "unmanageable," and is taken to seclusion.
He yells, curses and bangs on the door until 9:45, when he lies down and is calm. At 10:15, he is asleep and the door is unlocked.
There is no documentation for the next seven hours.
Sunday morning, 5:30, Dec. 18, 1994. Nurse Linda Mitchell writes that John has been up several times, wanting to smoke and make a phone call.
At 6:30, he is talking to staff and is "very cooperative." His vitals at this hour: temperature 97.6, pulse 98 beats a minute, respiration 24 breaths a minute, blood pressure 110/68.
Then at 9:10: "Oh my God, I've got to s--- and I can't! Don't anyone touch me!"
He is lying on the floor, holding his stomach. He has vomited three times, the staff notes. His temperature now: 99.2.
The psychiatrist on call, Dr. Tim Kane, orders a rectal suppository. An hour later, John expels "small, formed feces."
At 11:45, his temperature is 100.2, pulse up to 116. Decreased bowel sounds, and his abdomen appears distended. He keeps vomiting "brown-tinged phlegm" -- fecal matter.
At 12:45 p.m., he's put in ankle restraints and taken to the hospital's medical center. Abdominal X-rays are taken. Kane notes the film doesn't show any free air, which would indicate a hole in the intestine requiring immediate surgery. Kane sees a "large amount of stool & gas throughout large intestine," suspects constipation, and orders a soapsuds enema at 1:30.
(Doctors would later determine that Kane misread the X-ray. There was free air, there was a hole in the colon, and the enema only helped flush fecal matter out into the abdomen.)
At 2:45, John is still vomiting dark-brown mucous liquid. His vitals at 3 p.m.: temperature 100.7, pulse still high at 100, breathing rate up to 60, blood pressure 110/60.
At 3:45, he's put back into ankle restraints, loaded into a security van and taken to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. For the hour-long trip, he is seated and calm.
He arrives at 4:45 and is rushed into exploratory surgery. He will never recover.
The 22 staff members interviewed by Virginia State Police said they never saw John being abused. No one heard him complain of being injured, until the van ride to UVa.
In what would become the most incriminating evidence gathered by Pence in the Western State interviews, a security officer, Shawn Brown, said that as he helped John into the van, John asked, "You're not going to beat me like the men in brown suits?"
The brown suits, to Pence, meant the deputies.
A bedside interview
In the year that followed, the investigation advanced fitfully.
In April 1995, Pence obtained accident reports from Carlisle, Pa., where John had been in two car wrecks in the fall of 1994. Pence sent these and all other reports to Fierro, the state's chief medical examiner. In May, Fierro concluded that "multiple blunt-force impacts to the abdomen," not the car wrecks, caused his injuries.
After a meeting with the medical examiner, Pence informed superiors that Fierro "advised the injuries could have and most likely came from someone holding the victim down on his back with their knee pressed in the stomach with the victim struggling."
(Fierro would later say this wasn't her theory. "I wouldn't begin to speculate on a position," she said. "So often you're asked, 'Is that possible?' and you say yes, and the next thing you know that's translated into how it happened.")
In September, Pence returned to Rockbridge County to interview the store owner, Baldy Thacker, and an employee he hadn't questioned before, Silas Foster.
In his first interview, Deputy Dudley had mentioned that Thacker had said "he had to hold him [John] down until our arrival." Had Thacker done anything violent?
To Pence, Thacker again said the deputies had done no wrong, that they "went out of their way not to hurt the boy." As for his own actions, Thacker said all he did was stand in John's way when he tried to walk off before the deputies arrived.
Foster told the investigator he never saw Thacker touch the boy. As for the deputies, Foster said, he "felt they treated him very nice for the way he was acting."
Another round of interviews, and still no suspects.
The mysterious cause of John's injuries wasn't the only obstacle Pence faced. From the beginning, he hadn't been able to question perhaps his most important witness -- the victim, John McCloskey.
Doctors hadn't expected John to survive his first night at UVa. In the year that followed, John's injuries had kept him confined to his bed, where he'd drifted in and out of consciousness, and from surgery to surgery. The breathing tube down his throat kept him from speaking, and his damaged brain and body allowed him to communicate, in the best of times, only with his eyes -- one blink yes, two blinks no.
But in December 1995, John's mother called Pence to say her son could finally speak. What he could remember, and the reliability of his recollections, was another story.
On Dec. 15, 1995 -- exactly one year after John's arrest -- Pence went to the hospital, donned mask and gown, and questioned John alone in his room.
In the 15-minute interview, John lay motionless and spoke with difficulty, Pence noted. His speech was slurred, sometimes incomprehensible, and of that year-ago day, he remembered nothing about Western State.
"Do you remember anyone hurting you?" Pence began.
"You don't remember?" Pence asked, apparently not understanding John's answer.
"They were rough with me," John answered.
"Who was rough with you, the deputies or who?"
John: "Yeah, the deputies."
Later, Pence asked, "Did anyone do anything to you?"
"I don't remember."
"You don't remember? You can't remember anybody hurting you?"
"I felt a large push. It knocked the wind out of me."
"Before they cuffed you?"
"You felt a large push and they knocked the wind out of you?"
"When was that, John?"
"At the store."
"At the store . . . and was that somebody that worked at the store, or was that one of the policemen?"
"No, a deputy."
On Feb. 7, 1996, less than two months after interviewing John, Pence shared his findings about the deputies with Rockbridge County's new commonwealth's attorney, Gordon Saunders.
From all he had heard, Saunders believed Western State should have been viewed as the likely place of the assault. True, the victim had implicated the deputies, but Saunders doubted John's mental health and believed Pence had asked leading questions; indeed, the investigator was the first to mention "deputies."
After Pence presented his case, Saunders decided there wasn't enough evidence to accuse anyone of the assault.
"When I saw all that, it just didn't amount to anything," Saunders would later say.
On Feb. 15, Pence closed his investigation "after consultation with the Rockbridge County Commonwealth's Attorney, who declined prosecution."
Nine days later, he would have to reopen it. On Feb. 24, 1996, John McCloskey died.
All Fingers Point Elsewhere
After a year of investigating, Virginia State Police Special Agent Gary Pence had failed to finger a suspect in the assault of John McCloskey.
He had interviewed the Rockbridge County deputies who arrested the mentally ill teen-ager Dec. 15, 1994. He had interviewed people who witnessed the arrest. And he'd interviewed staff at Western State Hospital in Staunton, the state-run mental facility where John lived until Dec. 18 when he awoke violently ill from severe abdominal injuries.
All with no results. Indeed, Pence had never determined exactly how John had been hurt.
Vicious beating? Rectal assault? Or an accident?
In February 1996, Pence closed the case unsolved.
Then John died, after an agonizing 14 months of hospitalization. Sixteen months later, in June 1997, the state medical examiner's office finally finished the autopsy.
Type of death: Homicide.
Time of injuries: Undetermined.
Cause of injuries: Unknown.
The autopsy yielded more questions than answers. One thing was certain: Agent Pence now had a murder case on his hands.
'Guarding the guardians'
In addition to the autopsy, four incidents converged in the summer of 1997 that potentially would affect the McCloskey case.
On July 7, a Western State patient named Maura Patten died in her bed of heart disease, five days after she'd told her sister she feared she was dying. The sister had asked the hospital to examine Patten, but her request was ignored. A subsequent investigation found that Patten's death resulted in large part from the hospital's failure to promptly evaluate her complaints.
(Just Thursday, her brother filed a $6 million lawsuit against the state, alleging gross negligence by doctors, nurses and administrators at Western State.)
Also in July, the state appointed a psychiatric care expert to inspect its mental hospitals, in response to a U.S. Department of Justice report that alleged numerous incidents of patient abuse and neglect. The expert concluded that Western State was dangerously understaffed and relied excessively on drugs, seclusion and restraints.
Then in late July, a new witness emerged in the McCloskey case. A Western State X-ray technician named Edna Fitch came forward to say she had recalled a conversation she'd had with John on Dec. 18, 1994, the day his injuries first arose. The 2 1/2-year-old memory surfaced, Fitch said, after she read a newspaper article about John's autopsy.
"I cannot recall his exact words," she wrote in her statement, "but Mr. McCloskey indicated that he had been injured before he came into Western State Hospital. He mentioned that he had been arrested by the police."
Finally, in September, the FBI opened an investigation into John's death at the request of the McCloskeys' attorney, Jonathan Rogers of Roanoke. Rogers had come to believe the assault occurred at Western State, but suspected that Virginia State Police had turned a blind eye to the hospital, because both agencies are part of state government.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruth Plagenhoef said as much when later asked why federal authorities investigate cases worked by state police. "It's probably because there's a little bit of Owho's guarding the guardians.¹ ²
As federal agents started their work on the case, Pence, of the state police, returned to Rockbridge County, seemingly convinced that what had happened to John had happened during his arrest at Arnold's Valley Trading Post in Natural Bridge Station.
As he noted in his file, "it appears more happened at the store tha[n] what witnesses are saying."
Again, store owner Calvin "Baldy" Thacker and an employee who witnessed the arrest, Silas Foster, were questioned. Again, both men said the deputies didn't hurt John.
"The state police tried to push me into saying" the deputies hurt John, Thacker said recently when asked about the interview. "I'll get onto any stand in any court and tell the same thing: The law did not hit him in my presence."
Pence also asked the two deputies -- Hugh Bolen, still with the Sheriff's Office, and Richard Dudley, who had since become a truck driver -- to take lie-detector tests. By this time, the deputies were suspicious of the state police investigation and refused.
"There was enough evidence to show it didn't happen at Rockbridge County," Dudley would later explain to The Roanoke Times. "When me and Deputy Bolen dropped him off, there was nothing wrong with the kid. . . . It seems like to me they [state police] were taking their sweet time and harassing me and Deputy Bolen about the whole thing and not looking at other people."
The other people, in Dudley's eyes, were at Western State. From his talks with Pence, "I just got the feeling nobody down there had ever been questioned. It just seemed like we were singled out."
As for the lie-detector, Dudley said his years in police work have made him distrust the tests, whose results, he noted, still aren't admissible in court.
Bolen declined to speak publicly about the McCloskey case, referring questions to Sheriff Bob Day.
"There's no reason to polygraph this guy," Day said recently. The sheriff pointed out that, after Bolen arrested John, he "went out of his way" to search the neighborhood until he found John's mother to inquire about John's mental health.
"If I thought either of these two guys were involved, I'd be fighting just as hard to put them in prison," said Day, adding that neither had ever been accused of excessive force.
He, too, wondered how thoroughly the state police had investigated Western State.
"I'd like to see the names of the people that they interviewed . . . and how much time they spent with them," he said. "It's been a strange and different way of working a case."
In fact, 22 Western State employees were interviewed, but just once, in January 1995, the first week of the investigation. Meanwhile, Rockbridge County deputies and witnesses to the arrest were interrogated two or three times and asked to take lie-detector tests. And at no time did state police interview any patients -- all of whom faced criminal charges -- about what they might have seen, or done.
Rogers, the McCloskeys' attorney, further questioned the seriousness of the Western State interviews.
"The interviews are kind of surface interviews," he said. "I mean, there are a lot of them, but there are not a lot of questions asked of these people. And he [Pence] did not take an adversary position with them. He just seemed to be more of a recorder of what they said rather than somebody who was trying to probe deeper.
"But, granted," Rogers added, "it's a difficult case. And whether that would have made a difference or not, at this time, it's impossible for me to say."
Pence referred questions to Capt. Larry Burchett, who oversees all state police criminal investigations.
To suggest investigators shied away from Western State "is absolutely beyond belief, ludicrous and just plain false," Burchett said.
"We just go ask all the questions we can, and when we feel like we've got all the answers we can, we quit. If there was a reason or any indication that someone else should have been offered a polygraph, we would have offered it. We're not bashful about that."
Patients weren't interviewed, Burchett suspects, because "there was no indication any of them had ever seen anything."
"We don't have anything to defend. If they have some allegations they want to make, let them make them. We're just going out there to do our jobs."
State reports to state
Sheriff Day has never heard the outcome of the state police investigation. For that matter, neither have the McCloskeys, who last heard from Pence in late 1995 when he interviewed John in his hospital room.
And neither has Rockbridge County Commonwealth's Attorney Gordon Saunders, whom Pence consulted in February 1996, just before John died, to see if the deputies or store witnesses should be charged. Saunders last heard from the investigator in summer 1997 about his plans to reinterview the deputies and store witnesses.
"It is, I would say, unusual that there would be this period of time that has passed without anything, any follow-up with me," Saunders said earlier this year.
Indeed, Saunders had never seen John's autopsy report or state police investigative summaries until shown them by The Roanoke Times.
Still, Saunders admitted, it was a tough case, with scant forensic evidence and no witnesses. The only way to solve it, he believed, would be if someone confessed.
But while Rockbridge County authorities say they were left uninformed, state agencies stayed fully apprised of the investigation.
Throughout the investigation, regular calls and letters were exchanged by Virginia State Police, Western State and the state attorney general's office, which would have to defend the hospital in court if the McCloskeys filed a lawsuit.
In an internal memo dated Feb. 27, 1996 -- three days after John's death -- Western State Director Lynwood Harding wrote, "Mr. Pence has indicated that as far as his office is concerned, the case is closed. Apparently there will be a final autopsy report, and we will attempt to obtain a copy of the medical examiner's conclusions and final death summary. Assistant Attorney General Garland Bigley has been working with us on this case."
A year later, in response to Jonathan Rogers' request for a federal investigation into Western State, the attorney general's office wrote the U.S. Department of Justice, "The hospital and State Police thoroughly investigated the injuries that Mr. McCloskey sustained and determined that he was not injured at Western State Hospital."
In March 1997, state police forwarded a summary of its investigation to Dr. Timothy Kelly, then the commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services, and to Bigley in the attorney general's office. The state police cover letter ended with, "Please be assured of our desire to cooperate in all matters of mutual interest."
Then there is the mysterious news release.
In September 1997, a few months after John's death was ruled a murder, someone leaked John's Western State records to Doug Harwood, editor of the alternative monthly Rockbridge Advocate.
Harwood decided to publish the records, pointing out that no documentation existed for several hours of John's hospitalization. As he prepared his article, Harwood called Harding, Western State's director, for a response.
According to Harwood, the director said he couldn't comment on the case, but that he could fax a news story "all ready to run."
"He told me it even had a headline already on it," Harwood recalled, ³ OWe've done your work for you¹ is what he said, which I thought was mighty nice of him."
The headline read, "Evidence in the John McClosky Homicide Case Points Toward Rockbridge Deputies."
The unsigned, two-page release quoted Pence's state police reports and referred to a meeting between investigators and the medical examiner's office.
"Sources close to the investigation," the release stated, said that tissue samples taken during John's first surgery and at his autopsy showed his injuries had been healing at least 72 hours before he arrived at UVa.
"This new evidence seems to confirm the suspicions of the State Special Investigator [Pence], who concluded that the injuries occurred before admission to Western State Hospital while Mr. McClosky was in Rockbridge County and likely while in the custody of the Rockbridge County Sheriff's Office," the release stated.
"According to Assistant Attorney General Garland Bigley, extensive investigation by Hospital Staff, local advocates, State Police and State Central Office Staff have uncovered no evidence linking Western State Hospital Staff to McClosky's injuries."
Harding has denied authoring the release, and no one has ever claimed responsibility.
But if Pence uncovered no evidence linking hospital staff to John's injuries, he did find evidence placing the injuries at Western State.
In December 1997, he and one of the FBI agents assigned to the case called on a Charlottesville forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Robert S. Brown Jr., to get a fresh perspective. Brown's findings: John's injuries had to have happened at Western State.
A photograph of John taken when he was admitted to the hospital showed a healthy young man, Brown observed, not someone suffering severe abdominal injuries. Lab results of John's blood, drawn 14 hours after he arrived at Western State, were normal. Had John already been injured, Brown said, his liver enzyme level and blood cell count would have been elevated.
As to the cause of the injuries, Brown proposed a new theory, according to Pence's follow-up report. Brown noticed that John was agitated and verbally abusive at Western State and spent most of his time in seclusion, where he frequently banged on the door.
According to Pence's report, Brown believed there was "a strong possibility" John injured himself, either by throwing his body against the door, or holding one end of a rolled-up mattress against his body and ramming the other end against the door.
But according to Brown, Pence's report overstated his opinion.
"Please don't get the idea I've reviewed this case thoroughly," Brown said recently. "I've just suggested another place for them to investigate. . . . I had no idea that there was a mat that was rolled up or could have been rolled up and used."
Virginia's chief medical examiner, Dr. Marcella Fierro, whom Pence consulted early in his investigation, was asked by The Roanoke Times to review Brown's findings about the blood tests -- results she said state police had never shown her.
"I wouldn't hang my hat on a single test," Fierro said.
While the liver enzyme and blood cell levels suggest John hadn't yet been injured, Fierro pointed to other lab figures that "can be a marker of infection." Furthermore, she said that specimens of tissue surrounding the hole in John's colon, taken Dec. 18, 1994, the day his injuries first appeared, show a healing process that had been going on for days to possibly a week, putting the injury well before Western State.
"There's no good medical way to tell whether he got his injury after he got there or before he got there, and I think that has been our continuing issue all along," she said.
Still, a few weeks after he spoke with Brown, Pence telephoned Bigley, the assistant attorney general, about the psychiatrist's theory of self-inflicted injuries and told Bigley "it would cost between $3,000 and $5,000 for Dr. Brown to research the injuries and be able to make a conclusion and testify to this fact in court."
The Brown interview was telling, in the eyes of attorney Jonathan Rogers, because it proved a pattern in Pence's thinking: that John McCloskey could not have been assaulted at Western State.
Rogers noted that the investigator's first inquiry concerned store owner Thacker, and whether he hurt John before deputies arrived. Next, scrutiny focused on the deputies themselves. Finally, when Brown concluded the injuries had to have occurred at Western State, Pence wrote in his report that John must have hurt himself. This, despite the findings of every other medical doctor that the injuries couldn't have been self-inflicted.
Pence was an officer caught in a dilemma, Rogers claimed. "He did want to solve it, but he apparently did not want it to lead -- he was hoping it would not lead -- into certain directions, and in fact was trying to get a credible scenario that might explain it without any state agents being culpable."
Conflicting evidence, not a conflict of interest, hampered Pence, countered Capt. Burchett.
"There was no planned conspiracy that we just avoided talking to people at Western State," Burchett said. "I don't think there's a scintilla of evidence at this point that somebody willfully beat this kid up and killed him. We can't say that any more than we can say he did it to himself. Beyond that, it's just opinion, and everybody's got one of those."
The state police investigation is now closed. Unsolved, and no arrests.
The federal inquiry has ended as well. In November 1998, after reviewing the FBI report, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Roanoke recommended to the Justice Department's civil rights division that no one be prosecuted, though the department has yet to make its final decision. Plagenhoef, with the U.S. Attorney's Office, said she was not at liberty to discuss the reasons for her office's decision.
One curious footnote to the FBI investigation:
In the fall of 1998, agent Paul Hunt of the FBI's Roanoke office called Sheriff Day. According to Day, Hunt said he had a letter that stated John suffered from a rare tissue disease that left his organs very fragile. John suffered his injuries, the letter alleged, when Deputy Bolen pushed John against an ice box to handcuff him.
"I just don't think it happened this way," Day said.
Hunt would later confirm the letter's existence, but said he had mistakenly mentioned it to Day and couldn't reveal its contents or its source.
The Justice Department is still inspecting Western State as part of its investigation into all of Virginia's mental institutions. The focus is not on John McCloskey's death, but on "systemic problems in the current hospital structure," investigator David Deutsch said. That report is expected at any time.
Faced with the failure of all the official investigations, the McCloskeys have been left to find the truth for themselves.
Seeking Closure in Court
Before his son's emergency surgery in December 1994, Pete McCloskey had never heard of a perforated colon.
His encyclopedia told him that the perforation, or hole, was usually caused by a burst ulcer. A medical malfunction. An accident.
But the next morning at the hospital, a doctor pulled Pete aside and asked whether John had any homosexual tendencies.
"No!" Pete declared.
Well, the doctor continued, this did not just happen. Somebody did something to him. Sexually assaulted him. Maybe Pete should get a lawyer.
Pete met with some attorneys, but none seemed interested. Then in April 1995, he drove from his Fishersville home to Roanoke to see another.
He'd heard that Jonathan Rogers had a cowboy reputation, less for the bleached steer skulls adorning his office than for his willingness to wrangle with police and the state in court.
Pete told the lawyer of his son's torture, and of the surgeon's theory that the attack occurred sometime while John was in custody of the Rockbridge County Sheriff's Office or Western State Hospital in Staunton.
Pete had few facts, but Rogers agreed to take the case.
"I don't care which one is responsible," the lawyer told Pete. "I'm not afraid to go up against any of them."
In the end, after John died and investigations by the Virginia State Police and the FBI yielded nothing, Rogers would settle on just one suspect: Western State.
If the McCloskeys' frustration could be traced to two sources, they would be these - that their son died a horrible death, and no one was ever held responsible.
Jonathan Rogers soon shared their feelings.
"I have never had a case that was so difficult in terms of getting facts," he would later explain.
He met his client just once, in January 1996 in his room at the University of Virginia Medical Center. John, then 19, had only recently learned to talk again, after living for months with a breathing tube that had kept him from speaking. His body was bloated, his voice high-pitched, and a gruesome hole filled the space where his stomach should have been.
"Do you know what happened to you?" Rogers asked.
John made an unintelligible noise and pointed to the wall. Hanging there was a framed photograph of a slender young man with dark eyes and shoulder-length black hair. A handsome kid, Rogers thought, nothing like the pitiful wretch lying on the bed.
Rogers left that day shaken, but believing they'd have another chance to talk. That never happened. John died a month later.
John's strange injuries further complicated the case. State police had produced five different theories, from severe beating to rectal assault. One psychiatrist even suggested John had inflicted the injuries himself, though that theory was discredited by other physicians.
Even Dr. Jeffrey Young, the UVa surgeon who first suspected someone had jammed something up his rectum, now indicated that a tremendous blunt force -- such as a man falling onto John's relaxed stomach -- could explain the injuries. And, Young added, it might have occurred as long as five days before John arrived at UVa - two days before the arrest.
Helping Rogers was Jim Davis, a Richmond lawyer for Teamsters Joint Council No. 83. The truck drivers' union, to which Pete McCloskey belonged, hoped to recoup the $558,000 it had paid for John's hospitalization.
Together, the lawyers hired a private investigator, Richard King of Fincastle, who went to work in April 1996, soon after state police closed the case as unsolved.
State police had focused mainly on the Rockbridge County deputies, partly because of a hospital interview in which John said the deputies had been "rough" with him, that he'd "felt a large push" to his stomach that knocked the wind out of him. But John had no memory of Western State, and, considering Rogers' own fruitless interview with the boy, the lawyer believed, "Even at best, he would have been a very inaccurate historian."
King interviewed the Rockbridge sheriff and the convenience store clerks who witnessed John's arrest on Dec. 15, 1994, and found no hint the deputies had harmed the teen-ager. Instead, King learned that one deputy had taken time to track down John's mother after the arrest to learn more about his mental illness.
From Western State records, King noted that John had passed a physical exam when he arrived the night of Dec. 15. His only complaint had been some bruising from the handcuffs. John didn't complain of stomach pain until the morning of Dec. 18 - 65 hours after his admission. Western State had no documentation for 15 of those hours.
"We do have to realize that John was aggressive, used extremely abusive language . . . and had frequent loud, uncontrolled outbursts while at the hospital," King later wrote Rogers. "He easily could have angered an employee or possibly another patient."
In late 1996, Davis wrote Western State director Lynwood Harding and then-Attorney General Jim Gilmore's office, seeking a settlement to avoid litigation. The state said its internal investigation had uncovered no wrongdoing and refused to settle.
Filed Feb. 20, 1998, in U.S. District Court in Roanoke, the lawsuit grabbed headlines statewide.
Sometime during the three days that John W. McCloskey was a patient at Western State Hospital, the lawsuit claimed, two unknown staff members attacked him and jabbed "a broomlike handle up his rectum," tearing apart his colon, small intestine and liver.
After John began screaming in pain and vomiting his own feces, the lawsuit continued, a state psychiatrist, Dr. Tim Kane, remained "deliberately indifferent," prescribing an enema that only helped flush toxic fecal matter through a hole in his torn colon into the abdominal cavity.
The assailants' actions "were subsequently ratified" by Harding and the state "by their intentional cover-up of the assaults and batteries," the lawsuit alleged.
To compensate Pete and Rebecca McCloskey -- whose son lingered in agony for 14 months before dying Feb. 24, 1996 - and to punish the perpetrators, the lawsuit sought $10 million.
The first fight over the lawsuit occurred not in court, however, but at the doorstep of the Miller administration building at Western State. A hospital official refused to accept the papers from the process server hired by Rogers to hand-deliver the lawsuit.
The standoff was a first for the server, Shelby Alcorn, of Roanoke-based Pro Serv. From her car, she called Rogers, who told her to leave the paperwork at the front door. Back inside, Alcorn went up to the official, who'd just gotten off the phone with the commonwealth attorney's office, and thrust the papers in her arms.
"There, you're served," she said, then ran from the building. With the official in pursuit, Alcorn jumped into her car, which she'd left running, and sped away.
Eventually, the state chose a more traditional battle plan. In a motion to dismiss, lawyers with now-Attorney General Mark Earley's office argued that the state and its agencies couldn't be sued by citizens in federal court. After a hearing on this issue in September 1998, Rogers was allowed to file an amended complaint.
He took full advantage of the opportunity.
Richard King had spent the summer of 1998 doing something Virginia State Police had never done in its three-year investigation -- interview security officers from Western State.
From the now-retired guards, King learned that the forensic ward, B-2, where John was kept those three days, housed about 24 patients who faced a variety of criminal charges, a few as serious as rape or murder. But some nights, only two aides staffed the ward while one guard patrolled the campus.
The guards who spoke to King insisted the staff would not have harmed John; far angrier, louder and sicker patients had walked the halls before. But the patients, King quoted them as saying, would react violently to insults and "could have purposefully distracted personnel or taken advantage of a ward distraction to get to McCloskey."
But in a more recent interview with The Roanoke Times, one of the former officers, John Barker, said he doubted John McCloskey's assault could have occurred at Western State.
"There would have been some kind of sounds or hollering, and the staff is right there," Barker said.
Still, Barker admits he suffered a broken wrist, bruised ribs, scratches, bites, kicks and sprains on the job, all from patients.
Also in summer 1998, now-Gov. Jim Gilmore released a report by a Massachusetts psychiatric care expert, Dr. Jeffrey Geller, who had inspected all of the state's mental facilities.
Geller's report criticized Western State for "frequently not meeting its own staffing standards, which really are minimal standards. On some occasions when it is out of compliance with its own standards, it actually is staffed at dangerous levels."
With these developments in mind, Rogers filed his new lawsuit Oct. 30, 1998. He omitted the state and Western State as defendants, but left in Harding, Kane and "unknown agents 1 and 2."
The two unknown agents either inflicted the injuries (Rogers theorized it took at least two: one to hold John down while the other wielded the instrument), or failed to adequately protect him.
Harding knew the hospital was dangerously understaffed, the suit alleged, yet "helpless, restrained and overmedicated patients" were placed beside murderers and rapists.
Again, the state objected. Rogers had waited too long to raise the new theory, the state claimed, because he hadn't filed the amended complaint before the statute of limitations expired - in John's case, by Feb. 24, 1998, two years after his death. And again, the state moved for the lawsuit to be dismissed.
'A tragic thing'
The hearing was held Feb. 18, 1999.
Inside the second-floor courtroom of the Poff Federal Building in Roanoke, Pete and Rebecca McCloskey sat silently, their chins propped on prayerfully clasped hands, as Rogers scribbled a few final notes before the hearing began.
The case had been assigned to U.S. District Judge James Turk. When the affable 75-year-old judge took the bench that day, he sidestepped the legal briefs and homed in on the heart of the case.
"What did the doctors at UVa say?" he asked.
At the lectern stood Assistant Attorney General Ann Berkebile. "As far as I understand the evidence as it is now, there has not been a definitive -- several different doctors have said several different things."
Turk leaned forward. "It's a tragic thing, isn't it?"
"Definitely, your honor. Definitely."
"Yes it is," Turk added.
"And he'd had a tragic life," Berkebile said. "He had had some severe mental problems."
Still, she said, the lawsuit should be dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
"Nothing prevented them from filing suit soon after he died," she said, adding later, "It's now been four years . . . since he was even at the facility, and they have not even named the defendants."
When Rogers stepped up, he admitted he had no proof an employee had assaulted John, just of "employees allowing this to happen."
He disputed Berkebile's characterization that John's life was tragic. "He was doing very well, had graduated school."
"High school?" Turk asked.
"Second honor roll," Rebecca piped up.
A few minutes later, Turk pondered aloud whether the injuries were self-inflicted.
"I've heard doctors talk about being in the emergency room and, you know, people came in and they had inserted Coke bottles up the rectum and this kind of thing," he said.
"Your honor," Berkebile said, "anything is possible."
A week later, Turk issued his order. The lawsuit would not be dismissed at this stage, but the state could try again once Rogers finished his discovery -- the court's fact-finding process that includes issuing subpoenas and taking depositions.
On March 11, Rogers began that process. He filed papers seeking, among other things, all Western State documents mentioning John McCloskey; a list of patients housed with John on B-2; all assault, rape or suspicious-death complaints involving staff or patients from 1980 to 1996; and all reports of brooms or other broomlike devices left unsecured from 1990 to 1996.
The state immediately moved to quash the subpoena.
Rogers already had John's complete medical record and the state police investigative file, Berkebile wrote in her brief. "He is now attempting to engage in an inappropriate, overly broad and unduly burdensome fishing expedition, which should be prohibited by this Court."
On April 20, lawyers for both sides again appeared before Turk to hammer out what papers Rogers would and would not be allowed to get.
Citing privacy concerns, Berkebile first objected to releasing patient lists.
Turk thought differently. "It seems to me he'd be entitled to go and talk to them to find out, 'Did you see anything that happened to Mr. McCloskey?' It seems to me if state police were doing an investigation, they would have interviewed the patients."
Then, without any of the evidence before him, Turk said, "My feeling is he was probably injured before he came to Western State."
Rogers' eyes widened briefly, but he focused his response on state police. "I think they did a very cursory investigation, considering the gravity of the situation."
"This is not a cover-up," Berkebile shot back.
Again, Turk said Rogers should have the list, adding ominously, "He might hit a dead end."
Murmured Rogers, "I might. I might."
Berkebile's next objection concerned Rogers' wish to see any internal investigation reports on John's injuries. For years, Western State and the attorney general's office had said the hospital had made a thorough internal inquiry apart from the state police.
Before Turk, though, Berkebile admitted this wasn't so. "You use the term 'investigation.' Loosely, there was a review of Mr. McCloskey's stay at the hospital and a report furnished to Director Harding." Dr. Geller, the Massachusetts consultant, was also "asked to review Mr. McCloskey's record," she added, when he visited in September 1997, almost three years after John was there.
Still, Berkebile objected. If state agencies suspect they one day may be required to turn over internal reports, they "are going to be discouraged from doing this kind of thing." But then, in an apparent contradiction, she insisted Rogers had "access to everything the hospital has access to."
"How do I know that?" Rogers asked. "We're adversaries. How do I know that?"
Turk ordered the reports turned over, but instructed Rogers to keep them confidential.
Again, the judge added, "I don't think it's going to help you."
"I don't think so, either," Rogers answered. "I think it will help them."
And then Rogers paused. The hearing was near an end. He looked at the papers before him, then began telling the judge of his plans for the case and the frustrations he felt. He would review every document he could get his hands on. He would question everyone who might know something about the assault. And in the end, if, after doing all he could, he realized he could do nothing else, he would tell the McCloskeys it was time to call it quits and try to get on with their lives.
"I know what I'm convinced of," he said. "But I don't know if I can prove it."
And there the case stands - unsettled, full of questions, like the death that brought it into being.
Jonathan Rogers is now putting together a list of witnesses to depose. He will start with the nurse and doctor who examined John when he arrived at Western State, then turn to the aides present on John's last night at the hospital - the night Rogers believes the assault occurred. Next will come some patients who also were there. He plans to begin depositions in August.
At Western State, Lynwood Harding stepped down as director in September 1998 and was replaced by the former chief of staff, Dr. Jack Barber. Because of the litigation, hospital officials wouldn't discuss any aspect of the John McCloskey case. Neither would nurses nor psychiatric aides when telephoned at home.
Western State will, however, open its doors to anyone who wishes to inspect its facility.
On a recent spring day, as the sun shone warmly on greening fields and birds chirped in budding trees, John Beghtol, director of community services, led a tour of the sprawling campus.
Along the way, he spoke of the hospital's declining rolls, from 1,354 patients in 1977 to 330 today. The hospital is understaffed, he said, but this will be fixed now that Gov. Gilmore has pledged $7 million to hire 41 nurses and discharge 59 patients into community service programs.
Inside the Pettus Building, which houses criminal Ward B-2, Beghtol introduced several staff members who treated John during his short stay. "Can't talk McCloskey," he cautioned each time.
Debbie Armstrong, on staff 22 years, and Janet Peterson, 24 years, insisted the hospital offers excellent care and is on the cutting edge of mental health treatment.
"I would not hesitate to put a family member here," Peterson said. "There are going to be deaths, there are going to be accidents, there are going to be suicides. Nobody ever publishes the suicides we prevent."
Added Armstrong, "If we ran a hospital for just heart patients, if somebody died, nobody would look at it. People do die from mental illness."
But mental illness didn't kill John McCloskey. What did is a mystery.
Inside her attic apartment in Carlisle, Pa., Julie McCloskey wipes away her tears.
"A lot of sadness," is how she describes her family now that her older brother is gone. "It's gotten better, but I think there's not going to be any closure or anything until this lawsuit's over with. I just hope and pray to God that Jonathan wins this case, because I want somebody to pay."
Now 22, she wears her brother's memory on the flesh of her ankle. A cross tattoo with John's initials and the years of his birth and death.
On each anniversary of his death, she pens a poem to her brother and pays for its publication in The Sentinel, Carlisle's newspaper. So far, she has written three.
The same tattoo is etched on the right arm of Joey McCloskey, the youngest child and now the only son. Inside his mobile home in Carlisle, he has only one picture hanging on the walls. John's.
"I still think he's with us. I'm not really into the whole religion thing like a lot of people are, but I still feel he's with us. He's there for us. Just that I can . . . like during a hard time, I can just sit and reminisce."
Several miles to the south, near fields of corn and alfalfa that ripple in the summer wind, on a hill that overlooks a dairy farm with the South Mountains rolling to the horizon, is the Huntsdale Church of the Brethren cemetery. Few cars go by, few birds sing. It is a quiet place, peaceful.
Every week or so, Joanne McCloskey Keck comes here to visit her brother's grave. She brings along her 2-year-old daughter, Kady, who squeals as she climbs over the headstone, "Uncle John! Uncle John!"
On a special day like Christmas or Thanksgiving, or the anniversary of his death, Joanne places a bouquet of flowers against the headstone. The tattoo needles scared her, so this is her way of remembering.
You will find flowers there today. Today, John McCloskey would have turned 23.
After her son's death, Rebecca McCloskey returned to Pennsylvania for a few months to live with her children. Virginia had become too painful for her. She is now back in Fishersville with her husband, in the apartment they first rented years ago to be closer to the Charlottesville hospital.
On Thanksgivings, they set an extra plate on the table and fill it up for John, and at Christmas there are gifts for him under the tree.
"I keep his memory alive," she said. "I don't care what other people think of me. I just try to pretend he's with us."
Pete McCloskey spends most days on the road, hauling loads for Yellow Freight. The road recently took him to New York at the beginning of the trial of five police officers accused of sodomizing a Haitian immigrant with a wooden stick.
"It's sad what happened to that Haitian guy," Pete would later say, "but at least they got who did it, and he's still alive. We got none of that."
Born in the Philippines, Rebecca has no family or close friends in Virginia, and she's never learned to drive. So while Pete trucks to Charlotte or Atlanta or maybe St. Louis, she spends her days talking on the phone to her children. Sometimes she strolls around the complex's parking lot. But mostly, she sits alone, waiting for Pete and thinking of her far-away home, and of her dead son.
"Even right now, I'm still hoping John will walk in the door and say hi to me."
That is how Pete finds his wife when he gets home. Sitting, waiting.
Family Continues to Search for Son's Killer
A Lynchburg group has offered a reward.
An FBI agent threatened to shred a subpoena.
And state and national advocates for the mentally ill are outraged.
Such has been the response to the story of John McCloskey, a Rockbridge County teen-ager fatally assaulted in 1994 while in custody of either the county sheriff's office or Western State Hospital. Virginia State Police have never solved the case.
Hoping to reignite interest in the case, the Lynchburg Depressive Disorders Association announced a $1,000 reward last week for information leading to the attacker's arrest and conviction.
"And we would hope other groups would join us," said the association's president, Phil Theisen.
Other mental health advocates are focusing on the state police's failed investigation and the state's lack of an independent agency to investigate allegations of abuse at state mental hospitals. Virginia's official watchdog, the Department for the Rights of Virginians with Disabilities, never investigated McCloskey's case because it wasn't reported.
"Where the hell is our watchdog when someone has been brutalized horribly?" asked Valerie Marsh, executive director for the Virginia Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "They have federal authority. They don't have to be asked to take a case. They should be there to know about them."
DRVD's managing attorney, Clyde Matthews, declined to comment last week, but said earlier this year that "we have no systematic way of having these [cases] reported to us."
John McCloskey, a manic-depressive 18-year-old who had just moved to Virginia, was arrested by Rockbridge County deputies for indecent exposure Dec. 15, 1994. That evening, he was committed to Western State Hospital in Staunton. Three days later, he was rushed to a Charlottesville hospital suffering from a ruptured liver and torn intestines. Doctors say someone at the sheriff's office or state mental institution had seriously beaten him or shoved a stick up his rectum. McCloskey eventually died after an agonizing 14-month hospitalization.
An investigation by the Virginia State Police led nowhere, in part, because no one could pinpoint exactly how and when McCloskey was hurt. His family and attorney, Jonathan Rogers of Roanoke, believing state police didn't investigate Western State thoroughly because both are part of state government, asked the FBI to open a case. It, too, failed to identify a suspect.
Now Rogers is the only one left seeking answers. He blames Western State because McCloskey passed a physical exam on his admission, and has filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against the hospital staff. The attorney general's office is defending the lawsuit, suggesting the deputies or perhaps McCloskey himself inflicted the injuries.
Last week, after reading in The Roanoke Times that the FBI may have documents that could affect his case, Rogers subpoenaed the agency. FBI agent Paul Hunt in Roanoke first refused to accept the court papers, then said he would take them to the U.S. Attorney's Office and shred them, Rogers said.
Hunt didn't return a telephone call seeking comment. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Corcoran said he hasn't decided yet whether he'll try to quash the subpoena.
"Everybody is aligned against the victim," Rogers said. "It makes no sense he [Hunt] wouldn't share information with the people who requested the investigation."
Meanwhile, state legislators serving Rockbridge and Augusta counties were at a loss on how to help the McCloskeys.
"Unless there is somebody out there with the smoking gun, it may be the type of thing that you never do know," said Sen. Emmett Hanger, who represents both counties. "It doesn't seem like the Rockbridge Sheriff's Office was at fault ... and, quite frankly, though there were concerns about Western State, there's nothing that points to them, either."
"I don't know why the family isn't suing the Sheriff's Office," said Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta County. "Maybe they're going after the state because it's got deeper pockets."
Hanger did say he found it "inappropriate" that Western State shifted blame from itself so aggressively -- even though it had no proof -- when state police first began investigating.
"But you also have to recognize that at that time they were under intense scrutiny and the feds were looking to pounce on them," Hanger said.
That feared scrutiny isn't over. Any day now, the U.S. Department of Justice is expected to release its report on Western State. The federal investigation was prompted in part by the July 1997 death of Maura Patten, whose complaints of poor health in the last days of her life went ignored by hospital staff. Eleven days ago, her brother filed a $6 million lawsuit against the hospital.
Other incidents this month have further tarnished the state's mental health care reputation. On June 9, the state settled a lawsuit brought by the family of Gloria Huntley, who died in June 1996 strapped to her bed at Central State Hospital in Petersburg. On June 13, a Central State patient fatally body-slammed another patient -- a death some say was allowed to happen because of understaffing.
With these deaths -- and McCloskey's -- in mind, Jim McNulty, a board member for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, wants to establish a mental health Wall of Shame, with Virginia among its charter members.
"The system isn't working," McNulty said.
Mark Miner, spokesman for Gov. Jim Gilmore, said, "The problems at these hospitals did not occur overnight and won't be fixed overnight." The governor's plan of increased funding and the newly created position of inspector general will help the system, Miner said.
But none of this will help the family of John McCloskey.
His parents could ask the General Assembly to pass a claims bill that would earmark money to compensate them. But the claim won't be considered as long as their lawsuit remains active, Hanger and Landes said. And the McCloskeys must first prove the state hospital is responsible, something the legislators doubt can be done.
Furthermore, a claims bill won't give the McCloskeys what they seek -- the truth about their son's death. To that end, attorney Rogers says he will continue his quest.
About This Story
What we knew was this: that one morning in December 1994, an 18-year-old young man with manic-depression named John McCloskey was arrested for disorderly conduct and indecent exposure. Sheriff's deputies took him to their jail, and then a few hours later to a state mental hospital. Less than 72 hours later, he was rushed to a medical hospital suffering massive abdominal injuries. There he lingered for the next 14 months before dying in February 1996.
We learned of the story from a federal lawsuit that John McCloskey's family filed against the mental hospital, and decided to conduct our own investigation. Unfortunately, after our work, we could never answer the question our series asked: "Who Killed John McCloskey?"
We did learn some interesting things along the way. That his fatal injuries were caused by an intentional assault - either by someone badly beating him in the abdomen or shoving a baton up his rectum. That state officials at the mental hospital had tried to cover up the attack by shifting blame to the deputies who arrested John. That the state police investigator, either knowingly or not, took the bait and focused the investigation solely on the deputies, interrogating them repeatedly and asking for polygraph tests, while questioning hospital officials only once and never any of John's fellow psychiatric patients, each of whom faced some sort of criminal charge. In the end, no one was arrested for his murder.
The McCloskeys brought me back to those early days in my career. When I first interviewed them, in their apartment, all I had to do was turn on my tape recorder. For the next two hours, Pete McCloskey, an ex-Marine turned truck driver, told me about his son. When it got too much for him and the tears came, his wife Rebecca, a homemaker born in the Philippines, would pick up the tale in her broken English. Then she'd start to cry and Pete would bounce back.
And as I sat and listened, and cried some myself, I realized, maybe for the first time, what a wonderful, sad, humbling profession I had stumbled into. Here I was, a complete stranger to this couple, yet because of my title -reporter - they were sharing with me their innermost feelings and frustrations.
In the weeks and months that followed, I got to meet their three children - Joanne, Julie and Joey - each of them received me as trustingly as their parents. Later, they wrote letters and made phone calls for me so I could interview their lawyer and John's doctors, and look at hospital records and other documents. And through it all, I really don't think they expected much of me. They never called me or wrote me, never asked when the story would appear. They just politely answered my countless questions, posed for the photographs, wrote the letters I asked them to write, and waited.
I wish I could have given them the answers they need. Hopefully, their lawsuit against the state mental hospital will do that, though that's far from certain. It is still pending in federal court.
So what do we do with a story that has no ending - no closure in the story-telling sense? We decided to tell it anyway, because we still had this family, the survivors of this tragedy, and our stories may be the only justice they'd ever get.
I, like most of you, have a lot of experience dealing with victims of tragedies. We call the relatives - the mother whose son perished in the house fire, the man whose friend was gunned down in a nightclub. We pitch our voices in a sympathetic key, try to sound awkward to hint that we know how terrible a time it is to be calling. And despite our act, at least in my experience, the family invariably begins to tell their story.
There was a time when the awkwardness in my voice was real. The first call I had to make came two months into my first newspaper job. A local high school boy had been killed in a car wreck - big news for the small town I covered.
I had no script then, and my words stumbled upon one another like a toddler's feet. But for some reason the boy's mother talked to me. I still recall her saying how her son loved to write poetry, how he dreamed of becoming a doctor - and how the tears flowed down my cheeks when I hung up the phone.
This is why I'm so grateful to the Dart Foundation for this award. For it recognizes what we set out to do after we realized we couldn't report how John McCloskey died - and that was to tell how he lived, and how his family lives today.
Dart Award Acceptance Speech
The Roanoke Times embarked on this story with few facts and an unknown ending.
What we knew was this: that one morning in December 1994, an 18-year-old young man with manic depression named John McCloskey was arrested for disorderly conduct and indecent exposure. Sheriff's deputies took him to their jail, and then a few hours later to a state mental hospital. Less than 72 hours later, he was rushed to a medical hospital suffering massive abdominal injuries. There he lingered for the next 14 months before dying in February 1996.
We learned of the story form a federal lawsuit that John McCloskey's family filed against the mental hospital, and decided to conduct our own investigation. Unfortunately, after our work, we could never answer the question our series asked: Who Killed John McCloskey?
We did learn some interesting things along the way. That his fatal injuries were caused by an intentional assault-either by someone badly beating him in the abdomen or shoving a baton up his rectum. That state officials at the mental hospital had tried to cover up the attack by shifting blame to the deputies who arrested John. That the state police investigator-either knowingly or not-toot the bait and focused his investigation solely on the deputies, interrogating them repeatedly and asking for polygraph tests, while questioning hospital officials only once and never any of John's fellow psychiatric patients, each of whom faced some sort of criminal charge. In the end, no one was arrested for this murder.
So what do we do with a story that has no ending-no closure in the story-telling sense? We decided to tell it anyway, because we still had this family, the survivors of this tragedy, and our stories may be the only justice they'd ever get.
I, like most of you, have a lot of experience dealing with victims of tragedies. We call the relatives-the mother whose son perished in the house fire, the man whose friend was gunned down in a nightclub. We itch our voices in sympathetic key, try to sound awkward to hint that we know how terrible a time it is to be calling. And despite our act, at least in my experience, the family invariably begins to tell their story.
There was a time when the awkwardness in my voice was real. The first call I had to make came two months into my first newspaper job. A local high school boy had been killed in a car wreck-big news for the small town I covered.
I had no script then, and my words stumbled upon one another like a toddler's feet. But for some reason the boy's mother, just 12 hours after hearing her heart-breaking news, talked to me. I still recall her saying how her son loved to write poetry, how he dreamed of becoming a doctor-and how the tears flowed down my cheeks when I hung up the phone.
The McCloskeys brought me back to those early days in my career. When I first interviewed them in their apartment, all I had to do was turn on my tape recorder. For the next two hours, Pete McCloskey, and ex-Marine turned truck driver, told me about his son, the second of four children. When it got too much for him and the tears came, his wife Rebecca, a homemaker born in the Philippines, would pick up the tale in her broken English. Then she'd start to cry and Pet would bounce back.
And as I sat and listened, and cried some myself, I realized, maybe for the first time, what a wonderful, sad, humbling profession I had stumbled into. Here I was, a complete stranger to this couple, yet because of my title-reporter-they were sharing with me their innermost feelings and frustrations.
In the weeks and months that followed, I got to meet their three children-Joanne, Julie and Joey-and each of them received me as trustingly as their parents. Later, they wrote letters and made phone calls for me so I could interview their lawyer and John's doctors, and look at hospital records and other documents.
And through it all, I really don't think they expected much of me. They never called me or wrote me, never asked when the story would appear. They just politely answered my countless questions, posed for the photographs, wrote the letters I asked them to write, and waited.
I wish I could have given them the answers they need. Hopefully, their lawsuit against the state mental hospital will do that, though that's far from certain. It is still pending in federal court.
This is why I'm so grateful to the Dart Foundation for this award. For it recognizes what we set out to do after we realized we couldn't report how John McCloskey died-and that was to tell how he lived, and how his family lives today.
I share with you this epilogue not to tout myself, but rather the McCloskeys.
When I heard we won the award, I resolved to give my share of the money to the McCloskeys, thinking that they really needed it and that it may be the only compensation they ever get out of their son's death. I called their attorney to see if he saw any legal problems with me doing this, and unbeknownst to me, he proceed to call the McCloskeys and tell them. Their immediate response was "No."
When the lawyer told me of this a week or so later, I decided to call up Pete McCloskey and explain to him my thinking-that this was their story, and without them, none of it would have been possible.
When I called, though, his first words to me, in the sincerest of voices, were "Congratulations on your award."
Strangely, I hadn't expected this, and didn't know what to say. Surely he realized that there would have been no award, no story for that matter, had his son not been killed.
I stammered out my thanks, then proceeded to explain that I wanted them to have the money. I suggested he could use it to take Rebecca on a trip to the Philippines, where her family still lives and where she hadn't been in over 20 years.
He waited till I was done, and then said, "We just think you deserve it after all the work you did."
"But it's your story," I urged, to which he replied, "But now it's your story, too."
When we hung up on the phone a few minutes later, I realized he was right. it is my story, too. I only hope I am worthy of it.