Family still grieving young man who fought ‘demons’

Posted Wednesday, May. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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sanders On a late Thursday afternoon, in preparation for a column about a proposed bill in the Texas Legislature, I went to visit the gravesite of Timothy Cole, the innocent Fort Worth man who died in prison and became the first person in the state to be exonerated posthumously.

As I parked my car at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in front of the state historical marker that tells Cole’s sad, heroic story, I couldn’t help but notice the people gathered around a nearby grave, between the marker and Cole’s burial site.

Some were seated on the ground and had brought drinks to toast a deceased loved one. The matriarch — the woman obviously in charge of this memorial/celebration — was seated in a lawn chair at the head of the grave holding a poem she would later read.

When I acknowledged these mourners with a nod en route to Cole’s gravesite, the woman asked who I was and whether I knew Cole’s brother, Cory Session.

That was the opening needed for Alma Hernandez to introduce herself and some of the other family and friends who had assembled around the headstone of Jonathan Lee Wachtel. A glance down at the dates engraved in the granite indicated that day (April 25) was Wachtel’s birthday, and that he was only 25 when he died Jan. 27, 2012.

Wachtel was Hernandez’s oldest grandson, whom she had helped raise. She explained that, although the family was Hispanic, her grandson’s father was half Irish and half German.

In expressing my condolences, I was compelled to ask how he died.

More tears came as Hernandez said, “He took his own life.” After a pause, and wiping her eyes, she added, “He had a lot of demons.”

The young man had shot himself in the chest with a shotgun, which Hernandez said had been locked in a closet. The family didn’t hear the shot, learning later from police that he had muffled the sound.

Having written often about the suicide epidemic in this country, I felt even more sorry for her and the family because I understand the questions, and sometimes blame, that comes with such deaths.

As it turned out, Wachtel’s father had committed suicide at the age of 27 when his son was nine years old, Hernandez said.

In a subsequent phone conversation, she told me that her daughter, Wachtel’s mother, was “severe bipolar” and that her grandson had mental issues but was never diagnosed bipolar or schizophrenic although he was quite paranoid.

“He had a lot of demons,” she said. “He had a good heart, but when he had these demons, he was a totally different person.”

His medications would calm him down, but he didn’t like to take them because “he said he felt like zombie.”

Twice before, he had tried to kill himself, she said, stabbing himself in the chest and abdomen, later overdosing on drugs.

“I told him, ‘Mijo, I love you, we love you, don’t do this,’ ” Hernandez said.

Watchel, who was on probation for assault, “was a very sick man,” whom she insists never got enough support or understanding from the probaion office or the mental health professionals who treated him.

There are more than 38,000 suicides a year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the third leading cause of death nationally for young people between 15 and 24, and in Texas suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15- to 19- year-olds, the Suicide and Crisis Center for North Texas reports.

If you need help or know of someone who does, the North Texas Crisis Hotline is (214) 828-1000.

Bob Ray Sanders’ column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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