All the names of the people in the following story have been changed. However, the events occurred exactly as reported.
In the early 1850s, a family of Irish immigrants named O’Hara came to a beautiful but curious area of western Pennsylvania where oil bubbled out of the ground and coated the local streams. The area, at the juncture of Oil Creek and the Allegheny River, was known as Cornplanter Township and the oil was considered more a nuisance than anything else, except to the Indians, who used it medicinally. The township was really nothing more than a few farms, a few stores, a forge and some itinerant lumberjacks. The O’Haras opened a hotel for the lumberjacks and acquired extensive farmland.
Then, in 1859, a man named Edwin Drake figured out an organized way to retrieve the oil — by drilling for it, thus inventing the oil well — and madness took over for a time. Soon the hillsides along Oil Creek were studded with wooden oil rigs. All kinds of drifters, tinhorns and fortune seekers descended on the area. Boom towns sprouted overnight, disappeared just as fast, and fortunes were made then lost even faster. And Cornplanter, at the center of it all, was renamed Oil City.
The O’Haras were among the richest families in town before long. Their land, which straddled the Allegheny River, was soaked with oil. In 1863, the Venango County Spectator reported: “We are informed that Michael O’Hara at his eddy below Oil Creek dipped from the river 700 barrels of oil. … Mr. O’Hara’s day’s work amounted to $2000.” It’s likely that oil from O’Hara leases often was sold to Mr. John D. Rockefeller of Cleveland, who was busy trying to corner the market and was much hated by the refiners along Oil Creek whose prices he undercut.
The boom lasted a generation and then began to taper off. The oilmen moved west, leaving only a few small refineries behind — Quaker State, Wolf’s Head, Pennzoil … and soon they, too, moved many of their operations elsewhere, keeping only small corporate headquarters and refineries of Pennsylvania-grade crude in Oil City.
The town has remained virtually unchanged since then, except for the steady trickle of people leaving. The business district is a narrow triangle of brown and gray buildings in the alluvial niche between Oil Creek and the Allegheny River, subject to serious flooding in the spring. The residential areas — mostly polite clapboards with a sprinkling of elegant Victorians — resolutely climb the steep hillsides surrounding the business district. There is one movie theater in town, the Drake. A radio station. A newspaper, the Oil City Derrick. There are two bridges across the Allegheny and one across Oil Creek. It is the kind of town that makes people feel either very safe or very claustrophobic. It is completely enclosed by mountains, far from the superhighways, off the beaten path, forgotten. The two closest cities, Pittsburgh and Erie, are several hours away by car.
Oil City is a conservative town. Even the blue-collar workers vote Republican. The big issue is gun control — a popular local bumper sticker: GOD, GUNS, GUTS MADE THIS COUNTRY GREAT. The most important big event each year is the opening of deer season: schools let out, hunters swarm over the hills and each deer-kill is duly recorded in the local paper. Consequently, Oil City is armed to the teeth and isolated, a garrison of sorts where new ideas tend to dribble in slowly through the mountains. The trappings of 1960s America didn’t arrive until the early 1970s when the Holiday Inn came to town, McDonald’s announced it would build a hamburger stand (joining Kentucky Fried Chicken as the only fast-food franchises in the area), and people began to notice young Tim O’Hara walking around with his long hair.
Oil City’s population had shriveled from approximately 26,000 to 15,000 over the past 50 years and the O’Hara fortune shriveled at the same time. The family lost their last vestiges of wealth when the stock market crashed in 1929. By the time Timothy O’Hara Jr. was born in 1952, the family legacy was a fairy tale. His father, Tim Sr., was a wire editor at the News-Herald over in Franklin. His mother was a fourth-grade teacher. They were placid, refined people who seemed to live their lives stunned by the sudden absence of money.
The chances are that Tim would have gotten into trouble in any case. He was big and goofy, with feet so large he had to order his sneakers special. He had a voice that seemed permanently trapped between adolescence and adulthood, a squeaky voice that was always cracking and was easily mimicked by friends. He was the wise guy in his class: always playing practical jokes, always giggling. He was, for example, the kid who got caught for drawing a picture of a nude woman in a girl’s notebook. His years at Venango Christian High School were like that, more puckish than rebellious, full of bush-league escapades which finally led to his being kicked out for cursing. He finished at Oil City High School and graduated into hanging out along a stretch of Central Avenue that was known in the early 1970s as the Scene.
There was a row of shops on one side of the street, including Rollie’s Pizza, and a Methodist church and the public library on the other. In the middle was a grassy island with a war memorial obelisk. Crowds of teenagers, kids who had picked up the style of the hippies on TV, if not the content, would gather on the steps of the library and church each night after dinner, and the police, who patrolled Central Avenue much the same as the priests had run Venango Christian, would attempt to disperse them. Arrests were common, the most popular offense being loitering. And Tim O’Hara, being the big, clumsy guy with the funny voice (and the son of a newspaperman who hadn’t always written kindly of the police), was a target. Once he was arrested for loitering on the steps of the church with a priest. Another time the cops wanted to fine him $300 for a minor offense, but the magistrate reduced it to $3. As they were leaving court, one of the cops said, “Don’t worry, O’Hara, we’ll get the $300 out of you.”
He was busted time and again. Once he was arrested twice in 10 minutes. First for running a red light, then for not using his turn signal when he switched lanes on the bridge.
His name was in the papers continually. People would point him out on the street. He was, much to his surprise, the town rebel. But while it was true that Tim wasn’t the terror most people thought him to be, he liked to mouth off at the cops, and he liked drugs.
Drugs and leaving Oil City were the two principal means of escape from Central Avenue. Sooner or later most of the kids gave Florida a try. Or Texas, or California. But only a few of the travelers managed to find a good job and settle in. Most would be gone a month or two, and then one day they’d be back on the street as if they’d never been gone. Tim went to visit his brother in Colorado and friends in a nearby state college, but he never really tried to live anyplace but Oil City. It was easier, when pills began to seep through the mountains in 1972, to develop a fondness for Quaaludes. At times, he could be found lurching about Central Avenue. He could be frighteningly incoherent, but never really a danger to anyone but himself.
In 1973, Tim O’Hara made several attempts to reconcile himself with the rest of the world, but they failed. One day, when he finally decided to get a haircut, on the way to the barber a car pulled up next to him and the driver yelled, “Hey you dirty hippie, why don’t you get a haircut?” Tim turned back and went home.
He had begun to clean up his act for a girl who went to college in Kentucky. He put a down payment on a car and decided to visit her at Easter for a surprise. When he arrived at the school, she had taken off to Florida with another guy.
After that, it was all downhill. He went on a monumental binge the summer of 1973. He was still the life of the party, the guy who always wanted to go for a wild ride through the woods, but sometimes now, when he got really loaded, he would get depressed and talk about killing himself. That summer he broke the window of a local hangout one night because a friend, who had just died in a car crash, had once been kicked out of the place. Another time, he broke all the windows in his car the night before the bank was to foreclose on it. A few of his friends and his parents and his sister knew he was in serious trouble, but they couldn’t reach him … and finally, in October, he tried to kill himself.
He didn’t do a very good job of it. He slashed his arm lengthwise, instead of across the wrists; it was bloody, but distinctly nonfatal. When Father Gregory Kroll, the family priest, came to visit, Tim lifted his bandaged arm and said, “How do you like my artwork?”
Dr. Harrison Bright, the head of the mental health department at Oil City Hospital, attempted to treat Tim but walked out after one session. The O’Haras heard that Dr. Bright had said he and Tim had “a personality conflict.” (Dr. Bright didn’t want to comment because, he said, all his dealings with patients were confidential.)
Much to everyone’s surprise, Tim slowly began to turn his life around. He no longer hung out on Central Avenue — now he was 21-years-old — old enough to hang out in bars, which at least reduced his contacts with the local police. The Central Avenue scene had dissipated anyway, with those who were too young for bars moving their base of operations to the new McDonald’s across the river.
After a while, Tim even began to look for work and eventually landed a job at Joy Manufacturing Co., a small factory that produced strip-mining equipment. He rode a forklift around the plant, delivering new parts to the men who operated the machines.
He still lived with his parents, but the fact that he worked the afternoon shift, from 3 to 11 p.m., and was somewhat out of phase with the rest of the world, drew him closer to the guys he worked with. Most of them were older, family men. Tim became more like them, accumulating his share of possessions: a motorboat and then, in the spring of 1976, a Buick Electra. Gradually he lost track of some of the old Central Avenue crowd, and a funny thing happened: his voice finally changed. It was deep now. At age 23, he had grown past clumsiness and was beginning to develop a paunch.
Most of the guys at work didn’t know about Tim’s wild youth or his suicide attempt. John and Carol Simmons were among his closest friends and they only knew Tim as a nice young guy with a sly sense of humor, who could tease Carol unmercifully and still keep a straight face. They called him “Stoneface.” Neither Tim nor John liked to go to bed right after work so they’d often find themselves at 3 a.m. doing some odd job around the Simmons house, like painting the kitchen cabinets or remodeling the family room. Other nights, they just sat in the kitchen, drinking beer and telling stories. The Simmonses were in their early 30s and with their two children were a warm, loving family, and they drew Tim into their lives.
Each year, Joy Manufacturing Co. held a dinner to honor those employees who had made money-saving suggestions. It was called the Pep Dinner and, in 1976, Tim O’Hara was invited for the first time. He prepared for it with the giddiness and solemnity that is reserved only for life’s most important occasions and he put on his only suit, a steel gray double-knit with matching vest.
The dinner was a great success, the only disappointment being John Simmons got so drunk he was unable to play the piano and sing as he usually did. Tim had to drive Simmons home, an occasion no less significant than the dinner itself: it was probably the first time in his life that Tim had ever driven a drunken friend home, rather than the other way around.
The same week as the dinner the word went out in the factory that Tim was about to be promoted. He would be operating a machine in a matter of days, and making $15,000 per year. Tim told his parents he might have good news for them soon, but didn’t tell them what it was.
He worked Saturday, May 8th. It was a busy period for the company and a lot of people were working overtime. When it was time to quit that night, he asked John Simmons if he wanted to stop off at the Oasis for a couple of pops on the way home.
“Nooo,” said John. “I been working 16 hours, gotta go home. Besides,” he added, smiling, “I made Carol a promise.”
“If you been working 16 hours, I doubt you’ll be able to keep that promise.”
Tim knew most of the crowd at the Oasis, a roadhouse just north of town which had recently become a hangout for young people. He’d usually drop by after work, just past 11, and order a Schlitz. This particular night he took a seat way down at the end of the bar and ordered an “O Special” — gin and fruit juice and God knows what. It was Saturday night and the place was crowded: a line of quarters stretched down the rail of the pool table, the jukebox blared in the back room and people were up and dancing. Tim sat quietly at the bar. Nancy Garrett, a part-time bartender at the Oasis and a sometime girlfriend, told him there was a party. Did he want to go? “No.” Nancy later recalled that Tim seemed a little different that night. “He just wasn’t being sarcastic like he usually was.”
Betty Ryan and Sally Parkinson, two friends, squeezed down to Tim’s end of the bar for a chat and — after a while — he asked if they wanted to go out in his car for a smoke. It was a warm, lovely night: the Allegheny foothills seemed, for once, more comforting than claustrophobic. As the Buick slid through the narrow valleys that lace Oil City, they smoked and talked about summer. Tim said he’d be putting his motorboat in the water soon.
They returned to the Oasis and played pinball. The name of the game was “Royal Flush.”
Tim left the Oasis alone just before closing time. He went home, watched television for a little while, then went to the kitchen for a beer. The old shotgun was sitting in the hall where he’d left it after traipsing through the woods with Simmons a few days earlier. It was about 60-years-old, 12-gauge, double-barreled — one of several guns Tim owned. He lit a cigarette, grabbed the gun and went out on the front porch.
At about 5 a.m., Tim O’Hara Sr. woke up and noticed his son’s door was still open. The lights were on downstairs. “I went down, turned off the television and then — for some reason — I looked out on the front porch,” Mr. O’Hara recalls. “I saw Tim lying there … and I saw the blood.”
Tim Sr. called the police and, later, the priest.
It was May 9th, Mother’s Day.
Frank Levesque’s mother told him, “Tim O’Hara committed suicide.”
“Really,” he said.
Frank hadn’t seen much of Tim for a year or so, but they had been friends in the past and sometimes hung out together. They graduated Oil City High together in 1970 with equally bad reputations. Like Tim, Frank was one of the early hippies in town, but he was more likely to be off in the woods than hanging around Central Avenue. “Frank loved the woods,” his brother Bill would recall. “He was an excellent hunter, but he didn’t need a gun to enjoy himself out there. I remember once he found three baby hawks in a tree stump. He brought two of them to the man who ran the bird sanctuary and decided to keep the third for himself. He grew very attached to the baby hawk. He took care of it for several months until someone fed it a chicken bone and it choked to death.”
Frank was tall with dark crinkly hair and, later, a beard that made him look like Cat Stevens. He figured he was bound to screw up just about anything he attempted, so he rarely tried anything long enough to become disappointed … except, perhaps, drugs. He read Hesse and Gibran. He made beautiful candles and talked about going to art school. He would go for long drives, searching for antiques for his room. He loved acid rock, rock concerts and psychedelic drugs.
When he graduated from high school, he took off for Arizona in search of an old girlfriend, but found her with another guy. After that, he joined the Air Force. The Air Force lasted a month. His mother says he was discharged because he was having flashbacks.
He came home to Oil City for a while and shot speed. Then he went to Florida, worked in a tomato canning factory, got fired, worked as a garbage man in Tampa, got hepatitis from a dirty needle, came home and landed in the psychiatric ward of Oil City Hospital, commonly known as the Annex.
Dr. Harrison Bright, his doctor, told one of Frank’s friends, “Frank is a chronic depressive and he will probably be in and out of hospitals the rest of his life.” For the next three years, 1973 to 1976, Frank was in and out of the Annex. Dr. Bright tried many different types of medication, including electroshock therapy, which he administered approximately 30 times, according to Frank’s parents. But Frank seemed on a permanent and ever-accelerating downward spiral.
When he wasn’t in the Annex, Frank worked as an attendant at Polk State Hospital, assigned to take care of retarded men, age 25 and up, who sat in a room watching television all day. He joked about the job to his friends, but he cared deeply about the men: he would stage magic and clown shows for them and once he dressed up as the Easter Bunny.
The drugs Dr. Bright prescribed made Frank feel very sleepy, and rarely did he do more than go to work or just laze around the house. He couldn’t drink or smoke dope without making himself feel horrible. He withdrew from all but his closest friends, of whom he demanded constant sympathy. They were saddened and frightened by what they saw happening, especially when Frank had trouble remembering things after shock therapy.
As his life closed in around him and he retreated into the room in his parents’ house, Frank sensed he was becoming more and more like the retarded men he was supposed to be caring for. He was becoming ugly, twisted, listless, alone. “How do I look?” he’d ask his friends. “Do I look okay?”
Then, in early May, his mother told him, “Tim O’Hara committed suicide.”
“Really,” he said.
A week later his parents went away on vacation, leaving Frank all alone in the house. A few days after that, he took out his old high school photograph and used it for target practice.
Neighbors heard the rifle shot and Frank’s brother Bill found the mutilated picture when he went over to check on his brother the next day. Bill collected all the cartridges he could find for Frank’s gun and alerted their brother, Ralph. They decided to keep close tabs on Frank until their parents returned home.
But Frank was, by then, difficult to keep tabs on. He was barely coherent. He couldn’t decide what he wanted to do: the next night he checked himself into the Annex, but checked himself out a few minutes later. He went to Bill’s house. He spent the night telling Bill’s wife, Marlene, how he was too old to be living with his parents and all his friends were either married or living elsewhere and he couldn’t take it anymore.
The next night, his brothers stayed with Frank at their parents’ house. Early in the evening Frank called Marlene and said, “I’m gonna kill myself tonight. Nobody loves me.”
“I love you, Frank,” she said.
“You have a family. You don’t need me.” He was crying.
“You’re part of my family, Frank.”
“I’m gonna find out,” he said, “if the grass is greener on the other side.”
Later, sitting in the kitchen with his brothers, Frank said he had to go to the bathroom. They heard him go upstairs. The next thing they heard came from the front lawn: a sound like a big balloon popping. Apparently Frank had found another bullet for his rifle somewhere. It was May 23rd, exactly two weeks after Tim O’Hara had died.
The next night, a group of friends went over to Bill Levesque’s house to pay condolences. The evening began solemnly enough, but the guests found the pain too difficult to face directly and soon it turned into a young, drunken, stoned version of an Irish wake. People were getting drunk and smoking dope and acting very crazy.
Mark Willard couldn’t understand what was going on. He was Bill’s friend — he barely knew Frank — but the death had hit him especially hard and he couldn’t figure out why all Frank’s friends were so happy. Finally, when a group of people announced they were going upstairs to hold a dope-smoking contest, Mark said, “I can’t take this. I gotta get out of here.”
Mark was tall and blond and he had just gotten out of jail … or had he? Sometimes, when he walked around downtown Oil City, it felt like he was back in prison. They were all staring at him, and talking behind his back. He knew what they were saying: “There goes Mark Willard. His grandfather was the banker and he’s a robber.”
Mark’s great-great-grandfather, Alexander Willard, had been the only merchant in the neighboring town of Franklin to own a safe. As a result, the other merchants kept their money with him and, by 1859, he had established the Willard Bank. When the boom hit, he opened a branch office in Oil City and became the Willard National Bank. The family prospered. They were among the best people in the area, an elegant family … and then the bottom fell out. The bank failed in the Great Depression. Mark’s father was a boy at the time and the loss affected him very seriously. He never really got over it. He drank heavily, was hospitalized for it several times, and the burden of raising his six children fell to his wife, who worked as a nurse at Oil City Hospital.
Mark grew up angry. He dropped out of high school, then went to Erie, where he worked for General Electric for a while. Then he was back in Oil City, doing a lot of drugs, and on January 18th, 1973, he pulled off two armed robberies.
These were not among the more effective capers in the annals of crime. In fact, Mark seemed to be begging to get caught. First, he and a friend held up Mrs. Regina Matthews, an elderly woman and lifelong friend of the family. Mark had played in her backyard when he was a kid. “I remember his grandfather. He played a splendid game of golf,” Mrs. Matthews recalled.
Mrs. Matthews thought the episode was more bizarre than anything else, even though Mark persisted in waving a gun in the general direction of her knees. He took about $100 from Mrs. Matthews, then went down to a local grocery store (where he was equally well known) and robbed it, too. Afterwards he went home where the police caught up with him. He was tried, convicted and sent to prison in short order; an armed robber, age 18.
For the next three years, 1973 to 1976, Mark Willard bounced like a pinball from prisons to drug programs and home again on parole. He became well known to various members of the local social work bureaucracy, some of whom described him as “mildly sociopathic.” He also became well known to Father Gregory Kroll, who described him as quiet and sensitive. When Mark went off to jail, he entrusted Father Kroll with the care of his prized possession, a 1970 Pontiac GTO.
Throughout this period, Mark suffered from severe headaches. He’d continually ask the guards for aspirin; at first they brought it, but when he kept asking for more they figured he was some sort of nut and stopped humoring him. Finally a doctor came to the prison to see what was wrong with him. The doctor turned out to be an old friend of Mark’s grandfather’s. “You,” he told Mark, “should be ashamed of yourself.”
On April 16th, 1976, Mark Willard was released from prison. For the next several weeks he tried, unsuccessfully, to find a job. Even with Father Kroll making the phone calls for him, the answer was always: “Are you kidding?” Then there were the stares downtown, and his car caught fire, and the suicides started.
The day after the wake at Bill Levesque’s house, several friends noticed Mark behaving strangely. He had been angry before, but now he was out of control. Joe Leary, a drug counselor who knew Mark, said, “He was crying and shaking. He’d pull himself together for a minute, then he’d lose control again. I sent him over to Dr. Bright.”
Dr. Harrison Bright had been treating Mark for several weeks with medication. Mark’s mother had been worried that the medication would get him started on drugs again. Now the doctor suggested that Mark check himself into the Annex. Mark said he had to go to Frank Levesque’s funeral first.
On Wednesday, May 26th, they buried Frank Levesque. Mark was pretty quiet all day, although he did tell one friend, “I wish I had the guts to do what Frank did.”
On Thursday, May 27th, Mark was found hanging by a strap in his closet.
* * *
A few weeks later, a wandering Associated Press technician came to town to fix the photocopy machine at the Oil City Derrick. He checked in at the Holiday Inn, went downstairs for a drink and began hearing some wild stories in the bar. Everyone seemed to be talking about the death pact. It was, no doubt, some sort of sickness like Manson or the Symbionese. Three hippies had committed suicide. They all had the same psychiatrist and the same priest. There were probably others involved, too, just waiting for the appropriate moment to pull the plug. Maybe as many as 13 others. Names were circulating. People were wondering which one would be next.
The technician went back to his room, called the AP bureau in Pittsburgh and told them it might be a good idea to send up a reporter. Something very strange was going on in Oil City.
* * *
All things considered, it was rather remarkable that the Oil City Derrick, which manages to take note every time a deer is felled in the forest, somehow failed to notice the deaths. As a matter of policy, it didn’t even print the cause of death when it ran the obituaries of the three boys. “I guess we blew it,” said Jim Patterson of the Derrick several months later. “I guess we should have printed something right away to calm people down.”
Actually the Derrick was reflecting — as it often did — the official mood of the enlightened elements in town: that it wasn’t quite tasteful to dwell on such goings-on, and everyone would be better off if the deaths were forgotten. Meanwhile, the town had gone berserk with rumors. By mid-June, the news had reached the elementary schools. John and Carol Simmons’ daughter came home from second grade one day and asked, “Why did Mr. O’Hara blow his head off?” The Simmonses also had to deal with curious friends and relatives who wanted to know what this O’Hara was really like. “Wasn’t John afraid to hang around with that guy?” one relative asked.
It seemed as though everyone in town was talking about the deaths. Rumors flew up and down the hillsides. There was a certain tenseness in the air downtown. Friends of the deceased would draw long stares, then whispers. There were those who considered the deaths a clear warning from above, although no one could quite understand what Oil City had done to merit such an admonition. Others, remembering the reputations of the deceased, figured that this was just a new level of youthful mayhem — troublesome in a dark, extreme sort of way, but with the advantage of permanently incapacitating the perpetrators. The town was getting rid of its troublemakers, wasn’t it? “The only rumor I hear,” a police official was heard to say, “is that the town is better off without them.”
Wallace Horton, a young Presbyterian minister who ran a youth program downtown and had to deal with the parents who were wondering if their kids would be next, believed some statement had to be made about the deaths. There had to be rational public discussion, not this near-hysterical whispering. But instead of confronting it directly, he wrote a poem and inserted it in his weekly youth affairs column in the Derrick. It was the first printed acknowledgment that something was amiss in town. It began:
They knew each other well
They were all the same kind of young
They each were rebels …
The poem only served to heighten the myth, to link the three closer in death. Later, Wallace Horton would be embarrassed by it. Meanwhile, the deaths continued to resonate.
* * *
Part of Tim O’Hara Sr.’s job at the Franklin News-Herald is to rip stories off the Associated Press wire machine each day and read them. The stories come from all over the world and so he was quite surprised, on July 13th, to see one with an Oil City dateline. Then he was horrified. It was a story about his son’s death:
“The three men traveled in the same circles. Same friends, same bars, same parties …”
It had been terrible enough to have a son die. But now there was additional torture: Tim Jr. had become part of this half-crazed package deal. It was like losing him all over again each time another one died and his name was linked.
At first, the O’Haras had no intention of reacting to the coroner’s ruling of suicide. They were numb. He was dead and the ruling wouldn’t bring him back. But when, all of a sudden, Tim had become part of this phenomenon, they began to have second thoughts. Tim wasn’t like those others: he had a good job, he had straightened out his life. In fact, when they began to think more clearly about it, the O’Haras and Tim’s close friends became convinced that he probably hadn’t committed suicide at all. There was no rational reason for him to do it.
“Maybe,” said John Simmons, “he was just playing with the gun. You know, ‘If this thing were loaded, I’d be dead.’ Click.”
They struggled with different theories: there were so many possibilities. Sitting around the kitchen table at the Simmonses one evening, Tim O’Hara Sr. suggested that his son may have been murdered. “You don’t know that someone didn’t go up there and start an argument on the porch, and then try to grab the gun or something,” he said. “The police never tried to take fingerprints off the gun.” He was a quiet, round man with dark hair slicked back. His voice broke at times when he talked about his son. His wife, Annie, sat across the table; she was taller, more angular and let her husband do most of the talking. She wore black-rimmed glasses like he did, and would take three or four puffs on her cigarettes, then put them out. “My wife isn’t nervous,” Mr. O’Hara explained. “She always smokes like that.”
Mr. O’Hara spoke very proudly of his son: a supervisor at Joy Manufacturing had told him that Tim would have had a big future there. “Tim was very good to us,” Mr. O’Hara said. “He bought us a 25-inch color television for Christmas last year. Before that we only had black and white.” But nobody in town knew about that side of Tim, they only knew about the hell-raiser whose name was in the paper all the time. “I’ve got to believe that when the police and coroner heard who it was,” the father said, “they issued the suicide ruling right there.”
“Tim,” Mrs. O’Hara cautioned.
“No, I really believe that,” said Tim Sr. “The coroner will tell you that the gun was pressed right up under his chin, but if that were true his head would have been …”
“Tim,” she pressed, “you don’t have to …”
“We’ll never believe it,” he said.
At about the same time as the AP story went out over the wires, the Oil City Derrick took an important step in the life of a small town newspaper: it acknowledged that there was a Problem. The more enlightened elements in town apparently now were convinced that the deaths were the result of drug abuse and something had to be done about it. So the Derrick ran a series of articles about drug abuse written by a staff reporter. The series was “at least in part” a response to the three deaths, said Jim Patterson of the Derrick.
It didn’t matter that two of the victims, Tim O’Hara and Frank Levesque, could hardly be considered chronic drug users the last few years of their lives — unless you counted the drugs Frank was taking on prescription. To blame the remarkable series of events in May on drug abuse made it all easier to understand. There were lessons that could be learned from the deaths now. The tragedies could be safely cataloged and hyphenated: they were “drug-related.”
Joe Leary, the drug rehabilitation counselor who had worked with Frank Levesque and Mark Willard, knew enough to dismiss the “drug-related” theory of the suicides. He had his own theory: he was sure, at first, that it was a pact.
“Yeah, I actually believed that,” he said, several months later. “The thing was that I saw Mark Willard fall apart after Frank Levesque died and there was no rational explanation for something like that. I figured there might be some sort of dare involved. … Later, I realized it was just my way of trying to explain something I couldn’t understand.”
Long after the rumors died down and Oil City settled into its Bicentennial summer, those who were closest to the deceased would continue to look for answers. Sometimes, late at night at the Oasis, talk would turn to Tim O’Hara and how the shotgun could have gone off accidentally. At times Frank Levesque’s father, who worked for the highway department, would look at Frank’s will — written in pencil, leaving his car to John, his savings account to his parents and signed, “sincerely” — and wonder when, exactly, it had been written. Father Kroll would wonder how he and everyone else who knew Mark Willard could know how upset he was those last few days and yet allow him to …
When the families and friends finished sifting through the evidence, they began to search themselves. Each could find a reason why he or she was to blame for at least a piece of it. Some, finding the pain intolerable, sought refuge in the irrational. One woman close to both Frank Levesque and Mark Willard believed for months afterwards that all three had taken the same drug before they died — a chemically treated marijuana called “flakes” — though she knew that drug or not (and she had no real evidence), Frank and Mark had seemed quite intent on destroying themselves one way or another.
In the end, only a dull pain remained, and the words and theories recited endlessly began to lose their meaning and bounce off each other with a hollow clangor. …
James Doherty, the county coroner: “I am convinced the O’Hara death was suicide. There is no question in my mind.”
Carol Simmons: “It’s been eight months now but I just can’t stop thinking about it. I still can’t figure it out at all.”
Father Kroll, who buried all three: “It was very awkward trying to find the right words. I said that instead of asking why they died, we should ask why they lived.”
Dr. Harrison Bright, the psychiatrist: “In a way, it is similar to airplane hijacking. You don’t hear about them happening for a long time … then one plane is hijacked, and then two or three more right after the first.”
Frank Levesque’s mother: “A friend told me about a town in Ohio where they had six of them.”