A Missouri college student who allegedly was “fascinated” with death and gave five young adults “advice on how to commit suicide” is now being sued by parents of two of the students who killed themselves.
The bombshell case blames their deaths—and the deaths of three others—on Truman State University, Brandon Grossheim, and his fraternity, Alpha Kappa Lambda.
The 26-page lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the Circuit Court of Adair County in Missouri, and names the university, the fraternity, and Grossheim as defendants.
Grossheim, according to the lawsuit, “considered himself a superhero” and called himself “peacemaker.” As part of his good works, Grossheim allegedly gave students “step-by-step instructions” on how to “deal with their depression” and “do their own free will.”
According to the parents’ attorney, Nicole Gorovsky, Grossheim “had access to all five victims, was one of the last people to see each of the victims before their deaths, and was repeatedly found in the proximity of the deaths.”
Grossheim had keys to the rooms or apartments of four of the young men who died, according to the lawsuit, which was first reported by The Kansas City Star.
“The fraternity brother was even reportedly seen wearing one of the victim’s clothing and carrying money that went missing from another victim’s room after their deaths,” said Gorovsky.
All five suicides occurred in the 2016-2017 academic year. Truman State had fewer than 6,000 students that school year.
Fraternity brothers told police, according to the lawsuit, that Grossheim “had a known fascination with death, wore the clothing of one of the suicide victims after his death,” and that he “began dating Doe 1’s girlfriend shortly after his death.”
The lawsuit points to the university and the fraternity as both being aware that the “victims were vulnerable and suffered from depression,” and claims the institutions “still allowed the suspicious fraternity brother to be alone and have unfettered access to the victims.”
The complaint claims that both organizations “had a legal duty to use ordinary care to protect its members,” in particular, “from a person, known to be violent, who was present on the premises or an individual who was present who has conducted himself so as to indicate danger.”
It alleges the school and fraternity “knew or reasonably should have known that death or serious bodily harm (including self-harm) was likely to occur.”
“This tragedy was preventable,” said Gorovsky, who drew a connection between Wednesday’s lawsuit and the high-profile case of Michelle Carter, who was convicted for persuading her long-distance boyfriend, 18-year-old Conrad Henri Roy III, to kill himself via text messages.
Alex Mullins and Josh Thomas, from Kansas City and St. Louis, respectively, both killed themselves at the Alpha Kappa Lambda house. Mullins was found hanging in his room at the house in August 2016, and Thomas was found hanging in a storage closet in April 2017.
“Alex was funny, caring and smart,” said Melissa Bottorff-Arey, Mullins’ mother said in a statement to the press. “He went to Truman to build his future; instead his life ended. When Alex died, our hearts and our world split wide open; at college, in a ‘brotherhood,’ you think your kids are ‘safe and cared for.’ Within just months, there were four more young people gone. There were too many similarities, one person in common and so many questions.”
“It’s time for answers,” said Bottorff-Arey.
“He [Grossheim] was involved and kind of bending their ear, if you will, just kind of planting thoughts in their head,” she told Fox 2.
Thomas’ mother, Suzanne, said in the statement that her son was “an intelligent and kind young man with a bright future ahead of him.”
“We were so saddened and shocked to learn he suffered so much after going to TSU and joining the fraternity,” she said.
A Facebook page apparently belonging to Grossheim includes a tribute to Thomas after his April death.
“I love you, bud,” he wrote. “I know I told you that a lot, and it made me happy to know that you knew I meant it. We’ve been through a lot, together, and we grew very close. It really upsets me to lose you. I was so glad to be working with you, because it’d give us more time to hang out. I’ll miss you more than you'll ever know. I hope that you are in a better place, now, and that you've found a peace of mind. Again, I love you.”
Grossheim also appeared to share a memorial post about Mullins that called his departed friend “one of the hardest working men to ever walk into the doors of our house and into our hearts.”
Jacob Hughes, 19, who was found dead a few weeks after Mullins died, is identified in the lawsuit as John Doe 1.
The night before he died, according to the complaint, Hughes was “making suicidal statements” during a party in the frat house, and Grossheim was allegedly asked to “watch him for safety.”
The next day, he was found hanging in his room.
“To people who have met him once, heard stories, or that knew him best, they know that the only way to describe him is to say that he was completely himself—he is Jake,” graduate student Paige Howard told the Truman Media Network after Hughes died. “I know that Jake would want everyone that knew him to live our best lives for him, and that’s enough to keep moving forward. I, and many others, are going to do our best to continue to spread the love that he shared with us to everyone else in our lives. Jake’s life will forever be a positive influence on everyone he touched, and continues to touch in the future.”
“It was kind of a gift that he could reach out to people so easily—it didn’t matter if it was adults or kids, he has always been able to speak with people, even when he was younger,” his mother, Karen Hughes, said at the time.
Dalton McVay, who said he was living at the frat house when Hughes and Mullins killed themselves, told The Daily Beast on Thursday that “things got really rough” after the suicides and that the “brotherhood basically fell apart” after their deaths.
McVay is tagged in Facebook photos with members of Alpha Kappa Lambda after the Truman State chapter won Greek Week in April 2016.
The other two young adults who died in the spate of suicides were identified only as John Doe 2, who was friends with the students but not enrolled at Truman State, and Jane Doe.
At the time of the deaths, news reports said that Kirksville police found a connection between all five of the victims but could find no criminal explanation for their suicides.
Police Chief Jim Hughes told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his department reopened the case in June 2017 and tried to be “meticulous” in its investigation.
“In over 39 years in this business, all of which have been in college towns by choice, this series of events is very unusual and concerning at any number of levels,” Hughes told the newspaper.
While Gorovsky claims that Grossheim should be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, all five cases were closed without any criminal charges being filed, Kirksville Police Lt. Mark Wellman told The Daily Beast on Thursday. Wellman said he could not speak to why police declined to file charges.
“This situation had been swept under the rug,” said Gorovsky. “The university held a short symposium on suicide and the fraternity seemingly shrugged their shoulders and everyone went away quietly. But, no one told the public, parents, or students on campus about the psychological manipulation that had been involved—that a fellow student and fraternity brother was a danger.”
The general counsel for Truman State, Warren Wells, told the Star on Wednesday that the university, after the deaths, “provided counseling for members of the fraternity. And there has been a group formed to provide ongoing support for the fraternity to help them get their house in order, and that is ongoing.”
Wells called the spate of suicides “an unusual situation,” but noted that “young people who are college age are very susceptible to this type of difficulties.”
He also confirmed that the fraternity is still active at Truman State.
In a statement to The Daily Beast on Thursday, Wells said the school “strongly” disagrees with the “allegations as stated in the lawsuit and will defend the suit vigorously.”
“As the litigation proceeds, it will become clear that the university is not responsible for the deaths of these students,” he added.
Grossheim, who now lives in Illinois, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Thursday.
Both families are seeking a jury trial and have asked for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Jeremy Slivinski, the executive director at the national headquarters of Alpha Kappa Lambda, told The Daily Beast on Friday that the organization has not disciplined the Truman State chapter and that it “strongly disagrees with the allegations in the lawsuit to the extent those allegations are directed against it and will vigorously defend the lawsuit.”
Otherwise, he said, “The Fraternity of Alpha Kappa Lambda does not comment on pending litigation and therefore, will not comment further.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.