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Teen's suicide puzzles friends

12:35 PM CDT on Sunday, July 8, 2007

By KATIE FAIRBANK and MICHAEL J. MOONEY / The Dallas Morning News

Just about everybody at Klein Collins High School knew David Ritcheson. He was a homecoming prince his freshman year and played running back in Spring, Texas, a suburb north of Houston where Tigers football is a vital part of life.

John Longoria, one of his best buddies, remembers David – nicknamed D-Ritch – as always smiling, always laughing. "I'd swing by and on the way to school he would freestyle [rap]. It just made me smile. It was his early-morning freestyle. It'd be about anything," he says.

David put everyone at ease. Even after April 2006, when he nearly died in a racially motivated attack that made national news. He was beaten, burned with cigarettes and brutally sodomized.

"He acted like it never happened," says his friend and teammate Hunt Whitten.

The Dallas Morning News

David Ritcheson

Until last Sunday morning. That's when the 18-year-old shimmied up a tower on the Carnival cruise ship Ecstasy and jumped more than 200 feet into the sea. His death leaves everyone who thought they knew him bewildered and searching for answers.

They believed if anyone could tough it out after such unthinkable violence, it would be him.

David grew up in a modest neighborhood. His family's single-story home sits on a cul-de-sac in the shade of cypress trees. It's the kind of neighborhood where children play in the lawn sprinklers of their front yards. The kind of place where families feel safe and connected.

Friends here remain friends from middle school all the way through graduation, and that was true for Lauren Evans and David. Lauren says they first met when they were sixth-graders and she was running late for class at a new school.

David stopped her and told a joke. "He said, 'If you didn't have feet, would you still wear socks? Then why do you wear a bra?' " She immediately laughed.

"I saw him every single day in the halls, and he would give me a hug," she says. "He could always make my day. He had a ton of friends."

People were drawn to David. "He had a contagious smile. He was always ready to just chill with anyone," his friend Austin Anderson, 18, says. "You could put him in a room with anyone and David would make friends."

He blended well with different crowds, was popular with his classmates and supported his friends. He loved the football team and was the starting running back as a freshman.

"David was small, but he packed a punch," says teammate John Longoria. "He would take you out. He flipped people all the way over."

After his freshman year when David stopped playing, he still cheered on his former teammates. "He went to all the games," John says. "He loved watching us play. He would scream our names from the stands, and sometimes we'd try to give him a little signal from the field. He loved his boys, and he loved his family. He took care of you. If you ever had a problem, he was there."

For senior prom in May, his group of friends was so big they needed two limousines. "Prom night was the best night of our lives," Austin says. "He loved to dress up nice. When we all got our tuxes, he was real excited."

They planned the night with military precision. First, the group gathered at a friend's house for pictures. David smiled, hair and tux perfect, as parents snapped shots of the couples.

Then it was off to an upscale Brazilian steak restaurant, followed by the dance at a ritzy Houston hotel, where David hit the floor with his date as soon as he arrived. David was honored as a prom king nominee. When it was over, everyone headed to the high school for an after-party. They spent the night together, leaving at 6:30 a.m.

The perfect evening was the exact opposite of the horror that David had endured a year earlier.

In David's junior year, things got rough at school. He got into trouble for fighting and was sent to Highpoint North, an alternative school. It wasn't a pleasant place for him and was one of the first times in his life that he didn't fit in. But he tried to make the best of it. He still made friends.

He was with one of those friends, Gus Sons, at the town's annual Texas Crawfish and Music Festival in April 2006 when they were joined by a pair of teenagers, David Tuck and Keith Turner, who also were at the festival looking for a good time.

The four headed back to Gus' home, filling the night with hard partying, including liquor, marijuana and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. David said he got so drunk that he didn't realize the atmosphere had changed, that violence was now in the air. And that's when 12-year-old Danielle Sons said that he tried to kiss her.

That news enraged Mr. Tuck, a skinhead with Nazi tattoos and a past filled with beatings and animal abuse.

"After I was sucker-punched and knocked out, I was dragged in the backyard for an attack that would last for over an hour," David, a Mexican-American, said this April while testifying before Congress in support of hate-crime legislation.

"After they stripped me naked, they burned me with a cigarette, and I was kicked by the skinhead's steel-toed Army boots," he said.

They called him racist names, yelled "white power," and poured bleach on his face and body. Mr. Tuck tried to carve a swastika into David's chest. For five hours they tortured him, using a jagged pipe from a patio umbrella to sodomize him. The assaulters kicked the pipe through his rectum, perforating his internal organs.

David said he "was left for dead" in the backyard. Eight hours later, Mr. Sons' mother called the police.

"I didn't think he was going to make it," testified David's mother Laticia Galvan. "I didn't want to think about that. I wondered if mentally, is he going to be OK? I wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to walk again."

In his congressional testimony, David said he didn't remember the attack. "Fortunately, God spared me the memory of what happened that night."

The incident left him with unseen scars, both physical and emotional.

David spent the next 3 1/2 months in an intensive care hospital bed, unable to walk and unable to speak. He had more than 30 surgeries in an attempt to repair his perforated bladder and rectum, as well as other internal injuries.

"Most of those operations were essential to saving my life, and others were necessary just to make my body able to perform what would be normal functions," he told Congress.

While his body slowly recovered, the psychological trauma of the attack festered. He suffered from post-traumatic stress, according to a civil lawsuit his family has filed against the attackers and their parents. But even so, he refused psychological treatment, saying he preferred not to think about it.

But there was no way to escape.

His schoolmates, his friends and his community all knew he was the person who had been so brutally attacked. The news media did not name him because of the sexual nature of the attack, but the words "pipe victim" blared from the headlines of the local newspaper.

"I shouldn't care what people think," David told the Houston Chronicle earlier this year. "But it's like everyone knows I'm 'the kid.' "

"The people that he was most worried about knew him from school," says Martin B. Cominsky, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Houston. "Naming him to the broader community wasn't going to make the difference."

So David made the conscious decision to disclose his name in connection to the crime.

"It was his decision not to be a victim, but to be a hero," Mr. Cominsky says. "He didn't think of that in those terms, but we did."

Then came the gruesome trial. For two long months, the horrific details of that night were repeated over and over in a Harris County courtroom. David confronted his attackers for the first time and watched as both men were convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

Mr. Tuck was sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Turner was sentenced to 90 years. A civil lawsuit against the men and their parents is scheduled for trial in November.

With the intensive care unit and the trial behind him, David's life began to come back together.

A few weeks ago, he made another stride forward. He had an operation that helped return "normal functions," according to his attorney, Carlos Leon. As he left the hospital, he sent Mr. Leon a joyous text message.

"He said he was so happy. The message said that he was feeling great. He felt good about where he was," Mr. Leon says.

David told Congress in April that the brutal attack made him more aware of the things he had to live for. He bought a laptop and was beginning a new job. He was scheduled to graduate from high school in July. A donor promised a full scholarship to Blinn College in Brenham, an hour's drive northwest of Houston.

He was to be honored at a dinner in the fall and at a concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

He also booked a cruise to Mexico with a couple of friends and one of his friend's parents. Mr. Leon says David paid for the cruise himself.

"Everyone thought he was OK," his friend Hunt Whitten says. "He always had a smile for you or an inside joke. He didn't talk about the incident. He probably would have if someone asked him about it, but we never talked about it."

Still, some people close to David had a sense of foreboding. He told of nightmares, including one in which he fell off a building. Sometimes, his mother thought he wasn't always making sense. He wasn't concentrating and was off in his own world.

"He was talking in a confused manner," Mr. Leon says.

His mother feared he wouldn't come back from the trip, friends say. Some friends wonder aloud if he had been planning his death.

There were also warnings on June 30, the first night of the cruise. A 10-year-old girl aboard the ship overheard David tell his friends that he wanted to jump from an upper deck at first light, according to published reports.

Just after sunrise, he climbed a mast tower near the bow of the ship while it sailed toward Cozumel, Mexico. Security workers and friends pleaded, and thought at first they had talked him into coming down. Instead, David leapt over the side, according to authorities and Carnival. At least one of his friends saw David go into the water.

"The passenger was removed from the water by the ship's crew and brought on board where he was pronounced dead," Carnival's statement reads. An autopsy was performed Thursday and determined he died from drowning and blunt trauma to the head. The medical examiner ruled his death a suicide. A toxicology report will be available in four to six weeks.

His parents flew to Mexico to meet the ship and travel with the body back to Galveston.

They didn't respond to interview requests. At their home in Spring, a few feet from the basketball goal where David used to shoot hoops, is a makeshift memorial created by his friends. Flowers and childhood photos dot the ground around the mailbox.

Nothing seemed to erase David's pain. Not his assailants going to prison. Not a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives strengthening hate-crime punishments. Not his close network of friends and family. Not all the corrective surgeries.

"He was so strong, so confident and ready to move ahead, we all thought he was a miracle boy," Mr. Cominsky says. "He really masked it so well, it was hard for anyone to detect. How did we miss this? I don't think any of us understood quite the situation he was in."

Katie Fairbank reported from Dallas. Michael J. Mooney reported from Spring, Texas.

About 12 million people a year take cruises. Since 2005, more than two dozen have fallen overboard or disappeared. Many of the incidents are "man overboard" cases, while others are deemed suicides. Some are investigated for possible foul play. Cases in recent years include:

• Scott Durrin, 29, of Rockville, Md., was rescued from the ocean off Florida last week after going overboard from the Carnival Liberty. An FBI spokeswoman said he had been drinking when he decided to get into one of the ship's lifeboats.

• Brent Smith, 24, was reported missing June 18 aboard the Royal Caribbean International Freedom of the Seas. Search efforts were suspended after officials decided it was unlikely he would be found. The FBI is investigating.

• A 22-year-old man and a 20-year-old woman went overboard from a cabin balcony on the Grand Princess in March. They were found four hours later about 150 miles off the Galveston coast. Neither was seriously injured and both asked the cruise line to not make their names and circumstances public.

• Michael Mankamyer, 35, went overboard on a Carnival Glory ship off Florida's coast in March and was rescued eight hours later. He said that he had been drinking and that "alcohol took over with my medication."

• George A. Smith IV, 26, disappeared from Royal Caribbean International's Brilliance of the Seas while on a honeymoon cruise in the Aegean Sea in July 2005. His body was not recovered. The case remained high-profile partially because bloodstains were found near the newlywed's cabin balcony.

SOURCES: The Associated Press; Dallas Morning News research

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