School, police clam up; Family just wants answers
EDINBORO – What were conceivably the happiest three years of 18-year-old Kieran McHugh’s life ended in the early morning hours of September 14, 2008, shortly before he was discovered hanging by bed sheets from his third floor dorm room window at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
Erie County Coroner Lyell Cook, a resident of Edinboro, ruled the freshman’s death a suicide and said no autopsy was necessary. “There was no reason for an autopsy. The (dormitory room) door was blocked from the inside. There were no footprints on the ground outside,” Mr. Cook said.
A test of body fluids revealed only nicotine and hot chocolate in the young man’s blood stream.
The Edinboro University police department handled the investigation, but refuses to reveal any details of the case without Mr. Cook’s approval and direction. Mr. Cook denies that is the case.
“I really don’t know about their refusing to release information. It has nothing to do with me. Perhaps it’s university protocol,” Mr. Cook said.
Edinboro University officials have been even less forthcoming, requiring a formal “Right to Know” request under the state’s Open Records Act and then providing only a list of Lawrence Hall dormitory residents from Sept. 16, 2008, two days after the youth’s death. The list, however, does not include Mr. McHugh’s name, a unique example of efficiency in an academic bureaucracy.
The Right to Know request by PAIndependent.com sought, among other things, “All written materials pertaining to the death, and investigation of same, regarding Kieran McHugh” and “Any and all school reports relating to Kieran McHugh.”
The school denied the requests under a variety of exceptions to the state’s Open Records Law, including exemptions of criminal investigative records and noncriminal investigative records.
The denial of the requested materials is currently being appealed to the state’s Office of Open Records by PAindependent.com.
The only media coverage of the death was a brief article in the campus newspaper, The Spectator, which said less than 48 hours after the death, “Kieran McHugh, a male student and resident of Lawrence Towers A, was found dead in his dorm room on the morning of Sept. 14.” Police would not discuss the incident then “out of deference for the family.”
Technically, Mr. McHugh’s body was found outside his room.
There were no stories about the death in the region’s major media markets of Erie and Pittsburgh.
In 2005, Cathleen McHugh was working a second job at a sub shop in suburban Pittsburgh. One of the other employees was 15-yar-old named Melbin Willie Rivera, who would eventually become Kieran Jade McHugh.
The boy was liked by all for his friendliness and willingness to help whomever he could. He was also looking for a place to live.
Willie Rivera’s mother died as a result of a medical mishap when he was two years old. The next 13 years found him shifted between family members and foster homes.
Ms. McHugh, then 45, the mother of three daughters, took the boy’s plight to heart, brought him into her Oakdale home and began the process of becoming a foster parent and, when Willie turned 18, she legally adopted him.
“He wanted a new life,” Ms. McHugh said. “He wanted to leave everything behind him. He was a happy, loving young man.”
As part of his new life, Kieran McHugh also got a state order prohibiting his birth family from knowing anything about him, his address or his whereabouts.
Not surprisingly, Cathleen McHugh does not believe her adopted son committed suicide. “He said he was afraid on campus. He wanted his room changed and formally requested the change.”
In fact, university officials did change his room from 319 to 316, shortly before his death.
The cause of the fear was never made specifically clear, according to Ms. McHugh, but her son had indicated there were things going on, such as drug use, that he didn’t want to be around.
She suspects foul play.
She is also frustrated by the responses, or lack thereof, from Mr. Cook, the Erie County District Attorney’s office, Edinboro University, the American Civil Liberties Union and the FBI, all of which she has repeatedly approached for answers and assistance. She has also been unsuccessful in finding a lawyer to bring a civil rights action on her behalf.
Mrs. McHugh has kept a meticulous set of records of the incidents and responses to her calls to officials and legal agencies since Kieran’s death.
In the three weeks following the student’s death, she called then-Erie County District Attorney Bradley H. Foulk 15 times with no response. Mr. Foulk, a close personal friend of Mr. Cook, died of cancer in August 2009.
Copies of the results of the body fluid tests that showed Kieran McHugh had been smoking and drinking hot chocolate prior to his death were provided to Ms. McHugh by Mr. Cook, at a cost of $100 to her.
Mr. Cook told her if she wanted to get an autopsy, she would have to have one done privately. She did. She, in fact, sold the family car to pay for the $4,000 examination.
Three months after Kieran’s death, Mr. Cook had an autopsy performed on a 59-year-old homeless man found frozen in Erie. He said the autopsy was to determine if the man died from the cold, a medical issue or foul play. Mr. Cook was quoted prior to that autopsy as saying there were no wounds or signs of foul play.
The autopsy of Kieran’s body was eventually done by Cyril H. Wecht and Pathology Associates, Inc. of Pittsburgh. Dr. Wecht is a controversial and nationally known medical examiner.
According to Ms. McHugh, an associate of Dr. Wecht, Joseph Mancuso, told her that upon the initial examination of Kieran’s body there were multiple bruising and minor cuts on the body that made Mr. Mancuso suspicious. After a couple of phone calls with Mr. Mancuso, Ms. McHugh said she was no longer able to get him on the phone.
Mr. Mancuso has had troubles of his own over the past few years and on Aug. 4 of this year was sentenced to three years probation by a federal court in Pittsburgh for failing to pay his taxes.
The Sept. 25, 2008 autopsy results received by Ms. McHugh described Kieran as “…a well developed, well nourished, Indian male, whose appearance is consistent with the reported age of 18 years, measuring 5 feet 9-1/2 inches in length. The estimated weight is approximately 225 ponds.”
The problem was that Kieran was Puerto Rican and weighed only 165 pounds.
A little over two months later, Dr. Wecht wrote a letter of apology to Ms. McHugh, blaming the mistakes on “postmortem embalming procedures.”
The autopsy report found nothing extraordinary, other than bruising on the upper half of both of Kieran’s arms.
“Pick up the body”
At about 9:30 on the morning of Kieran’s death, Cathy McHugh responded to a knock at her door.
“Are you the mother of Kieran McHugh?” one of two township police officers inquired.
“Yes,” she responded.
“Your son has committed suicide and you have to go pick up the body,” the officer said.
At first, it was disbelief that swept over Cathy McHugh and her youngest daughter, Sabrina, who had been in her room.
“We started calling his cell phone and trying to reach his friends,” Sabrina said. To no avail.
The following day, Sabrina and her mother took the trip north to Edinboro.
According to Sabrina, a large dresser was still partially in front of the door to Room 316 of the Lawrence Towers dorm. “We had to push like crazy to squeeze in,” she said.
She also said the room was in disarray and that Kieran’s computer had “been wiped clean. There was nothing – nothing -on it.”
Mr. Cook said he had been in the room after the door was opened on the morning of Kieran’s death and said it was a typical dorm room.
Kieran’s sister said when she got to the room the next day, it was in disarray, “like there has been a fight.”
Kieran’s car’s glove compartment had also been emptied and his compact discs removed from the vehicle, she claims.
Additionally, Ms. McHugh said only some of Kieran’s belongings were returned. Edinboro campus police Chief Thomas Nelson, who retired last week, told her she would need “a court order” to retrieve the remainder of her son’s belongings.
The final 36 hours
Kieran McHugh had planned to drive home on Friday night, Sept. 12, 2008 for a Saturday dental appointment, according to his mother.
“But, there was a driving rain storm that night, so he turned around and went back to the campus,” she said.
On Saturday, Kieran and several friends went to the Erie Zoo for the day and returned to campus. All said they had fun, that Kieran was in good spirits and that they sat up talking and going outside to smoke cigarettes into the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Tim Reed of Selinsgrove, a rising junior this year, spent most of Kieran’s last night with him. “He seemed fine. He was really well liked,” Mr. Reed said. “He was so fun and full of life.”
A brief life, as it turned out.
Ms. McHugh, though she suspects her son was murdered, is simply seeking closure, while receiving no help from government and school authorities in obtaining it.