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SCV saw increase in public suicides

Four people within a 49-day period killed themselves locally; part of an increasing suicide trend na

Posted: December 31, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 31, 2012 2:00 a.m.

On the morning of July 18, when residents of a Valencia apartment complex looked out their windows and saw a man hanging from a tree in their shared garden, they witnessed a sad and disturbing trend that unfolded in the Santa Clarita Valley in 2012.

Ten days later, a 31-year-old man climbed a utility pole in Newhall and hanged himself.

Within a month of that hanging, a 78-year-old man drove to the highest, most visible spot on the Newhall Pass interchange and shot himself in front of commuters.

Two weeks after that, a young woman stepped in front of a train to her death.

Before year end, four people in a 49-day period took their own lives in places for all others to see in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Sadder still, the self-inflicted deaths were just the tip of the iceberg for a problem unfolding quietly behind closed doors, according to experts. A total number of private suicides in the Santa Clarita Valley during 2012 was not available.

Dr. Melody Bacon is chairwoman of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program for the Southern California campuses of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She said she’s not surprised to hear of four public suicides in one year for a community the size of the Santa Clarita Valley.

“That number is within the statistical norm,” she said. “It’s a complex problem.”

Those who engage in public suicide may not be aware of the distinction between a public vs. private act, said Dr. Veronica Scarpelli of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Los Angeles.

“It’s so individual; there’s no real link,” she said. “Being public may not be an issue for them.”

 “Often, it’s a matter of whatever they have at that specific time,” Scarpelli said. “In their turmoil, and in their own mind, they feel the only way out is suicide.”

Although statistics on 2012 suicide rates are not yet available, foundation numbers indicate suicide has been on the rise in the United States since 2000, and that someone dies by suicide every 13.7 minutes in the U.S.


Suicide vs. homicide

Compared to four public suicides in the Santa Clarita Valley in 2012, and the unknown number of private suicides, only one local person was killed at the hands of another — Santa Clarita Valley’s only homicide this year.

On Dec. 2, Franco Olea, 28, was stabbed to death in front of his Newhall home. He was pronounced dead at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital shortly after an apparent tussle with a burglar, a homicide detective said.

At least two other local people were killed outside the Santa Clarita Valley.

Kevin Reardon, 35, formerly of Santa Clarita, was killed in New Mexico on Aug. 16, and 60-year-old Steve Bowman, of Agua Dulce, was shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in Lancaster after allegedly robbing a bank in Saugus.



Public displays

In the case of 80-year-old Ardavass Mayelian, close to a hundred of his neighbors at the 182-apartment Orchard Arms complex in Valencia who lived in units that backed onto the creek had plain view of their publicly shared garden where Mayelian hanged himself in a peach tree.

“He was depressed,” a relative said at the time, describing the depression as a recent development.

“He was lonely. We tried to be around him as much as possible,” she said.

“Depression in the elderly is highly under-diagnosed,” Scarpelli said. “An elderly man is one of the highest suicide risks.”

Bacon said the public nature of a suicide is sometimes intended by its victim.

On the afternoon of Aug. 23, a Thursday, hundreds of motorists southbound and northbound on Interstate 5 were witness to the last seconds of Ronald Stillwell’s life.

Shortly before 2:50 p.m. that day, the 78-year-old Valencia man drove his white sedan onto the transition road from the southbound I-5 to northbound Highway 14, pulled to the side of the bridge and shot himself in the head in front of passing motorists, a California Highway Patrol spokeswoman said at the time.

The display took place on the tallest bridge of the much-traveled Interstate 5-Highway 14 interchange.

“Sometimes there’s a visibility with the suicide that’s intentional,” Bacon said, adding that the victim may see his own story played out.

“It’s as if they’re going to be around, watching it unfold.”


Multiple factors

It was less than two weeks after the Mayelian hanging, on a sunny, windless Sunday in July, that Agustin Salgado-Hernandez climbed a 50-foot-tall electrical utility pole behind a strip mall on the west side of Newhall Avenue and, in front of onlookers, hanged himself.

During a 40-minute standoff between sheriff’s deputies and firefighters on the ground and Salgado-Hernandez on top of the utility pole, dozens of onlookers watched the drama while potentially hundreds of motorists on Newhall Avenue saw the white-T-shirt-clad man ignore the deputies as he lay down on a cross bar, placed something around his neck, and then lowered himself and let go.

Indications at the time suggested the 31-year-old recent immigrant to Newhall was in the Santa Clarita Valley with few friends and no family.

It took the coroner’s office about two weeks to locate the man’s mother in Veracruz, Mexico.

On Sept. 5, shortly after 3 p.m., a young woman ended her life when she stepped in front of a Metrolink train in the Centre Pointe area of Santa Clarita and was immediately killed.

Dead was Cyrena Darlene Becerra, a graduate of Sylmar High School class of 2011.

The suicide occurred on a Wednesday where the Metrolink tracks parallel busy Soledad Canyon Road. Seventeen passengers were on board the northbound train, but none of them saw anything, investigators said.

Becerra, according to her Facebook site, had moved recently from San Fernando to Saugus.

“Often, it’s not just one particular thing that pushes them — a divorce, or loss of a job — but rather, a perfect storm of factors,” Scarpelli said.


Public vs. Private

Each of the four Santa Clarita Valley public suicides in 2012 was reported by The Signal, though private suicides are not reported.

“The Signal normally considers suicides a private matter and generally does not report on them,” said Signal Executive Editor Jason Schaff. “When someone commits suicide in public, however, it becomes a news story and it is our obligation to cover it. Other residents of the community witness these events and we need to explain what happened.”

By comparison, suicides that happen behind closed doors warrant no “compelling public need to know,” Schaff said.

Scarpelli said communication, including mass media communication, have a role in reaching any understanding about suicide, public or private.

“The media have a big part to play,” she said. “First, to stop using the word ‘commit.’ You would never say someone committed cancer.”

She also said the media can help by providing a phone number for those seeking help with suicidal thoughts.

For more information about suicide, she recommends people visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website at or, in a crisis, phone the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


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