The Washington Post Sunday
The boy on the bridge
A 12-year-old tried to kill himself, police say. Instead, he ended up killing someone else.
There was no way she could have seen him, the boy on the bridge. Marisa Harris was driving her Ford Escape down a Northern Virginia highway, heading home after a peaceful afternoon hike at Burke Lake.
Her boyfriend, Perry Muth, was stretched out in the passenger seat as they cruised east on Interstate 66 toward the bridge, an overpass suspended across the busy highway.
It was October 2017, their first fall since graduating from college. She was in graduate school, and he was working at a nonprofit organization for veterans. They spent Saturdays together.
It was a day off for the boy on the bridge, too, but from Thoreau Middle School. He was in seventh grade, in a building with nearly 1,000 students, where for the first time he had a short blue locker he had to find between classes and more homework than ever before. He lived in a cramped Fairfax County apartment just a 15-minute walk from the Cedar Lane overpass.
Marisa, 22, was on her way to spend another evening with Perry, watching Season 2 of “Stranger Things” and studying. She was always studying. She had a plan: earn her master’s degree in clinical mental-health counseling and become a child psychologist.
She’d be joining the field at a time when the number of children hospitalized for thinking of or trying to kill themselves has more than doubled in the past decade, even for kids under the age of 14. The boy on the bridge was 12.
What led him there would always be a mystery to Marisa’s family, even after police and prosecutors came to their conclusions. There was no fence on the part of the bridge he’d reached. There was a pedestrian sidewalk, and beside it, a three-foot, two-inch-tall guardrail. But there was nothing to stop the boy from climbing over it.
An hour later, her parents were accelerating down the highway, too, desperate to reach Inova Fairfax Hospital. Marisa was their only child, their brown-haired, dark-eyed daughter, who laughed at scary movies, who baked cheddar biscuits three times bigger than the ones at Red Lobster, who volunteered with children who bit her and pulled her hair, then came home talking about how much she wanted to help them.
Her parents knew only that there had been an accident, which later, wouldn’t seem like the right word for it at all.
At the hospital, the 12-year-old was being treated for life-threatening injuries in the ER. His family, who did not respond to repeated requests to participate in this story, would soon find out how they were caused.
Behind another door, Perry, who was somehow uninjured, pleaded with a police officer for information about Marisa.
“What’s going on? Is she okay?” he asked. “Just tell me she is breathing. Just tell me something.”
Marisa was brought to the hospital, too, he’d been told. Perry, 22, had frantically called his mother and Marisa’s mother, telling both to come right away.
He couldn’t explain what happened. They had been on the highway, about to emerge from beneath an overpass. It felt to Perry as if he had blinked, closing his eyes for just a fraction of a second, and when he opened them, everything was wrong.
The SUV was like a convertible. Glass from the windshield was everywhere. The roof was partially collapsed in. The top half of the steering wheel had snapped off.
Behind it, where Marisa should have been, was a boy, covered in blood, with a bone sticking out where it shouldn’t have been. Police would later conclude that he had been trying to kill himself. Now he was staring at Perry, terrified.
Marisa, Perry suddenly realized, was beneath the boy. Her seat had been knocked flat back. Her eyes were closed. Perry shook her, trying to wake her. Nothing.
The car, which had been going 55 miles per hour, was still hurtling down I-66.
“I reached over to grab one of her legs and tried to put it on the brake,” he would remember later. “Then I was like, okay this isn’t going to work, so I grabbed the steering wheel. I waited for a long, straight stretch, and I just rammed it into the Jersey wall.”
The rest happened fast. Pushing himself out the passenger side door. Waving for help. Strangers telling him to calm down. A firefighter leading him to an ambulance. He was put into a waiting room and told, “When we can update you, you’ll know.” Then the minutes turned agonizingly slow.
After an hour and a half, Perry grew furious and started to yell. The officer with him sent for another officer, whose job it seemed to be to tell him: “Okay. Yes. So. She has died.”
Sometime after the dizziness and the black spots in front of his eyes, after feeling that he would vomit or pass out, or both, he was moved into a different room, one with tiny tables and tiny chairs. A room for children. His phone buzzed.
A text from Marisa’s parents: “We just pulled up. Coming in now.”
A state trooper was waiting to talk to them. From where Perry sat, he could hear Marisa’s mother start to scream.
This is what Leigh Miller and Patrick Harris remember being told: The 12year-old who crashed through your daughter’s windshield is alive. Because he is a minor, that is all we can say.
Marisa was not at the hospital, it turned out. She’d died on the highway. There was nothing to do, the couple learned, but go home to the Olney, Md., townhouse where they raised Marisa, and face all that came next:
Talking to reporters, as the story of such a bizarre crash spread from local reports to sensational tabloids, People magazine and viral news sites in dozens of languages.
Fielding messages from strangers who wanted to send them money and setting up a fund for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Collecting Marisa’s personal items from her totaled car. Jumper cables. Flashlight. The emergency kit they had given her so that she would be safe on the road.
Gathering photos, each a memory of who she had become: Here was Marisa reflected in her bedroom mirror, from those mid- dle school days when they worried about the way she was bullied by other girls. Here was Marisa at a Nanticoke LenniLenape tribe powwow, from the high school years when she began to embrace her Native American heritage and her middle name, Wenona. And here was Marisa at Towson University, where she met Perry, the first and last boyfriend she’d bring home to meet her parents. And here was Marisa in Guanajuato, Mexico, volunteering at the domestic violence shelter where she decided she was going to pursue a career working with traumatized children.
“It is never too late for someone to seek services that help them improve their mental wellbeing, but working with children allows the healing process to begin earlier,” Marisa wrote in her application to Marymount University’s graduate program.
So much life in her 22 years, and somehow her end could still be reduced to a five-page crash report, sent to her parents by police about a month after her death. To categorize the collision, the state trooper could choose from 20 brief descriptions. He picked “other.”
A diagram indicated that the boy was facing east when he jumped, the same direction that Marisa’s car was heading when it emerged from beneath the bridge. He fell just under 17 feet. The physics of it — his weight, the speed at which he fell, the distribution of force that left only one of them alive — was not explained. Marisa’s death certificate said “blunt force trauma.” Her mother had come to call it “the laws of gravity.”
“I see how it happened,” she said. “I try not to,” her father said. On the last page of the report was the name of the boy on the bridge, described as “Pedestrian #1.” When Leigh and Patrick returned to work — she as a purchasing manager at Edison Electric Institute, he as an operations supervisor in video services at Gallaudet University — people asked about the boy. Had his family reached out? Was the prosecutor going to press charges?
But after the crash report, Marisa’s parents stopped hearing from Virginia State Police. What they knew about the boy came only from old photos on his mother’s private Facebook and Instagram pages, a few of which Leigh could see. Here was the boy from the bridge, brown-haired and dark-eyed, standing beside his sisters. In one photo, his mother’s arm was wrapped around him. He looked as if he was just about to giggle.
Leigh worried about this child, as Marisa would have.
“Is he getting help now?” she would ask again and again in the coming months. “Is he in treatment? Or did they just do the bare minimum and then just put him right back in school?”
This is what she did not know: When a 12-year-old tries to die, and doesn’t, what happens to him next?
But at Thoreau Middle School in Vienna, Va., it wasn’t at all clear that the boy on the bridge had intended to kill himself.
One news report linked him to Thoreau, saying he lives “just around the corner” from the school, but did not publish his name. Yet on the Snapchat and Instagram accounts of preteens across Northern Virginia, his name was spreading fast. The boy’s classmates posted folded hand emoji beside messages encouraging each other to #pray for him.
Their school was the kind that parents move to be near: low poverty rate, high test scores and a challenging curriculum. For the 475 seventh-graders in the boy’s class, that meant learning about cell mitosis, calculating linear equations and reading “The Giver.”
Their curriculum also includes extensive discussions about mental health. What once might have been relegated to a lesson or two has burgeoned into a rigorous preventive plan: Students are taught the signs, symptoms and stigma of depression. They are screened for mental-health issues. Their parents have access to training on how to watch for signs of distress in children. They can text a 24-hour crisis line that will immediately identify them as Fairfax public school students.
Prevention efforts like these are appearing in schools across the country, fueled by social media pressures, grueling academic expectations and a suicide rate for kids ages 10 to 19 that has been steadily rising since 2007.
In the Washington suburbs, there has been one or more high-profile student suicides nearly every year for the past decade. Football players. AP students. Boy Scouts. At W.T. Woodson High School, located just five miles from Thoreau Middle, seven students have died by suicide since 2011.
In response, Fairfax County opened up a same-day walk-in mental-health clinic for youths. It began training librarians, firefighters and church group leaders on warning signs and what to do about them. The school system created an annual mentalhealth and wellness conference, touting sessions on “mindfulness” and “self-care” and “fostering resilience.”
And yet, when faced with a real, high-profile mental-health crisis with deadly consequences, the Fairfax community was, at least publicly, circumspect.
The school system sent its middle and high school principals a letter they could share with parents but didn’t require them to do so, a spokesman said.
“The safety and well-being of our students are always our primary concerns,” the letter said. “In light of events locally in the news, I would also like to take a moment to acknowledge our students and thank them for the many ways that they are actively caring for one another and looking out for each other’s safety and best interest. In any crisis situation, students experience a variety of reactions at different times, some requiring very little support and others requiring much more. It’s important to know that resources and support are available.”
The spokesman would not say whether Thoreau Middle School Principal Yusef Azimi sent the letter, and Azimi declined to discuss the school’s response. Beyond the letter, no other Fairfax official, including the superintendent and school board members, made any public mention of what occurred.
According to last year’s president of the Thoreau ParentTeacher Association, they had good reason not to: The boy, she said, had not jumped from the bridge.
Beth Bradford Eachus said Azimi informed her that the boy’s fall was not a suicide attempt.
“The family and the young man both said it was an accident,” Eachus said. “And that is the school’s opinion.”
Media accounts that the boy was trying to kill himself, she said, were “additionally devastating” to his family.
What happened, she said, was that the boy was riding his bike across the overpass when he dropped his cellphone. He reached down to pick it up and flipped over the guardrail.
This denial was relayed to the boy’s classmates, who had spent the weekend under the impression that he had tried to take his own life. One then-seventhgrader, who spoke to The Post with his parent’s permission, described discussing the boy’s suicide attempt with friends on the Monday after the incident.
But then a teacher told his class that the boy merely “fell” onto the road and was hit by a car.
This version of events is not supported by the Virginia State Police or Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, Fairfax County’s lead prosecutor.
A state police spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the specifics of the incident, but she said it is still being treated as a suicide attempt.
Morrogh quickly concluded that no crime had occurred; he would not press charges against the 12-year-old. Still, he said he felt obliged to find out what drove the boy to the bridge.
“We wanted to make sure someone was not molesting this child or bullying this child,” Morrogh said. “If there was anyone down the stream who was somehow at fault, on behalf of the victim in the case, we wanted to find out.”
But the boy’s family wouldn’t allow him to be interviewed. The prosecutor suspected his relatives were just being protective. He couldn’t compel them to answer questions or seek mentalhealth treatment for the boy. Investigators did obtain search warrants for the 12-year-old’s cellphone and computer. They found no answers. “There just wasn’t anything there,” Morrogh said. By February, his office felt it had done everything it could.
A few months after the boy jumped, he returned to school. He was on crutches. But his classmate said no one brought up his injuries or how he’d gotten them.
“It was like nothing even happened,” the student said.
Another brisk fall weekend, another day good for hiking. On Oct. 28, 2018, the first anniversary of Marisa’s death, her parents and boyfriend thought about going to Burke Lake, where she had spent her last afternoon. The lake’s serene waters and color-changing trees were the last picture she took on her phone.
A painting of the photo now hangs in her parents’ living room. But they’ve never visited the place, and decided not to go on this day, either. Instead, her mother invited Perry over to watch the Ravens game.
For a while, Marisa’s boyfriend had to drive down I-66 beneath the Cedar Lane overpass every day to get to work. No additional fencing has been added. The Virginia Department of Transportation plans to replace the overpass before the end of 2022, and the new bridge will include an eight-foot fence on each side.
Perry moved to Alexandria, allowing him to avoid the overpass — one way of coping in a year where they had all tried to figure out how. Marisa’s father made a 15-minute slide show of pictures of Marisa, then refused to watch it. Her mother watched it constantly.
Leigh Miller had formed a habit of searching online for inspirational quotes to get her through the day. On the anniversary of Marisa’s death, she chose, “Put it to the stars and let it go.”
That was what she had tried to do each day, even as she kept leaving messages for the Fairfax police and Virginia State Police. She hadn’t received an update on the investigation since the crash report, and in the month before the anniversary, she had started asking for one.
She did not know whether the case was closed. She did not know that the prosecutor had already decided not to press charges. She found herself constantly worrying about why the boy had jumped. Did he know that, in trying to kill himself, he had killed someone else?
After more than a month of leaving messages, Leigh received a call from the state trooper in charge of the case the week before Thanksgiving. He told her the investigation was not over yet, she said. He offered her no indication of when it would be. He made it sound — falsely, she would learn later — that the commonwealth’s attorney had yet to even look at the case.
Two days later, the trooper sent her a short email: he’d learned that a reporter had already spoken with the commonwealth’s attorney. Only then did he tell her that the state would not be pressing charges against the 12-yearold.
“This whole process, it has felt like we were an afterthought,” Leigh said. “We weren’t looking for charges to be brought. We didn’t want that. But it would have been nice to know. What’s the harm in telling us if you have made that decision?”
As Christmas approached, she began to realize that her only update on the boy might be a photo his mother briefly posted on Instagram earlier this year.
It’s gone now, but Leigh saved a screen shot of it to her computer.
In it, the boy sat at a table in a black V-neck T-shirt, his expression somewhere between a smile and grimace. Behind him, a pair of crutches leaned against the wall beside golden helium balloons. A frosted cake was on the table, topped with two candles in the shape of the number 13.
Here was the boy from the bridge, living to see another year. Samantha Schmidt and Julie Tate contributed to this report.