Austin Mueller would have turned 20 on June 15, but on that day, his grieving mother likely will relive the horrors of May 5, 2010, when her son brought a lifelong struggle with depression to a quiet coda by committing chemical suicide in a college parking lot.
Although he tried to hide his intentions from those closest to him, information left behind on a laptop revealed that Austin, a talented artist and astrophysics student in his second year at Southwestern Illinois College, had been planning his final exit for more than a year. Several Internet sites told him just what to do.
Ever meticulous, Austin left carefully worded signs on his car warning "Do not Open Vehicle. Danger. One Breath Can Render You Unconscious," his mother, Joyce Coulter of Wildwood, Mo., said. He even included his name, address, phone number and who should get his Teddy bears.
Austin had been depressed as early as age 4 or 5, when he told her, "Mom, I don't want to live life. It's just too hard." Then, around age 12, this prescient prediction: "I will never make it to the age of 20. This life just isn't for me."
And yet, he was an honor-roll student who confidently announced to his entire high school that he was gay, attended his prom with his boyfriend, and in his junior year wrote a paper (unfinished) about depression to "encourage other kids to get help," Coulter said. "He had all the right things in there. He knew all the right answers." However, in his own case, "he just could no longer fight it."
In a note from a previous suicide attempt, he had written: "If I go to hell for killing myself, it can't be worse than the hell I'm in."
Coulter takes her only comfort in the thought that after he curled up in the car with his favorite blanket and pillow, Austin brought an end to his pain. But what she cannot forgive are the anonymous people online who helped facilitate his efficient death. "He got the information on how to do this online. A person on the website was telling him, 'good luck.' I don't know how anybody could be like that."
His was the first "detergent suicide" that Belleville, Ill., authorities had seen, although they'd become aware of other Americans who deliberately killed themselves with toxic fumes from combining household cleaners and other chemicals in confined spaces.
For more than three years now, news reports have painted eerily similar tableaux: a man or woman slumped lifelessly over a steering wheel, windows up, doors locked, buckets or bottles of household chemicals nearby and homemade signs warning of poisonous gases inside. From San Diego to Siesta Key, Fla., at least 38 people have died after mixing up baneful brews that in most of the cases cloaked them in invisible clouds of hydrogen sulfide so concentrated that one whiff can kill. A few of them used similarly lethal hydrogen cyanide gas.
Local, state and federal agencies including the Justice Department have been monitoring the cases, although none have released official tallies. They trace the U.S. incidents to rash of similar deaths in Japan, a country with high suicide rates. In March 2008, Miyuki Asou, a Japanese actress who had recently appeared in pornographic films, committed detergent suicide. In the first half of 2008, more than 500 other Japanese killed themselves with instructions easily accessible online. When a 14-year-old girl from Konan, Japan, committed detergent suicide in her bathroom, she inadvertently sickened 90 residents of an apartment building, demonstrating that chemical suicides pose public health hazards.
Whether they extinguish their lives in cars, or in college dormitories, apartments, homes or hotels, those who perish this way unwittingly endanger the lives of passersby or emergency response teams. After a laboratory worker killed himself in his pickup truck on Dec. 21, 2009, four Kansas City, Mo., firefighters and one of the man's relatives were taken to a hospital after exposure to hydrogen cyanide. He hadn't posted any warnings. Emergency operations and law enforcement agencies have scrambled to use such examples to educate employees about donning breathing masks and hazmat suits before getting close to chemical suicide sites.
One of the most recent U.S. cases occurred May 23 on a private street high in the Hollywood Hills above Los Angeles. That's where 23-year-old Ana Gutierrez of Culver City and a man whom authorities haven't publicly identified, acted out an apparent suicide pact, except that the man jumped from the car and survived, said Ed Winter, assistant chief of investigation for the L.A. Department of Coroner.
Winter rattled off at least four other local incidents, the first of which involved a 23-year-old man who on August 28, 2008, parked his VW Beetle behind a Pasadena shopping center, locked the doors and prepared a lethal formula. Hazmat crews evacuated the area before opening the car. In February 2010, a 20-year-old West Covina woman was found dead from hydrogen sulfide in the backseat of her car in a remote near Castaic. Also last year, a woman committed chemical suicide in a bathroom of a rented Venice beach house, after posting warning signs on the bathroom door.
"That lady, I believe, was determined," Winter said. "She was a chemical engineer, and so she knew what she was doing." Although emergency personnel first thought she had died from hydrogen sulfide exposure, she died from exposure to carbon monoxide, another colorless, lethal killer. Winter said a fourth chemical suicide took place last year in a Beverly Hills home.
The website of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs' Association contains accounts of 32 chemical suicides from May 27, 2008, to Sept. 18, 2010, in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Utah, (excluding the Venice and Beverly Hills cases), as well as four suicide attempts in Colorado, Louisiana and Wisconsin.
So far this year, Michigan news outlets reported on Jan. 14, 2011, that a 28-year-old man been found dead from hydrogen sulfide poisoning in rural Lake County in that state's second detergent suicide. Six days after the Hollywood Hills case, police in Watertown Mass., discovered the body of a 32-year-old Massachusetts man inside a car with hydrogen sulfide warning signs. Together, the reports account for 38 deaths.
Despite the relatively small numbers, Winter described himself as "a little concerned about putting the idea in people's heads that don't know about it." His remarks echoed those of Wylie Tene, spokesman for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York, who called chemical suicides "a very rare occurrence and we don't want it to become a popular thing."
At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Dr. Kurt Kleinschmidt, program director in medical toxicology, said that although his medical center hasn't encountered any cases, "the recipes are out there. They're well thought-out."
Nevertheless, he said that those who carry out their suicide plans "represent the smaller portion of your suicidal population. Most folks are out to make a gesture or make a statement."
Austin, however, was determined to bring his sadness to an end. Coulter shared a heartbreaking image Austin took with his cellphone the night before killing himself. "I think it was his way of showing just how sad he was," his mother said. "I don't know who it was intended for... maybe everyone."