The puzzling death of Doug Hodgson
His suicide in an explosion on Eagle Mountain Lake on March 28 came after years of battling depression, but it was still a shock to his loved ones, who are searching for answers weeks later
EAGLE MOUNTAIN LAKE As his fishing boat rocked on the waters of Eagle Mountain Lake, Doug Hodgson dialed his longtime friend to tell her his plan: He had a bomb, and about a half-hour before sunset on March 28, he would use it on himself.
“The fuse is already lit,” Hodgson told Jeanne Johnson, lamenting that he had few friends and a life with no purpose.
Johnson begged him to reconsider. It was too late for that, said Hodgson, a retiree who lived on the west side of the lake.
From her front porch in nearby Briar, Johnson heard the explosion. A blast like a small plane crash rattled the waterside homes and rural neighborhoods of northwest Tarrant County. A sheriff’s department report said the explosion shook the walls of the Pelican Bay Police Department, more than a mile from the spot where Hodgson left land.
Authorities found his body in the lake three days later, near his boat.
The Star-Telegram does not generally write about suicides, but the unusual and public nature of Hodgson’s death, and the willingness of his loved ones to talk about him, provide a glimpse behind the dark curtain that often shrouds the taking of one’s own life.
Suicides occur in darkened closets and bedrooms, in empty pastures and cars, on railroad tracks and freeway overpasses. Unless the case involves a celebrity, is a murder-suicide or occurs in public, these deaths are usually discussed in whispers. The questions usually outnumber the answers.
In the four-county region covered by the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office, suicides have steadily risen in recent years, increasing at a greater percent than the rise in population. There were 381 suicides in 2015, compared with 307 in 2014, an increase of 24 percent. Preliminary statistics show a slight drop in 2016, to 378.
A glance at the medical examiner’s website reveals their frequency.
At least six other people committed suicide in the week following Hodgson’s death.
The reports are coldly matter-of-fact, with scant details:
10:10 p.m. March 28. 52 years old. White male. Alvarado. Gunshot of head. Bedroom.
5:30 a.m. April 1. 32 years old. Hispanic male. Arlington. Hanging. Private residence.
‘He was like a brother’
Those close to Hodgson were hesitant to discuss what might have led to his suicide, though some indicators were apparent.
He battled depression for years, said Johnson and Hodgson's ex-wife, Marie Carter.
Hodgson seemed to hit a breaking point on Johnson’s birthday in September, when he drove to an Azle bank and withdrew about $11,000. He told Johnson to put the word out: He would give the money to anyone who would shoot him.
Hodgson soon retracted the threat, but it blindsided Johnson.
She knew of his depression but hadn’t yet seen him suicidal. Upset, she cut off contact with him, unsure how to handle the situation. Then, about a month later, Hodgson texted her, asking if she would like to help him out around his house for some extra money, a job he offered frequently. Johnson agreed, and things went back to normal.
A second incident occurred March 7, the day he and Carter finalized their divorce.
Tarrant County sheriff’s deputies with an emergency mental health warrant arrested him and drove him to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth.
For privacy reasons, the deputies’ report redacted the reason for taking him into custody. But the report said Hodgson had asked the 911 caller “whether lithium was dangerous.”
Johnson said she learned later that Hodgson had been on the phone with a worker at Veterans Affairs, discussing a prescription. The VA employee believed the question was indicative of suicidal thoughts.
Hodgson’s stay at JPS lasted about three hours.
He was sent home after a doctor there called Hodgson’s fishing buddy, Bill Taylor, and asked if his friend had shown suicidal signs in the past.
Taylor said no, but he wasn’t lying to free his friend. In 10 years of knowing Hodgson, “nothing out of the ordinary was ever mentioned,” Taylor said.
When Hodgson returned home from JPS, Taylor saw nothing suspicious. “It was like he’d just gone to Wal-Mart and back,” Taylor said.
Nor were signs of mental illness apparent to his close friend Keith Tunnell.
They met in 1998, when Hodgson bought his home from Tunnell’s mother, and they grew as close as family. Hodgson would spend holidays with the Tunnells, and he became like an uncle to Tunnell’s granddaughter, who’s now a teenager.
“He was like a brother to me,” Tunnell said.
To Tunnell and Taylor, any troubles Hodgson faced were physical.
Both men saw up close how Hodgson struggled to breathe as he suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), his lungs damaged by years of breathing in toxic fumes while he worked on heavy machinery. A short walk left Hodgson gasping for air, Tunnell said, and seasonal allergies worsened the problem.
When the mountain cedar came around every winter, Hodgson holed up in his home for weeks at a time.
He had qualified for 100 percent disability payments from his time in the Army, and he attributed the COPD to his years in the military, Taylor said.
‘Why didn’t I do more?’
The possible warning signs, whether mental or physical, left Hodgson’s loved ones wondering: Why didn’t he seek help? Why didn’t he tell them he was suffering?
“People who need help the most don’t ask for it,” said Cortney Gumbleton, executive director of the Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation in North Richland Hills, which specializes in suicide prevention. “This is a barrier that we just have to get beyond.”
The foundation encourages family and friends to be proactive by identifying the warning signs, such as depression, isolation or stress, and then initiating a conversation.
It can be a challenge. Unlike some health problems, mental illness often comes with a stigma.
“I think there’s a fear in talking about suicide,” said Amy Honeycutt, a coordinator for the LOSS Team of Tarrant County, which provides outreach to family and friends of suicide victims. “If we notice our friends [showing warning signs], we might be a little fearful of initiating that conversation. Everybody’s busy, and we don’t know how long it’s going to take. Then there’s a fear that if you talk about suicide, you’ll put that idea in their head.”
Honeycutt sees the toll of a suicide on a regular basis. As family and friends try to reconcile their loved one’s death, they often tell Honeycutt, “I just didn’t see it coming.”
“There’s a lot of blame that goes with that,” Honeycutt said. “But once they start to learn those warning signs, they start to ask themselves, ‘Why didn’t I do more?’ It’s unfortunate. It sucks.”
The issue isn’t confined to North Texas.
By 2014, the nation’s suicide rate had risen to 13 per 100,000 people, the highest in 30 years, according to a National Center for Health Statistics study reported by The New York Times last year.
The rate was higher among the young and was the No. 2 cause of death for people ages 10 through 34, behind accidents.
But the study also revealed that the suicide rate for women ages 45 to 64 rose 63 percent from 1999 to 2014. The rate increased 43 percent for men in that age group.
What statistics don’t show is the hidden pain, whether from sudden anguish, addiction demons, depression or simple loneliness.
‘He’d do anything for anybody’
At the end, Hodgson was unsure where to turn. To his friends, his suicide stood in stark contrast to the brilliant, loyal friend they knew.
Born in Canada, Hodgson moved to Richland Hills with his family as a teenager and graduated from Haltom High School. After his time in the Army as a helicopter mechanic and pilot, he repaired cranes for an Irving company.
His job sent him to faraway countries, where he made sure the cranes operated smoothly at skyscraper construction sites. But by his late 40s, he had left the job, lost touch with his relatives and moved to his 1,400-square-foot house by the lake.
He worked at a Montgomery Ward store and as a long-haul trucker, and he never stopped tinkering.
On his spacious corner lot in rural northwest Tarrant County, he built a mechanic’s heaven: part junkyard, part shop, with a tall open-air shed anchored by two shipping containers.
Hodgson’s friends watched in wonder as he sifted through heaps of scrap metal and drawers of tools, finding just the right part to fix a neighbor’s lawn mower or get a totaled pickup running again. And if he didn’t have a job to get done, he’d find one of his own.
In one project, he patched together a remote-controlled forklift from a broken-down street sweeper and an old farm combine. The finished product, at a cost of about $300 — and most of that went for a handheld joystick — was a machine strong enough to lift a double-wide mobile home.
“It was one hell of a contraption,” Johnson said, “but it worked.”
Last month, his yard was intact, just the way he left it.
Parts of old trucks and scrap metal covered the property. There were riding lawn mowers and push mowers, a fishing boat and a military jeep. Pinned to his front gate was a warning: “If you knock after dark, you better be kin.” His three dogs — Rottweilers Otto and Joker and a black Labrador named Schatzi — still roamed the yard under the care of a neighbor.
He was a private person, but “as good of a friend as you’d ever want to know,” Tunnell said.
“He’d do anything for anybody as long as they didn’t cross him and didn’t cheat him or anything like that.”
‘Just listen for a big boom’
Hodgson was helping a friend on the morning of March 28. He had heard that the friend had a solar panel stolen, so he loaded up one of his extras and drove it to him, Taylor said.
Later, about 6 p.m., he hitched his 1993 DuraCraft fishing boat to his white Chevrolet pickup truck and made the five-mile drive south to the Fort Worth Anglers Club, which sits on the western shore of Eagle Mountain Lake, between Briar and Pelican Bay.
He pulled past the front gate and down to the boat ramp, where he called Tunnell and asked him to meet him, according to a sheriff’s department report.
When Tunnell arrived, Hodgson asked him if he could take his truck back home. Hodgson said he was going fishing and might stay out all night.
Tunnell agreed, then watched Hodgson set out on the lake, heading north across the water.
“He told me he’d call if he needed his truck,” Tunnell said. “And he never called.”
Around the same time, Hodgson called Johnson for the first time that evening.
He told her he had built a rocket and planned to shoot it across the lake. He wanted her to film it on her cellphone.
Johnson said she’d come down to the lake. But when she forgot something at home and had to turn around, Hodgson called her again and told her not to bother. He was running out of time.
“Just listen for a big boom,” he told her.
Several minutes later, he called again.
“He told me he was done and to hell with everybody,” Johnson said.
Then Hodgson tossed his phone into the water.
‘Going to blow something up’
The explosion went off about 7 p.m., according to a report written by Tarrant County sheriff's investigator M.L. Smith.
Two days later, on March 30, as the investigation was still a missing-person case, Smith and Sgt. Mike Foster with the Tarrant Regional Water District searched Hodgson’s home.
Smith found the home “extremely cluttered” and “unkempt,” the report said.
There were tools and motorcycle parts scattered through the house. There was an open, empty gun case on Hodgson’s bed, and a .22-caliber round on the kitchen floor, in front of the refrigerator. On a table in the kitchen, there were several handwritten notes:
20 Peroxide. 14 Acetone. 8 Muratic. 50 Perox. 40 Acetone. 20 Muratic.
Inside a storage container, Smith found four large metal drums labeled “FL Acetaldehyde 50%.”
Acetaldehyde, Smith noted in the report, is used to produce acetone peroxide, a highly explosive white powdery substance that smells like bleach.
Hodgson’s neighbors, the report said, told Smith that he had been “acting strange lately.” He had given away a large sum of a money to a friend’s teenager as an early high school graduation gift. Down at the VFW in Azle, he gave away a bottle of whiskey and said he had found religion.
In another instance shortly before Hodgson’s death, a friend saw him in his garage, synthesizing an explosive “described as a white powder,” the report said. Investigators later found a powdery substance on Hodgson’s garage floor.
Hodgson, according to the report, told the friend “he was going to blow something up.”
‘Try waking up every morning to that’
After Hodgson's body was found, it was cremated. At Hodgson’s request, there was no funeral, and most of his possessions were left to a close friend, according to the terms of his will.
His obituary online was two sentences: “Douglas was born on January 1, 1952 and passed away on Friday, March 31, 2017. Douglas was a resident of Texas at the time of his passing.”
The loss upended Johnson’s life.
She had known Hodgson for almost 15 years after meeting him through mutual friends. They dated for a short time but figured they’d be better off as friends. And they were.
Where to get help
- MHMR Tarrant County Crisis Relief
817-335-3022 or 800-866-2465
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
They’d tinker on projects around his shop, and he’d teach her how to operate machinery like the small crane in his yard. They’d watch “South Park,” his favorite show. They’d go cruising on his 1973 BMW motorcycle, his pride and joy, taking rides down to Fort Worth for dinner or around the lake to look at Christmas lights.
When Johnson lost her job, Hodgson stepped in. He offered her odd jobs around his house, bought her clothes and paid her cellphone bill.
“He was there for me no matter what,” Johnson said. “When he got married, it didn’t matter. He was still there for me. I knew I could call him day or night.”
In the last six weeks, Johnson has dwelled on Hodgson’s depression and whether there was more she should have done.
She wishes he had sought help and taken the trip to JPS more seriously. She wishes he had listened when she tried to persuade him to live.
“It’s hard to know that you weren’t enough of a person to keep somebody from taking their own life,” Johnson said, “even after you’ve given everything you got. That’s f------ hard. Try waking up every morning to that.”