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Four Teen-Agers Die in Apparent ‘Suicide Pact’

By Debra Viadero — March 18, 1987 3 min read

In New York City newspaper reports following the incident, students at the school criticized school officials for “a belated and meager response to a local problem with alcohol and drugs.’'

The teen-agers--two sisters and two young men--were found at about 6:27 A.M., seated in a car with the engine running inside a locked garage. All four apparently died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, police said.

According to a press release issued by the Bergen County prosecutor, a lengthy suicide note was found written on a paper bag beside the teen-agers. Signed by all four, the note was apparently composed, in parts, by each of the youngsters, police said.

The youths were identified as: Thomas Olton, 18, who was found in the driver’s seat; Thomas Rizzo, 19; Cheryl Burress, 17, and her sister, Lisa, 16. Mr. Rizzo and the Burress sisters were found in the back seat of the car.

According to Willard Burkart, who is chief of police in the city of 27,000, Mr. Olton and Mr. Rizzo also had scars--some fresh and some older--on their wrists from possible previous suicide attempts. Razor blades were also found in the car.

All but the youngest, Lisa Burress, had dropped out of Bergenfield High School before graduation, he said. Ms. Burress was reportedly suspended from her classes at the high school.

“Other than that, they hadn’t been in any kind of trouble that we would have a record of,’' he said. “Everybody is shocked about the whole thing.’'

‘Unusual’ Tragedy

Suicide experts contacted last week said the incident was unusual because so many youths were involved.

“It’s the first time any of us in the field are aware of four teens committing suicide together,’' said Charlotte Ross, executive director of the Youth Suicide National Center. But suicide pacts--usually made between two people--are not uncommon, she and other experts said.

“It can be either boyfriend and girlfriend or two girls,’' said Pamela Cantor, a clinical psychologist and president of the National Committee on Youth Suicide. “It could be anything.’'

Now widely recognized as a major problem among young people, suicide became the second leading cause of death in that age group--behind only accidents--in 1984.

Yet, although the suicide rate among young people has tripled over the last 30 years--doubling since 1960--the numbers appear to have stabilized after 1980, Ms. Ross said. In 1984, for example, 5,024 people between the ages of 15 and 24 killed themselves, she said. Four years earlier, the figure was 5,239.

Other experts speculated that the deaths in Bergenfield might--in an indirect way--lend credence to theories that youth suicide is “contagious,’' and that media reports of suicides may encourage others to do the same. Such a phenomenon, some experts have postulated, may account for the widely publicized “cluster’’ suicides in Westchester County, N.Y.; Plano, Texas; Golden, Colo.; and other communities. (See Education Week, June 18, 1986.)

In Bergenfield, Chief Burkart said, the suicides followed four other sudden deaths of teen-agers in the community over the last year. One boy died after he slipped off the Palisades cliffs and into the Hudson River. Two others were struck by a train while sitting on the railroad tracks, and another drowned, he said.

Though the Palisades incident was ruled to be accidental, Chief Burkart said, police are still unsure about the others. “We don’t know if they were drunk or on drugs, if they fell asleep, or if they intended to kill themselves,’' he said.

One of last week’s suicide victims, Mr. Rizzo, witnessed the death of the teen-ager who fell from the Palisades cliffs, the chief said.

“It is not unusual for other young people to be aware of the feelings of their friends, and to feel about what they did or didn’t do and not know how to cope with it,’' Ms. Ross said.

At Bergenfield High School, teachers and administrators were working with police and local mental-health authorities last week to provide counseling to any students who might be having trouble dealing with the tragedy, according to Chief Burkart.

School officials were unavailable for comment last week, but Chief Burkart said the school had already had a suicide-prevention program in place before the deaths occurred.

In New York City newspaper reports following the incident, students at the school criticized school officials for “a belated and meager response to a local problem with alcohol and drugs.’'

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 1987 edition of Education Week as Four Teen-Agers Die in Apparent ‘Suicide Pact’