A Death So Young

Family and friends can't believe a 10-year-old committed suicide.

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Kevin's brother found him hanging from their bunk bed, a belt tied around his - neck.
Kevin's brother found him hanging from their bunk bed, a belt tied around his neck.
Jessica Hardaway remembers the colors: his grayish-blue skin, the red splotches on his neck, the purple tint of his lips, the light blue eyes hidden by the black of his pupils.

"When I saw they were completely dilated, I knew he was gone."

Hardaway tried to save 10-year-old Kevin Vliet anyway. CPR raised a faint pulse, but it faded as quickly as it came. By the time an ambulance arrived, she recalls, "It was over."

The grim details emerged after paramedics carried out Kevin's body. Around 10 p.m. on January 14, he went into his bedroom. A half-hour later, one of his two older brothers walked in. He found Kevin hanging from their bunk bed, motionless, a belt tied around his neck.

The three boys lived with their mother, Mayra Maldonado, and her boyfriend on the second floor of a Newark Avenue house on the near West Side. Hardaway had been visiting her sister, who lives on the first floor, when Mayra's boyfriend banged at the door, asking for help.

Mayra was in the basement washing laundry at the time. She heard yelling and rushed upstairs to find Hardaway and Pedro Alicea kneeling over her son. Alicea, a family friend, pumped Kevin's chest three times for every two breaths Hardaway gave the boy. Mayra watched, hands to her face, drifting between sobs and horrified silence.

In the house next door, the flashing lights of police cars awakened Mayra's brother, Luis Maldonado, and his wife Damneris. "I felt like I couldn't believe what was happening," Luis says in Spanish, his wife serving as interpreter. "It was not possible to think it was true."

The disbelief of Kevin's family would sharpen two days later. On January 16, Cuyahoga County Coroner Elizabeth Balraj ruled his death a suicide.

"I can't believe that Kevin would kill himself," Luis says. "He was only 10 years old. He was happy."

Adds Damneris: "He doesn't have the mind for that."

The couple has taken in Kevin's brothers, ages 14 and 11, while Mayra mends at a counseling shelter. The oldest brother says Kevin and his friends liked to dangle from the bunk bed with belts or sheets tied around their bodies, pretending to be superheroes, and no one ever got hurt. He thinks Kevin might have laced the belt too tightly the night he died.

"It's hard for me to talk about it," he says. "I miss him. I think about him every day."

The coroner's office has yet to release its final report, leaving open the possibility that Kevin's death could be judged an accident. Chief Deputy Coroner Robert Challener says the cause will remain officially undetermined until police finish their investigation. Lieutenant Sharon MacKay says detectives still want to interview a handful of people, including David Laboy, Mayra's boyfriend. Her family and friends say they last saw him shortly after Kevin's death. Police do not suspect foul play.

Suicide among preteens is exceedingly uncommon; suicidal thoughts and depression are much less so. Mark Groner, clinical director of Beech Brook, a youth counseling center, says youngsters reveal their despair in various ways: sleeping and eating disorders, isolation from family and friends, losing interest in children's activities.

But Kevin's family and neighbors describe an upbeat child who liked to play football, baseball, and video games. He stood a rail-thin 4-feet-2, with dark brown hair and olive skin. Shy around strangers, he was known by siblings and friends as "fun and joking, always running around," his oldest brother says. His only recent bout of sadness came in early January, when the Xbox video game he received for Christmas was pawned by someone close to the family. His mother cheered him up by promising to replace it.

The third-grader enjoyed gym, but struggled in the classroom at Walton Elementary, which he began attending in December, after the family moved to Newark Avenue. Withdrawn at first, he had started to bond with his new classmates when he died, according to Principal Fred Hillow. Students created a quilt in his memory, with patches that read "I love you, Kevin" and "We miss you."

The school has collected donations to cover the $2,000 cost of Kevin's funeral. Hillow and other district officials attended his wake, held at Damneris and Luis's house three days after his death. Amid dozens of visitors and swirls of conversation, Mayra spoke to almost no one. In an open casket lay her son, head shaved and wearing a navy blue suit.

"Seeing him really hit me," Hillow recalls. "I have children myself, and that was just really hard."

A similar reaction struck Tammy Hardy, a friend of Mayra's who says her six-year-old son and Kevin were bosom buddies. At the visitation, her son clung to the casket to stay near his friend. The two boys often played superhero in Kevin's bedroom.

"There's no way it was suicide," Hardy says. "He was always laughing and playing. He was a happy, normal boy."

Hardy portrays Mayra, a native Puerto Rican who immigrated to the United States around 1990, as a stay-at-home mom in her 30s, quick with a laugh but fiercely protective of her brood. As much as Kevin looked forward to visiting his father in Florida each summer as part of his parents' custody agreement, Mayra dreaded it. "She couldn't stand being apart from her baby," Hardy says. "She loves her kids more than anything."

Last month, Kevin's father paid to have his body flown to Florida and laid to rest. Remaining behind are questions that burden a boy's family. "We don't know what happened," Luis says. "We just know it wasn't suicide."

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