The Mysterious Deaths Of Bridgend
The county of Bridgend, in Wales, is surrounded on all sides by outstanding natural beauty, but over a three-year period in the late 2000s, the area was affected by a string of teenage suicides. In this post, we explore the above mentioned mysterious suicides in Bridgend.
Dale Crole's saddening fate
On the 25th of September 2006, a young man by the name of Dale Crole said goodbye to his mother and left the family home in Maesteg. He was going to visit his friend David Dilling in the neighboring town of Porthcawl. It was a destination he would never reach, but at the time of his disappearance, his family and friends were not immediately concerned. Like most 18 year-olds in a local area, Dale was well known for using alcohol and drugs to help cope with the issues in his life. There had been a number of occasions where his drinking had gotten him into trouble, and he'd been found in an unresponsive state having taken pills.
It was initially assumed he had met up with other friends and was off enjoying himself somewhere else. But as the days turned into weeks, Dale's family began to worry and reported him missing. It would be three long and desperate months before his remains were found by the police at an abandoned funfair warehouse in Porthcawl. It was David who had suggested the location when approached by officers, telling them that he and Dale had frequently sought refuge from their problems at the empty premises and had often stayed there overnight. The body was badly decomposed and it took some time before a pathologist reported that his death had been the result of hanging. At Dale's inquest, the coroner reported the traces of cannabis had been found in samples from his hair and a verdict of suicide was recorded. But barely had his friends and family had time to come to terms with the senseless loss of their loved one before further tragedy struck.
Other Mysterious Events
In the early hours of the 18th of February 2007, a man walking his dog past the grounds of Pyle Church found the lifeless body of another young man hanging from a tree branch. It was only six weeks since his best friend had been found in similar circumstances and now, David Dilling was also dead. The investigation into the death was brief and found nothing unexpected. David had been similarly well-known to the local police for his alcohol and substance abuse and his father reported that the troubled teen had never fully recovered from the loss of his friend.
A date was set for his funeral, with the rural community preparing again to say goodbye to another of their youngsters. It would not be the last time. Just two days before David's funeral was due to take place, Thomas Davies went to the same churchyard and hanged himself from a tree adjacent to the one that David had been found in. He was a mutual friend of both Dale and David and this third sudden and heartbreaking death sent further shockwaves throughout the local area.
The police looked into the incidents in great detail, hoping to find something that might link them to one another. Other than their existing friendships, there was nothing obvious to be found. All the authorities could do was hope that the suicides would prove to be a tragic, but isolated affair. Sadly, this was not to be the case.
Over the next year, a further 14 young people living in the Bridgend area would end their lives by hanging. The individual methods and locations of these incidents vary considerably, but there were a number of common factors that set them aside from other suicides. All were completely unexpected and in most cases, no note or explanation was left behind. The individuals had more often than not been vocally critical or outspoken about the other hangings that had occurred. All of them died with their hands untied and most with their legs or knees still in contact with the ground.
In August of 2007, the parents of 17 year-old Zachary Barnes found their son in the back garden of their address, hanging by a T-shirt that had been tied to the washing line. He had been out drinking in the park with friends all night and a copious amount of alcohol was found in his bloodstream. There was no indication at all that he had meant to kill himself and so a straightforward verdict of suicide could not be recorded. Between December 2007 and February 2008, the incidents suddenly increased in terms of both frequency and proximity to one another.
This spate started with the suicide of 20 year old Liam Clarke, who had been a close friend of the third victim, Thomas Davies. The following month, local youth Nathaniel Pritchard was rushed to hospital having asphyxiated himself in his bedroom following an argument over the phone with his ex-girlfriend. As Nathaniel laid in a hospital bed fighting for his life, news of the apparent suicide attempt reached his 20 year old cousin, Kelly Stevenson, who was out at a party. Kelly immediately became very emotional and asked to go upstairs to compose herself. A short time later, her uncle forced entry into the bathroom to find that she had also committed suicide by hanging. Kelly had been an aspiring police officer, who was the last person her friends and family would have suspected of wanting to take her own life. She was also Liam Clarke's ex-girlfriend.
Not long after her body had been discovered, Nathaniel Pritchard also succumbed to his injuries and passed away in hospital. He was just 15 years old. The inhabitants of Bridgend were both bewildered and horrified by the madness that seemed to have beset their community and desperately demanded that the authorities act in some way to protect their children. In response to the public outcry, a joint task force of police, NHS and Social Care Professionals was quickly assembled. Church leaders and Community groups also united, organizing counseling sessions and public events.
As part of their program, mentors and peers would identify young people considered to be at risk of suicide and take them away from the area on day trips to the coast. It did little to help and the deaths continued unabated. The next person to end their life was 16 year old Jenna Perry. She had been close friends with previous victim Zachary Barnes and was found hanging from a tree by a dog walker in a beauty spot near to her home address. Her knees were still touching the wet grass beneath her feet.
Something was very wrong with the young people of Bridgend. And now, the rest of the world had suddenly taken notice of their predicament. The spike in deaths over the festive period had piqued the interest of the press and the subsequent Coroner's inquests were widely reported in the National newspapers. The story suddenly went global and as the grieving residents continued to try and deal with the unseen danger that was plaguing their community, they were additionally besieged by a torrent of unwanted and intrusive media attention.
From as far away as China and the United States, a small army of social commentators and documentary filmmakers descended on the Welsh valleys, bringing film crews and production assistants with them. Children on their way to and from school were ambushed in the street and asked if they knew anything about an alleged online suicide cult. The local police began to face repeated requests to clarify whether or not they were investigating the work of a suspected serial killer. The papers reported on the situation with lurid headlines that labelled Bridgend, a "Death town" and the "Suicide capital".
Online chat forums, and social media pages filled up with bizarre theories about what was taking place, including the work of vengeful Celtic spirits, and Sinister modern-day Druid cults. As the number of hangings continued to climb, the local Member of Parliament and Senior Police Officer ordered news agencies to stop reporting on the deaths. There was a strong fear that the articles which saturated the national papers and online publications were in some way glamorizing the situation, making a number of teams more susceptible to the ideas of suicide and self-harm.
Over the summer of 2008, the picturesque village of Bettws fell victim to a cluster of apparent suicides. On the 20th of April, 19 year old Sean Rees was found hanging from a tree near his friend's house. His family could think of no reason as to why he would do this. Having just passed his A levels and driving test, he'd been planning to move away to attend University. On the 7th of June, his best friend Neil Owen was found to be deceased just meters away from where Sean had chosen to end his life.
Ten days later, on the night before Neal's Funeral, a building worker, their mutual friend Carwyn Jones hanged at the rear of the local pub. Carwyn was a loving father of a two year old daughter and nobody could comprehend how he'd come to do this. The investigating officers discovered that all three friends had been born and raised in the same street.
With a ban on reporting any further deaths in the county now in place, wider public interest in the situation inevitably dwindled away. The wild conspiracy theories and speculation ceased, and the media found new morbid subjects to move onto. It's widely believed that the number of hangings eventually fell back to with an expected levels after the end of 2009, but they certainly did not stop altogether. It is believed that by the close of 2012, the number of deaths attributed to hanging and asphyxiation within the county since the death of Dale Crole had risen to 79 cases.
This staggering number of fatalities meant that few people residing in the county remained untouched by the loss of friends and loved ones. The reasons behind such a dramatic increase in this one method of suicide still remains the subject of intense speculation, with not one particular cause agreed upon by investigators. Ideas predictably range from the unfeasible and naive suggestions that are painful and shocking in their nature. The theory that is most regularly offered and debated by those examining the cases is that an individual or group of individuals were responsible for deliberately persuading victims to take their lives.
At the height of the incidents, social media and online chat forums were still very much in their infancy, and society did not have the in-depth knowledge and familiarity with them that we possess today. The idea that mysterious influences could misuse this new technology without the knowledge of the authorities soon took root. It should be noted that at no stage during any of the investigations did police find anything suggesting someone was contacting the victims and influencing them.
Given the high number of cases and the length of time such an offender would have been operating for being able to contact the Bridgend teens and leave absolutely no digital footprint seems a highly improbable feet. This is true of another theory, which is that the clusters of deaths were the result of the victims participating in some form of online suicide cult. Bridgend was an extremely close-knit rural community, where the majority of the people involved were related or regularly associated with one another. It is inconceivable that if a group or cult existed, that at some point a survivor or family member of someone involved would not have gone to the authorities with their knowledge of what was taking place.
Other similar incidents
Suicide clusters and mass suicide events are not uncommon, but are typified by the fact that the participants have an identifiable shared goal or purpose. The most famous of these occurred in Japan, where up to a thousand victims died during 2000 having been encouraged to inhale lethal substances and gases. Similarly, in 1962, cases of suicide amongst blonde females in the United States soared in the wake of Marilyn Monroe's death. And we barely need to remind anyone of what occurred in Jonestown back in the late 70s, although it is rightfully argued that this was a massacre rather than a mass suicide.
In Bridgend, the absence of suicide notes or any evidence of preparation for the acts effectively rules out the possibility of an organized movement or group. These young people had no message to send to society and no apparent grievance to address. They acted without warning or comment, leaving nothing but unanswered questions for the devastated friends and relatives they left behind. There are some commentators who believe in searching for a more scientific justification in relation to what took place.
The Scientific theory
A number of these individuals have noted that mobile phone masts situated within the county were spaced much closer together than in other areas of the country. There have long been concerns about the additional electromagnetic traffic, which is to be found in the vicinity of these masts and the potentially hazardous effects they could have on electrical activity within the human brain. People living close to them have reported lapses in concentration, nosebleeds and memory loss. Is it possible that in the Bridgend cases, this effect was somehow being increased or aggravated? Whilst not impossible, it is again unlikely.
Everyday, people in urban areas, from office staff to emergency workers carry out their roles in much closer proximity to phone masts and there has never been any perceived increase in mental illness amongst those demographics. One area which draws a level of scrutiny that cannot so easily be defended is the actions of the media throughout the incidents. By invading the personal space of the young people of Bridgend and questioning them at length about their personal thoughts and feelings regarding the deaths, there is strong evidence to suggest, to a certain degree, they normalized what was occurring.
Death of Justin Beacham
One example of this is the death of Justin Beacham in 2010. Justin was a close friend of the third victim, Tom Davies, and in January he had been interviewed about his friend's death for a documentary. After the interview, Justin grew distant and began to exhibit a worrying downturn in his mental health. In the early hours of the 26th of February, his brother found him trying to asphyxiate himself at the tree, where Tom had hung himself. Justin was cut down and rushed to hospital.
Despite telling nurses he was hearing voices that were encouraging him to die, he was discharged back to his family home. Several hours later, he evaded his relatives and made it to nearby farmland, where he was later found hanged from a tree branch. Justin's family maintained he had always struggled with depression, but something changed in him after he had spoken to the film crew.
The role that the internet had to play in increasing the number of hangings is also a key. A significant number of people involved in these incidents had accounts on the Bebo platform and it was there that the majority of tributes and memorial pages for the victims were created. It is argued that in the already disenfranchised and isolated teenagers, seeing this outpouring of love and affection for the victims pushed them to imitate the act, in the hope of achieving the same level of adulation for themselves.
The World Wide Web was still a relatively new development at the turn of the 20th Century and for young adults, growing up in an area with poor job prospects and transport links, it was often seen as an escape from reality. The emotional fallout from the Bridgend deaths not only affected and influenced their daily lives, but also their digital lives as well, giving them no possible escape from what was happening and magnifying their fears and insecurities.
So, what could have caused the suicide rate in this ordinary Welsh county to dramatically increase, especially in a time when suicide numbers across the United Kingdom have continued to fall year-on-year? With the more outlandish and ill-informed theories easy to discredit, what we are left with is a perfect storm of social circumstance.
Bridgend, while beautiful, is an isolated and economically deprived region, as young people had to contend with unemployment and social apathy, with many using drugs and alcohol to do so. Whilst trying to endure these factors, they were then unable to cope with the additional stress of losing those closest to them. The sudden introduction of social media and the intrusion of the world's press gave no escape from what was happening, essentially converting the hangings into a form of infectious viral disease.
Authorities and parents simply did not have the experience or understanding to effectively counter these aggravating factors and so each hanging laid the basis for others causing a domino effect. As time has progressed, cooperation between agencies and authorities has meant that help is now available for troubled youngsters and the number of suicides has now thankfully stabilized. Our heartfelt thoughts go out to all of those in any way affected by the tragic events that took place in Bridgend over the last decade. Our words could never capture the devastation wrought by these tragedies. Our only hope is that this story raises awareness of just how serious an issue depression can become, not just for the individual, but for the friends and loved ones left to come to terms in the aftermath of such a tragedy.