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The Mall of America, Minnesota's Suicide Hot Spot

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Annette LeSueur was late driving home on March 8, 2010. She'd spent the evening at a Hindu temple honoring the birth of her art student's new child. Now she was replaying the ceremony in her head, particularly the verses about the cycle of death and rebirth. The concept, so foreign to her Mormon upbringing, seemed oddly comforting.

She arrived home to find a police car in the driveway of her Plymouth apartment complex. LeSueur intuitively scowled, thinking back to all those times she called 911 for help getting her 24-year-old son, Lohr Hathaway, to the hospital.

[jump]

Lohr suffered from manic depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar disease. He'd attempted suicide half a dozen times and hated hospitals, once punching a cop in the stomach.

An officer waited at the top of the stairs. "Are you Annette?" he asked.

LeSueur's heart dropped. "Lohr is dead," she said instinctively.

"Yes."

Annette LeSueur, mother of suicide victim Lohr Hathaway, believes barriers and nets are the answer to preventing impulsive jumpers at the Mall of America.

Annette LeSueur, mother of suicide victim Lohr Hathaway, believes barriers and nets are the answer to preventing impulsive jumpers at the Mall of America.

She screamed as she stumbled down the hall, attacking the walls. The cop tried to calm her, begging her to quiet down. LeSueur sent him away.

At 3 a.m., she drove to the Mall of America.

The cop said that Lohr jumped from a building at the mall. LeSueur couldn't find one capable of being scaled, so she turned to the parking ramps.

There are the East and West ramps, where each level is the size of two football fields. She climbed seven flights of stairs, emerging to the sweeping emptiness of the West's top level. She paced the perimeter, stopping every few feet to look over the railing until she came to a spot where she thought Lohr might have jumped.

She considered jumping herself.

Why the Mall of America?

The mall opened in 1992 as the gorilla of American retail. It's a four-story, five million-square-foot teenager magnet, complete with indoor amusement park. An estimated 40 million people crowd its 500-plus stores every year, some traveling from distant shores.

Less known is that the mall has been home to 25 suicides or attempted suicides. Most occur discreetly on the parking ramps. Others jumped inside the rotunda before hundreds of witnesses.

They come from different circumstances, choosing different methods. In 2002, a mystery jumper was discovered unconscious at the base of a parking ramp. He didn't appear to be homeless, evidenced by his expensive Birkenstock boots, yet no one reported him missing or claimed his body. He became known as the Mall of America Man.

In 2010, two weeks after LeSueur's son killed himself, 22-year-old Dakota Kohler-Lander leaped from the fourth floor inside the mall, plummeting into a crowd of screaming shoppers.

Still, it's not a classic suicide hotspot. Not the way the Empire State Building was before a fence encased its observation deck. And its numbers are modest compared to the Golden Gate Bridge, America's deadliest structure with 2,000 suicides and climbing.

Yet mall security and Bloomington police know the rate has escalated. Ten suicides or suicide attempts have occurred since spring 2010. Of the 20 completed attempts, 11 were under age 30. Three were teenagers. The youngest was a 13-year-old girl.

It's hard to say why the mall calls to the despondent. Some suspect they're drawn by the nostalgia of happy childhood days spent in its corridors. Others say it's simply because it's there — tall, accessible, unprotected.

The parking ramps offer seven-story launching pads. Security guards patrol them, but it's impossible to be everywhere at all times.

Though it's painful for her to visit the mall, LeSueur returns now and then to motivate herself to push for suicide prevention.

Though it's painful for her to visit the mall, LeSueur returns now and then to motivate herself to push for suicide prevention.

Mom versus Mall

The mall was Lohr Hathaway's favorite place in the world. LeSueur took him there when it opened. Mother and son rode the glass elevator all day. They played pranks, allowing shoppers to cram around them. Just as the door closed, 3-year-old Lohr would announce, "Mother, I don't feel good. I'm going to throw up."

They would go to the mall once a month. LeSueur bought Lohr clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch, then they'd window shop at the Disney and Lego stores. They listened to his music on the way there, her philosophy tapes on the way home.

After Lohr died, LeSueur checked herself into a hospital. She stayed two weeks on suicide watch. The next few years were a blur.

She lives alone now, sustained by Rice Krispies Treats and Cherry Coke, in an apartment filled with original paintings from American masters like Richard Lack, Don Koestner, and Stephen Gjertson. She points to a painting of Lohr straddling a dragon. He's a blond beanpole, fist pumping the air, screaming with joy.

LeSueur talks of her son in circles, jumping from a Grand Canyon trip to three days before he died, when she bought him a sweater at the mall, hoping to break his sadness. She wonders aloud whether she gave him the location. Her words trail off. She removes her glasses with trembling hands. Her eyes glaze over but she doesn't cry.

LeSueur doesn't blame the mall for Lohr's suicide. She and his father, Lyden Hathaway, trace his depression back to age 10 when he told Lyden, "Dad, the good old Lohr is gone."

It sounded like a commencement notice for preteen rebellion. Instead, Lohr's mental problems began to roar.

Lohr, then 24, leaped to his death from the mall's West parking ramp in 2010.

Lohr, then 24, leaped to his death from the mall's West parking ramp in 2010.

Obessive-compulsive disorder flared to the point where he gave up art; he couldn't tolerate the smallest mistake. He avoided school lunches because he thought there were fingernails in the salad. He couldn't shower because of the monster living in the drain.

By his teens, Lohr was denouncing his parents' Mormonism and testing the firepower of weed and cocaine.

He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe anxiety. Then came the shrinks and heavy medication, followed by suicide attempts, court-ordered psych evaluations, and constant monitoring.

"At the time, he just thought we were devils, sending him to all these people to help him," Lyden says. "There was that side of Lohr where everybody knew him and liked him, and he was always making people laugh. Yet he was so destructive to himself. I think he was somehow aware of it, but because of his mental illness he couldn't control it."

The morning before Lohr died, a Hennepin County social worker petitioned to have him committed. A judge ordered a year-long stay in a group home, where he would be forced to take his medicine.

Lohr was deeply depressed. He was looking to escape the roller coaster of treatment that hijacked his freedom since childhood.

Shortly after Lohr's death, LeSueur attended a survivor's day event hosted by the group Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. She met other parents who'd lost children and chatted with Dan Reidenberg, the director of SAVE. She asked whether there had been any more suicides at the mall since Lohr's death.

LeSueur walks alone, in silence, through the Mall of America on December 19, 2014, to test the security's response to political demonstrations. She plans to recreate the walk on the anniversary of her son's death.

LeSueur walks alone, in silence, through the Mall of America on December 19, 2014, to test the security's response to political demonstrations. She plans to recreate the walk on the anniversary of her son's death.

There had been two, he responded. Within a matter of months.

LeSueur left and drove directly to the mall. She stood atop the West parking ramp, watching shoppers trickle in and out of Macy's. It would be easy to follow in her son's footsteps, she thought. And it would be just as easy for the mall to build a fence around the ramps' top levels, or stretch nets inside the rotunda.

The mall, LeSueur reasoned, had learned nothing from her son's death to prevent the two that followed.

She petitioned the mall to build suicide deterrents. A lawyer responded. Though she regretted LeSueur's loss, erecting barriers might cause psychological damage to shoppers, leading to more suicides.

There would be no nets or fences.

The Ripple of Trauma

Jane Conrad remembers the pitched panic in her daughter's voice when she called the night of March 8, 2010. "I'm at the mall!" Lindsey Conrad screamed. "I just saw a man jump! He jumped! He jumped! He's dead! He's dead!"

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Minutes before, the 17-year-old and a group of friends had watched Lohr crash to the pavement outside of Macy's. They rushed forward to help. Blood pooled behind his head, streamed from his ears. They knew he was dead.

Later, Jane found Lohr's obituary in the paper. She contacted LeSueur to tell her she wasn't alone. Her own 33-year-old nephew, Matthew Tessendorf, shot himself four months earlier. He suffered from depression and anxiety. But without health insurance there was little help.

The previous November, Tessendorf had texted Jane a picture of a handgun. She didn't know what to do except call police in Manhattan, Kansas. A SWAT team surrounded Tessendorf outside a friend's house. Neighbors poured into the street to watch the standoff.

His mother arrived at the scene, but the police kept her in the crowd a block away, refusing to alert the negotiator to her presence.

A resident asked an officer why they couldn't "just shoot the gun out of his hand," like cops did on TV. Within earshot of Tessendorf, the cop responded that he'd prefer Tessendorf shoot his own brains out. He wanted to get home to watch football.

Thirty seconds later, Tessendorf put a bullet in his head.

Suicides Are Up and No One Knows Why

The increase of suicides at the Mall of America mirrors state and nationwide trends.

Christopher Thompson

Christopher Thompson

Minnesota's numbers have been steadily rising to just under 700 in 2011, the latest year for which data is available. It's the second leading cause of death among young adults in the United States after "unintentional injury."

No one can pinpoint why.

Mental illness is hard to diagnose and hard to treat, and talking about suicide is an age-old taboo. Yet that attitude is slowly changing.

Brooklyn photographer Dese'Rae L. Stage attracted widespread acclaim this year for her viral portrait project Live Through This, an anthology of intimate stories from attempted suicide survivors. University of Minnesota students also founded their own group to push back against the notion of downplaying hotspots on campus.

For every expert who says drawing attention to suicide will create copycats, there's another who encourages open discussion, says Sydny Spires, the group's president. She's come under fire for inviting peers to discuss their suicidal inclinations, yet she remains steadfast. "People should give young people more credit."

Sue Abderholden of the National Alliance on Mental Illness falls into the opposing camp. LeSueur contacted NAMI in September, asking for help in bringing the Mall of America to heel. Abderholden met with mall representatives to discuss prevention. She came away satisfied with the safety precautions, cameras, emergency phones, and security patrols.

When parents draw attention to the places where their children died, Abderholden says, they're often misplacing their anger at institutions that don't deserve the blame. "It may make the person who is grieving feel better, but it does not help us prevent suicide."

A public campaign to safety-proof a site runs the risk of attracting the suicidal, she says.

Fearing lawsuits, the mall officials won't speak directly to LeSueur, but say they're open to suggestions.

The Bridge of Death

Those opposing suicide barriers often cite the same reasons. That it's a waste of money. That the suicidal will just find another way. That drawing attention to a hotspot will only attract more.

John Brooks has been fighting those sentiments for years. He's the father of 17-year-old Casey Brooks, who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2008. Though the bridge has been home to thousands of deaths over its 77 years, officials only agreed to install nets in 2014. It may take years to erect them.

"Some people are very private about grief," Brooks says. "I chose to be very public about it and got involved in the ongoing fight for a suicide barrier on the bridge just a month after Casey died. Here in the Bay Area, you probably couldn't get a more unpopular cause to get behind. My wife and I, in joining this cause, pretty much put ourselves in the crosshairs."

It was personal stories that changed the bridge board's thinking. There was the teenage girl who'd been admitted to a prestigious college. There was the venture capitalist on a cold streak. A husband who was unemployed. A housewife from a ritzy neighborhood. Their families arrived at board meetings week after week to tell these stories before authorities finally approved a $50 million safety barrier.

In the meantime, Brooks tells people about Casey everywhere he goes. He speaks about depression and suicide in schools. Students tell him that hearing Casey's story — and seeing how her death broke her parents — convinced them to rethink their own suicide plans.

"Kids are savvy enough and certainly sensitive enough to know the difference between glorifying somebody's death as opposed to raising a very valuable mental health issue," Brooks says.

A Mom Marches on the Mall

When LeSueur tells people about the mall's history — at the gas station, the grocery store, the post office — they're uniformly surprised by the volume of deaths. But as far as she knows, she's alone in pushing for barriers.

In September, she contacted Attorney General Lori Swanson, who referred her to Bloomington, which has the power to authorize safety features. LeSueur's letters to the City Council went unanswered. When she pitched building inspectors in person, she claims they berated her for focusing on the mall.

Larry Lee, Bloomington's community development director, did not respond to City Pages' repeated interview requests. Schane Rudlang, the city's Port Authority administrator, says that although Bloomington paid for the mall's parking ramps, it's ultimately up to the mall to decide if fencing or nets should be erected.

Mall spokesman Dan Jasper declined to discuss the issue, but argued that highlighting suicide during the holiday season — when people with depression or mental illness are known to struggle — would put them at greater risk.

Yet Reidenberg of SAVE says research generally suggests that barriers do reduce suicide. Those thwarted once usually don't search elsewhere for an easier leap.

Days before Christmas, LeSueur staged a rally of one. For about two hours, she walked the mall alone, wearing a sign around her neck calling for "No More Suicides" above a photo of Lohr. Those reading her message didn't stop to talk, nor did she break stride to offer explanation. Except at Abercrombie & Fitch. LeSueur told a young cashier that the store was Lohr's favorite. The young woman's face fell. She said she wanted to cry.

Though Lyden backs his ex-wife in spirit, he took a pass on joining her march. He has nothing but rage for the Mall of America. "Given the history of what has happened there, you'd think they would want zero tolerance for suicide," he says. "I think it's very fair for them to be concerned about what happens on their property. If you were a homeowner and people were using the tree on your property to hang themselves, wouldn't you have some concern about what's going on?"

Keeping quiet didn't save his son, Lyden notes. Nor did it save the young man who jumped inside the mall two weeks after Lohr's death.

Another Mother Grieves

Chris Thompson jumped from the East parking ramp on March 1, 2010. He was 27, unemployed, and living with his mother after getting an engineering degree from Hennepin Technical College.

Before Thompson killed himself, a family physician diagnosed him with high anxiety, prescribing him the anti-panic medicine Xanax. It made him irritable. The day he died, he and his mother, Terri Toltzman, got into a heated argument. She doesn't even remember what it was about, but she'd never seen him so angry. She didn't know how to respond.

Thompson stormed out of the house, only to end up in a fender bender with a taxi driver.

While they exchanged information, the cabbie noticed that Thompson was shaking. When the two departed, he called police to warn them about Thompson.

Officers followed Thompson to the mall, chasing him to the top of a parking garage. Thompson left his car, looked back once, and jumped.

"I don't know if he had planned to jump," Toltzman says. "I don't know if he thought he was jumping over a rail to another lot. Whatever it was, it was extremely impulsive and it wasn't him."

Her son had never mentioned suicide to anyone. He chose the mall, she believes, because it was available.

She lost 20 pounds the week after her son died and began attending a grief group in Burnsville. She met with one other family once a month to sit and talk. Four years later, some 30 people attend.

It's unclear why suicides are escalating. Toltzman wants to help LeSueur with her fight, but she can't summon the will. Not yet. She can't even look at the mall, much less return to negotiate with officials.

"The Mall of America has done a really good job of hiding all the suicides," she says. "Bloomington police all know. It's like a dirty little secret they want to sweep under the rug. Then there are people like me, who know, who are too wounded to have a voice."