Runaway Train

Tricia Sullivan fled her Southern Oregon hometown and the confines of her family in April. Arriving in San Francisco, she melded with the street community of young castoffs, misfits, and rebels. Phoning home, she lied and told her dad she was in New Yor

Suicide is a slow poison. It numbs the survivors with stinging shock, then slowly eats away at family bonds you didn't even know were frayed. Unlike deaths from old age or cancer, suicides seem so preventable. There's always someone to blame: He drove her to suicide. She ignored his cries for help. Usually, though, the onus settles on you yourself.

Marianne Faithfull's weather-beaten voice rasps from the stereo as we drive to meet the Sullivans: "I feel guilt/I feel guilt/Though I ain't done nothing wrong/I feel guilt."

In nearly every story on "America's decline," the importance of family values is implicitly stated. Keep the family together, and crime and poverty will supposedly evaporate, test scores will rise, and the American Dream will be open to all. But for many people, the fundamental source of their deepest unhappiness is their family, bound by blood and background if not by anything else. Unlike many troubled youths, TriciaSullivan had both parents, and an extended family that lived within shouting distance. The most remarkable thing about the Sullivans is that they seem so ordinary.

Ken and Janet Sullivan and their two children live on a busy two-lane street, in a wooden ranch house with a detached garage and toys and dogs in the yard. It's a neighborhood where mobile homes coexist with aluminum-sided split levels, people keep their lawns up, and old folks sit on their front porches. Farther down the street is a family counseling center: Wednesday's Child, as in, Wednesday's child is full of woe.

Ken Sullivan, Tricia's dad is outside painting a window when we show up. Inside, Kristina, 10, and Ashley, 6, eat Popsicles and watch a big TV. Janet Sullivan offers me a seat on the couch, while her sister Bernice West eases into a recliner. The living room is cluttered and homey, an array of antiques and knickknacks filling the room, from dolls in frilly clothing to Japanese sculptures and a beautiful brass Victrola.

Mr. Sullivan won't let me tape-record our conversation, though he says notes are fine. "They can play around with tape and use it against you," he says. He pleads with me to use the suspects's real names, and asks me to explain how the law could let them go free. "We have lawed ourselves right out of justice," his wife says bitterly. The family feels betrayed by an Examiner article that appeared just days before Tricia's funeral.

"It was filled with factual errors," Mrs. Sullivan says, "and they made it seem like some fantastic voyage to suicide."

"That suicide thing really pissed me off," Mr. Sullivan adds. "She would never do it. The only people who said 'suicide' are the people who did it. If Trish wanted to kill herself she could have used one of our guns or jumped off that bridge there.

"They tortured her. I've been overseas, my brothers and I went to Vietnam. If you want to kill someone, you can do it in three minutes. It took them 20!"

When the Sullivans learned that the Klamath Falls Herald and News was planning to reprint a wire service version of the Examiner story, the couple complained.

"One [editor] said, 'Well, honey, sensationalism sells,'" Mrs. Sullivan says angrily. The next day, her husband stormed into the newspaper to complain.

"He got thrown out of the publisher's office," says an anonymous source at the newspaper. "It was like a cyclone in here. He was yelling and knocking things around."

Mr. Sullivan confirms the blowup at the newspaper. "My daughter was a human being," he recalls saying. "I had to look at her on a bloody pillow."

The tantrum worked. Though other area papers published the wire story, the Herald and News waited, then ran only a very abbreviated version.

The Sullivans are still emotionally raw, and our conversation limns the seven stages of grief: For Mrs. Sullivan, it's anger; for her husband, it's denial. Both talk about their daughter as if she's still alive. Like many working-class people, they feel impotent in the face of the bureaucratic maze surrounding the investigation of Tricia's death. They want answers, but they have no idea how to get them.

Sturdy and assertive at 34, Janet Sullivan is the talker of the family, her voice a melodic singsong. She's an assistant office manager; her husband, 41, is a forklift operator at the Weyerhaeuser lumber company. He speaks slower, softer. Tall and painfully frail, he's got a mustache and droopy, sad eyes.

"Kenny's just like Trish," Mrs. Sullivan says. "Optimistic, can only see the good in people, awful tunnel vision. She was friendly to the point of being scary. I couldn't get her to face the fact that bad people are out there. She'd say, 'I know what bad people look like.'"

When Tricia was born in 1979, the Sullivans lived in the "boonies," with no phone or television. They were always together, reading stories to their eldest daughter, sleeping beside her at night.

"She'd sit for hours and hours trying to dress herself when she was one year old," her mom recalls. "She was intelligent to a fault. easily bored, always giving her toys away. Shs had to be the center of attention."

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