April 8, 2013

What Kitty McGuire left behind: happy memories, many questions

The 13-year-old's family points to reports of bullying and her grief over a beloved uncle's suicide, but struggle to understand why she took her life.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

TROY - When 13-year-old Kitty McGuire killed herself two weeks ago, some people blamed bullying.

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Aunts and uncles of Kitty McGuire talk about their 13-year-old niece, who took her life last month in Troy. From left, Bobbi Pelletier and Michael McGuire join Hannah and Timothy McGuire at the couple's home in Bangor. They hope that when police obtain access to Kitty's messages on her iPod, it may yield some answer to the mystery of what triggered her suicide.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Kitty McGuire

Photo McGuire family

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WARNING SIGNALS FOR SUICIDE

Carrie Horne, assistant director of the Maine division of National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit agency, said suicide very rarely comes without some sort of warning.

"Most of the time, 90 percent of the time, people show signs of suicide before they are going to kill themselves," Horne said.

Horne said there are imminent signs to watch for:

Making threats, even vague threats, such as "I wish I was dead" or "What's the point of living?"

Looking for ways to carry out a suicide plan, such as looking for a firearm or rope.

Writing about death, texting about death or suicide or drawing pictures of suicide.

Other signs include moodiness, sadness, irritability, anger, withdrawing from friends and family, changes in sleep patterns such as insomnia or sleeping too much, feeling hopeless or feeling trapped.

Horne said people who feel suicidal or are worried about a loved one should call the state mental health crisis number, 1-888-568-1112.

-- From staff reports

Family members said Kitty was teased at school for wearing all black, and for questioning her sexual identity. Friends on Facebook assert she was targeted by other students. Her family staged an anti-bullying protest in front of her school, challenging administrators to do more to stop bullying.

But as more details have emerged about Kitty McGuire, the idea that bullying led to her suicide may be too simple an explanation.

There were signs Kitty was having trouble dealing with the suicide a year earlier of a much loved uncle. For instance, she took to wearing his clothes.

But her family members all agree that Kitty showed few, if any, signs of being suicidal.

The school, which has a defined anti-bullying policy, maintains it received no reports that Kitty was bullied. She had many friends at Mount View Middle School in Thorndike. She was happy at home. She had never tried drugs. Her grades were improving.

Kitty, born Harley-Donna Virginia McGuire but known to everyone by her nickname, left no note or indication why she would want to take her life.

Just a few hours before, she had been sharing jokes with her grandfather.

The way she killed herself could have been a clue to what she felt but didn't show: Kitty hanged herself in her bedroom, the same way her beloved uncle, 20-year-old Edward McGuire, killed himself on April 11, 2012.

The two both lived in her grandparents' home on Ward Hill Road. He treated Kitty like a little sister and best friend and his suicide devastated her.

"She was extremely upset by his death. She went to the extent of imitating him and wearing his clothes," said her grandfather, Fred McGuire.

But Fred McGuire said he doesn't think Edward's death is the reason she killed herself. Everything he's heard since Kitty's death is that other students were cruel to her, and he's convinced that's the real reason. Her other family members agree.

"She was really sad about (Edward's death)," said another uncle, Timothy McGuire. "But I don't think that's why she took her life." 

AN UNTRADITIONAL UPBRINGING

Kitty's parents, Ruby-Dale McGuire and Richard Shaw, gave her up when she was just an infant. Her mother lives in Bangor. Her father lives in Old Town. Neither was a regular part of her life.

Instead, Kitty was brought up by her grandparents, Fred and Donna McGuire, along with her older brother, Richard "Neeper" McGuire, at the end of a long road in rural Troy.

"Donna and I changed Kitty's first diaper," Fred said. "Within 10 days, we had Kitty. We had Kitty before she took her first steps. Since she was born, she was ours."

The McGuires raised Kitty and Richard side by side with their own sons, Timothy, 27; Michael, 24; and Edward.

Timothy's high school sweetheart Hannah, whom he married three years ago, moved in with them. Michael, who is now a corporal in the Marine Corps, married as a teenager, and his wife, Bobbi Pelletier, spent much of her youth there, too.

"Circumstances just made it so Fred and Donna were the legal guardians," Bobbi said. "We all grew up together. We all went to school together. It didn't matter the legal technicalities. We were a family."

Troy is a small farming community in northern Waldo County, halfway between Bangor and Waterville. With a population of just over 1,000 people, the town is bisected by Route 202 and has no commercial or residential concentration.

Timothy and Hannah moved to their own home in Bangor. Last week, they gathered there with Michael and Bobbi to talk about Kitty and what went wrong.

"Mom and Dad took them (Kitty and her brother), and we all collectively raised them," Michael said.

Kitty's aunts and uncles describe her as vibrant and outspoken, jokey and prone to playing pranks, a rough and tumble tomboy.

She was driven and relentless when she was interested in something. She mastered how to use nunchucks, a quick-swinging martial arts weapon, staying up nights to get better and then showing off her new skills to her family.

She was interested in anything to do with the professional wrestling enterprise WWE, especially the wrestler John Cena. She listened to music on her iPod and was always on the phone with friends.

"She was happy with whatever she was doing as long as she was with everybody else," Michael said. "She was a little tomboy."

Kitty loved competing with her Marine uncle, comparing her height and hand size to his. At 5-foot-6, she was only an inch shorter than he.

Michael said he showed Kitty how to do a diamond push-up on one of his visits home. She practiced it over and over until his next visit, to show how strong she was getting.

"She'd pull a prank on someone, then come running up and put her arms around you and say, 'But you love me because I'm the baby,'" Bobbi recalled. "She had a mischievous little grin, bright eyes and long blond hair, but she'd always have it in a ponytail."

Bobbi recalled one of Kitty's pranks when she went out to their car in the middle of winter, rolled down the windows, turned on the air conditioning and moved all the items from the back seat into the front seats. When they found her afterward, she was back in the house, snuggled under a warm blanket, reveling in her stunt.

Timothy and Hannah recalled Kitty catching the bouquet at their wedding. She was always the one who caught wedding bouquets, they said. In pictures from the event, Kitty is in a long black dress, smiling, holding flowers in one photo and dancing with Timothy in another.

"Nobody saw this coming at all," Hannah said. "That's why we're so confused. She didn't give any indication of this."

"There's got to be something that set her off. Kids don't randomly get up and do something like that," Hannah said.

Kitty's friends maintain that bullying must have been the reason she killed herself, and her uncles agree.

"I can't think of anything else that would make her do it, only the family loss, Ed," Michael said.

Carrie Horne, assistant director of the Maine division of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said young people aren't always obvious about their emotions.

"Sometimes you see in youths, there are certain times in their lives you can see them sad. There are other situations they seem absolutely happy and normal," Horne said. "They can seem like everything is normal at school, and then at home they may withdraw more. They may show these signs only to certain people."

'FIGURING OUT WHO SHE WAS'

Kitty turned 13 about a month before her death and was only beginning to question her sexual identity, her family said.

Her aunt Hannah noticed she began paying more attention to her hair and experimenting with eyeliner. Other students have characterized Kitty as possibly gay or bisexual.

"We're reading from her Facebook page that she was bullied because of how she dressed. She dressed all in black. She was bullied for her sexual orientation, but she was just figuring out who she was," Hannah said.

Her other aunt, Bobbi, agreed that Kitty was trying to find herself, as every young teenager does, but she was still at the stage of crushes and first kisses.

"She just turned 13," Bobbi said. "She didn't even know."

Her grandfather, Fred, said he had asked Kitty for permission to talk to her school guidance counselor so he could understand how to help her as she worked through her sexual identity.

"I wanted someone professional to call me and tell me what to do," he said.

Fred described one incident in which boys confronted Kitty on the school bus, threatening her with vulgar language and kicking her. Kitty punched back, and the school labeled it a fight rather than bullying, he said.

"There were only a few days that she was angry at the sexual slur and innuendo," Fred said. "She blew up. She got over it. And she got back to being her perky, usual self."

That was how she was on the night of March 25. She was at home with her family cracking jokes and laughing as she often did.

"Kitty used to tease me," Fred said. "She would joke about putting me in a nursing home and stuff."

He said the only time Kitty was out of his sight was between 7 and 8 p.m. and some time in the hour before he went to bed at 10 p.m.

"That's what was going on with Kitty the night she killed herself. The same Kitty. The same jokes," her grandfather said. "There was nothing leading up to it to tip me off. I don't have any answers. I keep thinking that there's something I could have done."

Kitty's brother was the first to find her. He went into her bedroom early in the morning on March 26, realized something was wrong and went to get his grandfather, other family members said.

The Waldo County Sheriff's Office has declined to comment on Kitty's death, saying only that it's still under investigation.

Kitty's family gave investigators her iPod, which she used to message with friends and to access Facebook, but authorities have so far been unable to unlock it to see whether she exchanged a final communication with anyone. Investigators expect it will take several more weeks before Apple provides them with her password, her grandfather said.

"We did everything we could from what we knew," Fred said. "We don't have the story yet."

A PROTEST

Kitty's cousin, Kaitlyn McGuire, organized a rally on April 1 outside Mount View Middle School, "peacefully protesting the bullying policies, or lack thereof," she said in a notice she posted on the Bangor Daily News website.

About 20 people attended, trying to bring attention to the issue of bullying.

The school allowed the rally on school grounds without interference, although school officials say it's too early to say that Kitty was bullied.

Kaitlyn, a student at Skowhegan Area High School, said she didn't see her cousin often because they lived far apart, but they kept in touch on Facebook.

"I knew she was being bullied, but she didn't talk about it," she said. "She was always smiling. She was one of the happiest kids I know."

Kaitlyn said that she knew Kitty was having a hard time dealing with Edward's death.

"I'm sure it wasn't strictly bullying," Kaitlyn said. "I know bullying played a huge part."

Kitty's uncle Timothy also attended the rally, protesting what he called inaction by school officials. He also said he thinks too little was done to watch for other signs that Kitty may have been depressed.

"They knew that Edward had passed. Everyone at that school knew about it, and they should have kept an eye on her. My father told them to keep a better eye on her," Timothy said.

Heather Perry, the superintendent of Regional School Unit 3, which includes Mount View Middle School, said the school system is investigating Kitty's death and what role bullying might have played, separate from the investigation by the Waldo County Sheriff's Office.

"We had not had any reports of bullying in this case," Perry said. "We are currently conducting an investigation looking at the allegations."

Perry said that whether Kitty was bullied, teased or harassed, "none of those are acceptable behaviors at our schools."

"I've been a superintendent for seven years, this is my 17th year as an educator and I've never experienced anything like this. It really did have a tremendous impact on students and the community as a whole," she said.

Perry said school officials allowed the rally because officials agreed with the message that bullying should not be tolerated. She said she also felt it was good that Kitty's family members held it.

"The whole community was impacted by this tragedy -- students, staff, parents," Perry said. "I think everybody is going through some sort of grieving process of a variety, and when we go through the process individually, whether it be adults or kids, it's going to be there's some emotional roller-coaster ride. You are going to have feelings that range from fear, being scared, not knowing what to do, to being angry -- all those things.

"We're really trying as a school to respond to this and support the community as we work through the process. So we're paying close attention on how to continue supporting students, but we're also going to be offering public forums starting as early as (this) week and hopefully have the series go into this spring, summer and fall next (school) year," Perry said.

Perry said school officials did step in when groups of students wanted to wear T-shirts and buttons with Kitty's name on them, worried that it might encourage other students to harm themselves as she had.

"We had gotten some pretty strong advice from (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) and the school to discourage this kind of behavior. We didn't want any response, or what people call copycat behavior. When a student had a button, we would ask them to put it under their shirt or under their jacket," Perry said.

Following Kitty's death, Perry said, the school district coordinated with outside counselors and bereavement experts to work with students and staff members at not only the middle school but also the adjoining high school in Thorndike, and at Troy Elementary School, which Kitty attended.

Perry said the school system has a documented plan to deal with bullying allegations. Every full-time employee in RSU 3 has been trained in what to do when someone raises a bullying allegation.

The school district covers 440 square miles and includes 1,450 students from pre-kindergarten to the 12th grade from 11 towns. Kitty's grade has about 100 students.

"We've had a policy in place on bullying for a very long time," Perry said.

At the beginning of the school year in September, the school district expanded its policy with a mandatory form and reporting system.

"This has to be filled out for any allegation of bullying. It doesn't matter if it is founded or unfounded," Perry said, holding up a report form.

After an allegation is reported, by anyone from a school custodian to a coach or faculty member, a guidance counselor or school administrator must then investigate and complete an investigation form.

Since the process has been in place, fewer than 10 bullying allegations have been reported each month. The average has been about five allegations a month, Perry said.

But while the investigations continue, Kitty's family still doesn't have any answers for why she would have done something so drastic.

"We'd like some closure," her grandfather said. "We're tentatively looking toward holding a memorial for Kitty."

But to bring that closure, they need answers.

Her aunt Hannah said the family's best hope now is that the sheriff's office finds a message or some exchange on social media retrieved from Kitty's iPod, someone's words, either from Kitty or someone else that could help make sense of what happened.

"I hope they find something," Hannah said.

Until then, they cling to memories of Kitty's distinct personality, quirkiness and clever pranks.

"She was so sweet, she'd curl up on the couch with us," her aunt Bobbi recalled.

Her uncle Michael said he would remember the messages Kitty would leave for him to find, to cheer him up.

"I had this big mirror in the bathroom, we had this car window marker and she'd leave me these little messages," Michael recalled.

He said she would also play pranks on him, like turning all his pictures upside down while he wasn't looking.

A little reminder that she had been there. 

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at

sdolan@mainetoday.com

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Additional Photos

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Michael McGuire, one of Kitty’s uncles, remembers the messages she would write to him on his bathroom mirror to cheer him up. She also delighted in playing pranks on him.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Bobbi Pelletier, an aunt of Kitty McGuire, says, “She was so sweet, she’d curl up on the couch with us.” She says Kitty, having just turned 13, was trying to find herself.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Kitty McGuire holds the bouquet she caught at the wedding of Timothy and Hannah McGuire three years ago. She was always the one who caught wedding bouquets, the couple said.

Family photo

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Heather Perry

  


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