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The Cluster Conundrum: Copycat Teen Deaths in Lake Forest

Research into the mysterious phenomenon of copycat suicides could help explain the recent deaths of three Lake Forest teens who stepped in front of speeding trains

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A bike and foot path frequented by students parallels the Metra train tracks in Lake Forest.
A bike and foot path frequented by students parallels the Metra train tracks in Lake Forest.
 

At that time of year—early January—darkness beats back the first signs of dawn at the brick and shingle rail station in Kenosha. But inside the 6:17 Metra train bound for Chicago, lights blaze like hearth fires as the double-decker cars nudge away from the platform. The few passengers aboard at that lonely hour dot the train’s upper and lower berths, settling in with newspapers and laptops for the 60-mile ride. With each stop—Winthrop Harbor, Zion, Waukegan, North Chicago, Great Lakes, Lake Bluff—more people get on, slump into seats, sip coffee, and drift off to the lullaby of softly clacking wheels.

The morning of January 9, 2012, a Monday, was no different. The usual landmarks—the forests and fields; the golf courses and country clubs; the parks and houses, big and bigger—spooled by. Just past Lake Bluff, as the red-and-white-striped snout of the train entered Lake Forest, passengers looking to the east could catch a glimpse of one of the town’s notable buildings: Lake Forest High School, its stately façade visible through a skein of branches that spread like skeleton fingers.

Within a minute or so, the train’s two engineers slowed and then paused at the Lake Forest station to take on passengers. It was now 6:54. The train resumed its journey, collecting speed, rumbling past the town’s tony shops and offices toward Fort Sheridan, its next stop.

Less than a mile away, at the intersection of Western Avenue and Ryan Place, a car full of Lake Forest High students stopped as the warning gates swung down. The first-period bell was still an hour off, so there was no reason to rush, and they watched the silver train approach, its tiny headlight growing larger as it sped toward the crossing, horn blaring at intervals.

Suddenly they saw a teenager who was walking nearby drop his backpack. He ducked under the gate and sprinted onto the tracks. In an instant he had placed himself in the path of the oncoming train.

It takes the length of 18 football fields for a train traveling at 55 miles an hour to come to a stop. By the time the engineers caught sight of the boy, their slam on the brakes was too late. The engine struck him full on. His body flew some 75 feet.

Horrified, the students in the car immediately called 911. By some miracle, the teen was still alive. Paramedics rushed him to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, but he died shortly afterward. Within days, the Lake County coroner would rule that Farid Hussain, a well-liked, seemingly happy 15-year-old sophomore at Lake Forest High, had committed suicide.

The school and the community were deeply shocked. School officials did all the right things: They expressed their condolences to the boy’s family and announced that social workers and counselors would be on call for students in need.

A few weeks later, another 15-year-old—a popular, mop-haired boy named William Laskero-Teskoski—was hit and killed by a Metra train. The incident occurred on February 28, on the same Metra line, at virtually the same time, just a little bit north of where Farid Hussain had died. A few weeks after that, on March 24, a third Lake Forest High student, 18-year-old Edward Schutt, was hit by a Metra train. He died at night—around 10:30 p.m.—on the same tracks near the high school.

Of the three cases, only the first was officially ruled a suicide. But Lake Forest police, having ruled out both accident and foul play, made it clear that they believed all three deaths were intentional. Town residents—baffled and confused after the first two deaths—were now gripped by an almost primal sense of anguish, bewilderment, and fear.

Tragically, teens killing themselves around the same time in the same way isn’t as rare as you might think. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among Americans aged 10 to 24, and these so-called cluster suicides account for an estimated 5 percent of the deaths, according to a classic 1993 study by Philip Hazell, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New Castle, Australia. Scientific research into the phenomenon, though still in the early stages, might help answer some of the questions bedeviling grief-stricken Lake Foresters: Is this just a tragic coincidence? Is there something wrong with our community? And the most awful question that a parent, a teacher, or a friend can ask: Was there something I could have done to prevent it?

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Photograph: Carlos Javier Ortiz

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