Focus on Bullying: Parents share details about life of Aztec teen who killed himself

Joshua Kellogg The Daily Times
The Daily Times

AZTEC — Caring, loving, thoughtful, hilarious, happy and joyful are words that have been used to describe 13-year-old Thaddeus J. Hale, a Koogler Middle School student who took his own life on Nov. 10, 2014.

Thad, as his parents Amber and Ryan Hale called him, was remembered by many Koogler students who wrote the family letters, drew pictures and produced large banners to console the family.

Sorting through those remembrances of Thad, Amber Hale said she has compiled about five binders full of letters and drawings from students along with hundreds of cards sent to them.

"I was overwhelmed, they brought that to us about three days after he passed away," Hale said.

In the living room of their home just north of Aztec, Amber and Ryan Hale talked about how their son was a friendly and humorous individual with a kind heart.

"He was caring and he was thoughtful," Ryan Hale said. "He was so worried about how other people felt."

Those worries and other issues apparently created a burden Thad felt he could no longer bear.

Ryan and Amber Hale discovered Thad's body in their backyard on that November afternoon after trying to locate him. Thad's five-year-old brother Malakai was home at the time.

"I was just frustrated and then I just got this sinking feeling that something was wrong," Amber Hale said. "It wasn't like him to just leave without telling us."

It took San Juan County Sheriff's Office deputies three hours to locate the revolver Thad used, hidden in a pile of leaves.

Ryan and Amber Hale later learned Thad figured out the combination of the family's gun safe and accidentally discharged the weapon while retrieving it. Neighbors reported hearing two gunshots that day.

In the following days and weeks, Amber Hale said a number of people approach her, stating they couldn't believe how brave and courageous she was handling her loss and her openness to discussing the circumstances that lead to her son's death.

"It's not something I am embarrassed about, my son committed suicide because he felt like it was his only option," she said. "I just want to make sure it doesn't happen again. If there is anything I could do to help prevent it from happening to someone else — my goodness — I'm going to do that."

Youth suicide is the third leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 to 24 with about 4,600 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the reported incidents, about 81 percent were males and 19 percent were females.

Too 'weird' to fit in

Amber Hale said Thad loved to cook dinner for the family. Thad was preparing to start using recipes from a Culinary Institute of America textbook in hopes of being on the television show Masterchef Jr.

In other areas, he was not as adventurous. Teaching Thad to ride a bike and swim proved to be more difficult than she originally thought.

"He was super cautious, he didn't learn to ride his bike until he was 10 because he was terrified," Hale said.

Hale believes some of the warning signs started to develop when the family relocated to Aztec from Rock Springs, Wyoming in April 2013 near the end of Thad's sixth-grade year.

As he started seventh grade in the fall of 2013, Thad was making inroads with Koogler students, making friends and running for student council.

But he started sharing details with his parent of being picked on and called names. Then he showing up one day after school with two black eyes.

"I asked him what had happened, I can't remember the exact circumstances but the kid said something to (Thad) and Thad said something really smart aleck and the kid punched him in the face," she said.

Thad begged his mother not to report it to the school and after Hale consulted with her mother — a former teacher — she agreed to Thad's request.

During the summer of 2014, she said Thad started to withdraw after breaking up with his girlfriend. He began spending time alone in his room.

In August, at the start of the 2014 school year, Thad would return home from school and tell his parents he had no friends and no one liked him. He wanted to moved back to Wyoming, and stay with friends there while he finished school.

"We talked about it and he was like, 'Kids are really, really picking on me.' He didn't use that word. He would say 'I'm being bullied at school.'" Hale said.

Thad told his parents he was being picked on for his blue eyes, his weight. People thought he was gay. In his frustration, Thad said he just felt too weird for them.

Cutting and self-harm

In October, Amber Hale took away Thad's cell phone as punishment for not cleaning his room. She discovered he was sending picture messages displaying injuries he caused by cutting or self-harm, the act of deliberately injuring the body to help cope with emotional pain. She said he was sending the messages to four other students who were also committing acts of self-harm by cutting.

She was also upset that he was using smartphone applications like Meowchat — which allows private conversations with friends and strangers with similar interests — worried he was talking to potentially dangerous people.

Hale also discovered Thad was spreading harmful lies about his parents to friends. She thinks he was trying to establish credibility with friends who talked about harsh home environments.

"We were upset about what he said to his friends about us," Amber Hale said. "I said, 'Do you realize if anything were to ever happen to you, we could be investigated for these claims, these are terrible things you said about us.'"

Hale said she tried to reach out to Koogler principal Rick Espinoza to talk about Thad and his friends, the self-harm taking place, and the lies.

Amber said Espinoza told her that she might know her child but the others were good kids who wouldn't be committing those acts.

Espinoza said although he did not meet with her personally, Hale spoke to former Koogler counselor Wayne Krinke about her concerns.

"I've never ever turned a parent away and I've never ever, ever had a situation where a parent came to me with a genuine concern and I did not take care of that," Espinoza said.

Amber Hale met with Krinke to discuss the possibility of him working with Thad, after she found a text message stating Thad had been reported on the Koogler bullying tip line in September 2014 for making threats of suicide.

"I talked to Mr. Krinke about everything said in the text messages and that he had talked about breaking into our gun safe to just end it," she said.

Hale said Thad attempted to convince Krinke it was other students trying to get him in trouble and that there was nothing wrong with him.

Krinke told Amber Hale he would do a suicide assessment on Thad but Amber doesn't know if Krinke was able to perform an assessment on Thad before his death.

A bright spot appeared after Thad changed medication he was taking for anxiety and started to act like the teen Ryan and Amber Hale had known. Thad was first prescribed medication in October 2013.

At a follow up appointment, Hale told the doctor the difference was night and day in Thad's behavior and it must have been the first medication that caused the problem.

The doctor advised her to keep an eye on Thad because the medications can sometimes give people the courage to hurt themselves. Ryan and Amber Hale responded by locking up everything they thought could be use for self-harm in their gun safe, including razor blades found in Thad's room.

Breaking taboos

On Nov. 8, Thad attempted to make Hale her favorite treat — a batch of peanut butter fudge — as a peace offering for his behavior. Thad delivered the burnt snack to Amber when she returned home that night.

"He told me that he loved me and he was sorry that he had been so difficult the last couple of months and that things were going to get better," Hale said.

Two days later on Nov. 10, when Ryan and Amber Hale were searching for Thad, it was Malakai who first brought up the idea that Thad shot himself. He had heard the shots.

"He saw everyone outside and walked outside and said, 'Thad shot himself,'" Amber Hale said. "I was very upset because we didn't know that."

But memories of that horrible day mix with thoughts of better times.

Hale remembers Thad picking up on her love for 1990s era grunge music with bands like Nirvana, Sublime and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Thad read on a 11th-grade level during fourth-grade, devouring whatever books were placed in front of him including the biography of Albert Einstein.

She said Thad wanted to be an astrophysicist like Neil Degrasse Tyson but also talked of opening a restaurant to ensure less-fortunate people could have a fine dining experience.

Since Thad died, parents and people in the community have reached out to Amber Hale to share their own children's experiences of bullying and suicidal thoughts.

She said one of the Koogler students told her Thad helped stop a student from picking on her, getting in between the aggressor and her, telling them to leave her alone.

A letter written to the Hale family from one student said that when she was having a bad day — crying at her desk in a classroom — Thad walked up and unprompted, gave her a hug and told her everything was going to be OK.

Thad's actions helped her feel better and more secure about herself, the student wrote.

Amber Hale hopes talking about Thad's death will help parents recognize the importance of acknowledging and responding to warning signs of unresolved mental health issues.

"I don't understand why it is so taboo, mental health in general is taboo and people don't want to admit there is an actual problem there," Hale said. "Parents are so afraid for people to think their family's not perfect."

Joshua Kellogg covers education forThe Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.