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...

Between bits of his chocolate-covered glazed at Rolling Pin Donuts, a chaos punk is threatening to kill me. I don't tak it personally: He's too high to do me any real harm, and I know speed-fueled hyperbole when I hear it. Besides, I've accidentally betrayed his trust: He is talking to me on the condition that I not use his name – not even his street one – and has agreed to accompany me later to Polk Street in search of a key witness to a recent murder.

But the agreement explodes when one of the teen's friends approaches, affectionately cuffs him on the head, and calls him by his street name. Without thinking, I write the alias down.

“You fuckin' narc!” he yells when he glances at my notebook a few minutes later. “I'm gonna kick your fuckin' face in. I'm gonna kill you right here.”

I apologize profusely, plead habit, then stupidity, but to no avail. He rips out a clump of pages from my notepad and storms out of the Castro District doughnut shop.

The friend starts scavenging the abandoned pastry.
“You weren't gonna find him anyway,” he says of my search for the murder witness. “It's pretty easy for people like us to disappear.”

On May 12, 1995, a different street teen disappeared – for good. Police found her body stuffed into a closet in a burned-out church taken over by squatters. She had been strangled. Black and red occult symbols adorned her face. Downstairs, in the makeshift bedroom of one of her alleged assailants, a dresser held dirty laundry, a bottle of bleach, and used syringes. Above it was a fading Judy Collins photo and a bit of graffiti scrawled on the wall: “There's nothing like senseless violence to snap you out of a depression.”

There was no identification on the corpse, just a Muni transfer ticket and some pocket changes. The body was transported to the morgue, placed on a slab, and classified as Jane Doe No. 16. Autopsied by the city pathologist four days later, she was found to be a healthy woman, between 15 and 18 years of age.

A runaway who had given herself a new identity and rechristened herself “Stevie,” she melded with the other lost souls, young discards, and misfits who have thrown off mainstream society's rules and call San Francisco's streets home.

Something akin to fate delivered Stevie into the arms of two other denizens of the street, who shared with Stevie the belief that they had been abused by parents and life. One, a young woman, had escaped the suffocating confines of her family; the other, a young man, had been exiled from his. Together, the two had built a relationship based around the idea that he was a master of an ancient religion and that she was his priestess in training.

In the squats and parks and coffeehouses of the city, far from the boredom and conformity of lower-middle-class neighborhoods in which they had all been raised, the three made common cause. So when Stevie expressed her oftspoken desire to end her life, her two new acquaintances were faced with this ethical question: If a troubled friend asks you to assist her in her suicide, what do you do?

The city of Klamath Falls is incredibly flat. The Southern Oregon town of 18,000 people sprawls lazily in a huge valley rimmed by imposing treeless mountains, gone scrubby and brownish-yellow in the 90-degree heat. Everything seems open, the cloudless sky a cornflower-blue tease of infinity. There's space to spare, so architects build out, not up. No edifice seems to be more than two stories tall.

Main Street runs through Old Town, a once thriving business center now inhabited mainly by thrift stores and the occasional upscale sandwich shop. In the neighborhood, there's a roller rink, a Holiday Bowl, and art deco theater, a grocery store, and a large antique mall catering to the tourists who blaze through the city on their way to Reno. Or to Cell Tech, “the hope of the town,” a New Agey company that specializes in Super Blue Green Algae products like nutritional supplements and skin-care systems. The algae is harvested in Upper Klamath Lake. The falls of the city's name dried up ages ago.

A small highway leads into the new town, a service-economy mecca of strip malls, fast-food franchises, car dealerships, and motels. Numerous churches dot the landscape. It's a hot summer night, but there are no young people out on the streets. There's absolutely nothing to do.

In Klamath Falls, high-school baseball scores make the front page. Strangers nod at each other in the Safeway aisles. The waitress at Denny's tells you to finish your eggs, honey, because you need to put some meat on those bones. The elderly man standing in line behind you at Sizzler tells you not to order the steak, dear, because 70 years of T-bones gave him the gout and you've got to watch your cholesterol or you'll drop dead of a stroke like his wife. A teen-age floor sweeper at Taco Bell takes one look at your shoes and guesses that you're from “some big city,” then asks why you're visiting “a boring shithole like K. Falls.” Big city anonymity is out of the question. Any deviance happens behind closed doors.

“This town has been on the skids for years,” says a frowning reporter from the local newspaper, the Herald and News. “It was fairly affluent at one time, from timber-related activities, but now that that's gone, the economy is depressed. You have to work to stay here, 'cause the winters are hard and you have to travel just to get anyplace. But that's the Oregon ethos, you know – the pioneer spirit.”

“Children are born here, raised here, educated here, and then go off to make their fortunes,” he continues. “There's not much to bring them back besides Dad's farm.” [page]

The story of Klamath Falls is the story of the teen-age wasteland, of blunted hopes and downward mobility. There were more than 200 reported runaways from Klamath County last year. The suicide rates are even more distrubing: Teen-agers in Oregon and California kill themselves at a rate 100 percent greater than the national average. And KlamathCounty's suicide rate in 1992 was 30 percent higher than the alarming state figure.

That's the reason why we – my roommate Erika and I – are here: to find out why a teen-age girl would flee her family and friends and sleepy hometown for the mean streets of San Francisco.

This is what we know so far: “Stevie” was actually 15-year-old Tricia Sullivan of Klamath Falls. She ran away with a friend sometime in early April, hitting Eugene, Ore., for a spell before making her way to San Francisco. She renamed herself after her favorite uncle, 28-year-old Steve Sullivan. She hung out in the Haight and Castro, showered at the Larkin Street Youth Center, couch-surfed or crashed at squats, experimented with hard drugs, and frequented the Horse Shoe Coffeehouse in the Lower Haight.

According to police reports, in the early a.m. of the May morning she died, Tricia tooled arounf Castro Street with some friends, including a mohawked “druid” sometimes called Death, aka 23-year-old Martin Androus. Accompanying them was “Galaxy,” a 16-year-old self-described “rad nonracist skinhead dyke.” (Because Galaxy is a juvenile, she has been given a pseudonym.) According to police reports, the conversation turned to various methods of committing suicide.

Between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., the trio made its way to back to the Dolores Street Baptist Church squat near 14th Street, where Tricia had occasionally slept. the 92-year-old church had been an eyesore since 1993, when a fire roared through it, gutting the sacristy and altar. The roof had caved in. Wooden planks were nailed across the main entrance and windows; trash littered the front yard. The charred skeleton of the bell tower remained, an obscene reminder of the church's former beauty. Only the ground floor, black as a pit and crawling with rats, was left intact.

Later that morning, another squatter, “Hurricane” Frank Rouse, 33, was overheard in the nearby Muni station at Church and Market “bragging about some type of homicide or suicide” that had occurred that morning, according to an SFPD report. A police officer was summoned to talk to Rouse, who said that Androus and Galaxy had participated in the death of a young woman at the squat. Sgt. Steve Johnson was dispatched to the scene, where according to the police report, he woke Androus and Galaxy from their slumber to arrest them.

That's the detail that hit me in the solar plexus when I first read about the killing in the Chronicle. Not the occult imagery that accompanied the killing, which Androus called an assisted suicide, nor the fact that Androus said it took them 20 mintues to choke the life out of Tricia – as stated in the police report – nor even the fact that the two were released within 72 hours of the arrest because their confessions weren't “legally admissible,” as the Examiner later reported. They went to sleep.

“It was eerie to me,” Sgt. Johnson says. “They acted like there was absolutely nothing wrong.”

As Erika and I drink giant sodas in a Klamath Falls convenience store parking lot, a convertible lowrider pulls up beside our rental car. A Playboy bunny air freshener hangs from the rearview mirror and naked-lady mud flaps protect the back whitewall tires. We stare incredulously at the long-haired, tatooed passengers. The driver is inserting brown nubs of what looks like tar heroin into his mouth, pushing them against his cheeks with his tongue. It's broad daylight. He catches my eye.

“Puta,” he laughs.
The reason Erika is spending her weekend carting me around a tiny Oregon town is because six years ago, her teen-age sister OD'd. Her friends, high and afraid of involving the police, waited an hour before they called 911. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late to save her.

I am bound to Tricia's tale by my own family tragedy. Seven years ago, my first cousin Michael trekked toa pharmacy eight blocks from my grandmother's house and fired a gun into his mouth. He was 17; I was away at college and suffering from debilitating depression myself. When the phone call came, I didn't cry or get angry or throw up. I mumbled something insanely insensitive to the effect of, “Well, if he was that unhappy, it's probably better that he died.” I might as well have gone to sleep.

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. [page]

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.”

She was your basic happy child, says Mrs. Sullivan, until she was lured out to a lake and raped at knifepoint by the relative of a friend. He was 16. She was 8.

“She kept it secret for a year,” Mrs. Sullivan says.
“The family wouldn't let us know who he was,” Mr. Sullivan adds.
The Sullivans say that the police were reluctant about pursuing a rape charge. That doesn't make sense to me, I say. Silence hangs heavily for a moment.

“It was a year-old case,” Mrs. Sullivan says defensively. “He was from California. Police said they could take her testimony in case he ever did it again.”

“Trish never understood why nothing bad happened to him,” Mrs. Sullivan continues. “She had nightmares for years. 'They'll kill us if we tell,' she'd say.”

Not long after the rape, Mr. Sullivan developed ulcerative colitis and fell into a coma. He was taken to Portland for treatment.

“Trish felt abandoned,” Mrs. Sullivan recounts. “The kids weren't allowed to see him for three months after he woke up. Trish never thought that her real dad ever came back. We were so close before.” Mr. Sullivan weighed only 85 pounds when he left the hospital and had to sell most of their antiques to pay the bills. “Trish called me the million-dollar man,” he laughs.

Tricia was never the same after the rape, say her parents, spending as much time as she could with other kids who had experienced childhood traumas. She befriended little girls who had been molested and hung out with kids from foster homes. She became an aide to the handicapped, spending all her money on presents for her clients. She also started studying Judaism because, as she said, it did not condemn other religions. In order to please her, the family started celebrating Hanukkah in addition to Christmas.

“She was angry and searching for something we couldn't give her,” Mrs. Sullivan says. “She related to kids who were troubled or abused. The counselor said she was a mother figure and that that would be her downfall.” A naturally pretty girl with big dimples and long brown hair, people were immediately drawn to her. “We lost control. We tried to treaten her with juvenile [home] to scare her straight. We tried counseling,” says Mrs. Sullivan. “We did everything from bribing to grounding to punishment.” [page]

“She thought there was a utopia, some family out there who was perfect,” interjects her Aunt Bernice. “For a time she lived with me.” ”

“Trish had it in her head that group foster homes were terrific places to live,” her mother says. “She actually put herself into Exodus House, and stayed at the House of Ruth for Kids. She started making up stories. One was that we burned her all over her body with cigarettes. The police came and made her take off her clothes, and of course it wasn't true. There were stories that we starved her. The police showed up as I was cooking us dinner. It was a cry for help, but we were scared that it would get to a point where she was taken away.”

“We don't believe in tough love,” Mrs. Sullivan says. “We never locked our doors. No matter what happens,a kid needs a home and to know they're cared for. I kept hoping every day she was still going to come home, even when I got her ashes. We changed the locks in case the murderers had her keys.” She chokes back a sob. “I felt like I was locking her out.”

Home life became plagued by fights and tension. Tricia would run away to friends' houses, though she always stayed in town. She didn't let people get too close. She'd say outrageous things to people to get a reaction, then test them to see if they still cared.

“When things got very quiet, she'd stir something up,” Mrs. Sullivan says. “She'd knock something down and say, 'Go ahead, hit me,' try to egg us on. Believe me, I've had her up against the wall. Hit her, though, never. I tried to use soap once and she liked it.

“I'm more the disciplinarian. Don't get me wrong: There was lots of stress and fighting between us, but I kept telling her, 'One day you and I are going to be very good friends.'” Mrs. Sullivan lifts up her glasses and wipes the tears from her eyes. “We overspoiled her and she had no responsibilities,” she says firmly, “which I think we regret a lot.”

About 50 kids gathered at the Sullivans' after Tricia's funeral, says Mrs. Sullivan. They surrounded her and bombarded her with questions.

“She painted a very bleak household to them,” says Mrs. Sullivan. “They were very blunt and straight to the point. They felt she was abused.”

“Wasn't she making it up?” Mr. Sullivan asks.
“She was making it up. Tricia probably had ten spankings in her whole life. She said she was being physically abused at the House of Ruth and Exodus, too,” responds Mrs. Sullivan.

“That was her doorway, her way to open up to people,” Mr. Sullivan says.
“In the beginning it worried me because people believed it and it was awful,” Mrs. Sullivan adds. “In the end, it made me angrier and angrier.”

The conversation then turns to a time Tricia was almost kidnapped by the father of one of her friends. Accused of raping his own daughter, he was planning to cut the little girls' hair to disguise them and take them out of town, they say.

Ashley and Kristina Sullivan have been sitting here with us for hours, seemingly oblivious to the macabre tales of death, abuse, and rape as they climb on and off their parents' laps and stare at the TV. Ashley moves over to sit next to me and stares upward with doe eyes.

“Are you going to help catch the bad people that killed my sister?” she asks, her sad face undermined by a cherry-red Kool-Aid smile. Juxtaposing this vision of innocence incarnate with an image of Tricia choking and gasping in a squalid little room, I want to run out of the house. Instead, I stay and look through a stack of Tricia's childhood photos.

“I can't even fathom [her in S.F.],” Mr. Sullivan says, staring at a smiling picture of Tricia as a toddler sitting with Santa Claus. “Every time I've been in San Francisco, I just say hello and they're grabbing their wallets. When they told me my daughter was murdered, that town turned so dirty and ugly.”

We search in vain for a recent school photo. Tricia wouldn't bring them home; she'd say they were ugly and rip them to shreds. Before she ran away for good, she had wanted to quit school and open up a day-care center for handicapped children and babies. The Sullivans struck an agreement: Stay in school, and we'll see, maybe consider a GED.

“She told us she started smoking pot, and a few weeks later she left with a friend in trouble named Jim. She always felt that without her help, people would not survive,” Mrs. Sullivan says.

When Tricia left Klamath Falls in early April, her parents thought she was staying with her best friend, Denise Anderson, and decided to give her some time to straighten herself out. Later their daughter called and told them she was in New York. They knew she was lying.

“I said, 'I'm scared, I love you,' ” Mr. Sullivan says. “She said, 'I love you, too – don't worry.' I said, 'Come home; quit being 23 and be 15.' ” They never heard from her again.

“I had a dream about Trish,” Kristina says, so softly I have to lean forward to hear her. “We were in the house. She was sitting outside the front window, and I let her in. Nobody could see her. She was a ghost. She said she had something to give me. It was a weird-looking thing, like a ponytail. Tricia gave her hair to me. She didn't like where she went.” Her voice drops to a whisper. “She was so scared.” [page]

Erika weeps silently in the car as we drive away. We don't know what to believe. Was Tricia fleeing an abusive family, or was she just trying to run away from herself and her own misery? What more did she think San Francisco had to offer than her own home? We stop at Subway where we find a missing child notice taped to the front door. “Even if you're not ready to come home, that's OK,” it reads. “Just please call us and let us know you're still alive.”

Rondanam the Subway counterperson, is 19 and has three kids. She became an emancipated minor and got married at 14. Her mom signed the papers.

“She didn't want me,” Rondana says casually, “but my husband did.” When her friend hears us mention San Francisco, she gets all excited. “Wow, I used to watch The Real World. I went down to L.A. and ran into Puck on Melrose. I got him to sign my butt. It started out 'Roses are red,' but I couldn't read the rest of it.”

Mazama High, where Tricia spent most of her freshman year, sprawls out across a green grassy lot, a windowless modern architectural monstrosity that looks two parts prison to one part sweatshop. Although school won't start for another month, incoming freshman Desire Smith is so excited about her new school that she's dragged her friend Elise Laydon over for a walk through the halls. Desire is painfully shy and naive, with an awkwardness to break your heart. We worry about her come September.

“Did either of you two know Tricia Sullivan?” I ask.
Elise, who will soon be a sophomore, looks at me in surprise.

“We were in the same class,” Elise says. “She was fun and friendly and had so much potential. I can't believe what happened. Sometimes I envied her and hated her because she was popular and I wasn't.”

Mazama High kids divide themselves into stoners and preps; Elise doesn't fit in with wither category, she says. Her dad won't let her do anything, she complains, but good-naturedly; the two are obviously extremely close. Tricia was a stoner, but she got along with everyone. “She was into heavy drugs,” Elise says, “rosebud, cocaine, marijuana, that kind of stuff.” She dated an older teen named Matt Anders, whom she told everyone she was going to marry.

“Lots of people were upset when we heard. We'd had two other deaths,” Elise says. Unlike in urban schools, students deaths here come as a shock, the entire school congregating for funerals. And these deaths were especially gruesome: Last November, a sophomore girl hung herself. In December, a junior was accidentally shot in the head by her boyfriend. Murder, though, was unfathomable.

The morning Tricia's death was announced, Elise and a group of other kids gathered to write letters to Tricia and her parents. Denise Anderson stuck them into the Sullivans' mailbox.

“I wrote that they were shitheads,” Elise says. “We were so pissed at them.”

Though Elise thinks Tricia was never really suicidal, she says that Tricia once passed her a note about wanting to kill herself.

“She wrote, 'I'm high and I need a way out of this town. Please help me.' I said I'd try, and before I knew it she was gone.”

“She was happy for the most part,” Elise continues. “I think she thought that her parents didn't really love her. She said they beat her up and stuff when she got into trouble or when they got upset.”

I ask if there were bruises from the beatings.

“Not that I could see,” says Elise.

Next we talk about high school life and how mean kids can be. “I got so mad at Brian Simmons,” Elise says suddenly, ” 'cause after Trish passed away we were all upset and taking a cigarette break together, and he said, 'Well, I'm happy for her. She wanted to die, so I'm happy.' How could you say something like that?”

Read Runaway Train (Part II)


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