The Secrets of Johnson County


Right: Cindy Huston and Mark.

Bottom Left:  Barb Mares and grandchild, November 2006

Top Left: The ubiquitous Bradford Pear, a fast-growing tree for a fast-growing community

OLATHE, Kan., January 2007  — If it hadn’t been for Mark Huston, I never would have known Jason and Justin Mares.


    There are times now when I think I should never have look into their deaths.  I probably wouldn’t have, either, if I’d known what I was getting into.


    All three boys were dead by the time I met their families and friends in the affluent suburb of Johnson County, Kansas. My hometown.


   [CLICK HERE for my Washington Post op-ed commentary on mental health and youth suicide after the April 2007 Virginia Tech shootings]


    Fifteen-year-old Mark Huston died Aug. 28, 1995 in Thomas S. Stoll Memorial Park, a small neighborhood park and softball complex not far from my office.


    No one tells the truth about suicide — or learns it — because these tragedies are rarely investigated. Those who know the truth would just as soon not share it. Without the truth, such tragedies seem pointless. As a wise young man once wrote, “Nothing is learned unless something is taught.”


    Several years after Mark Huston’s suicide in Stoll Park, I began piecing together the life and death of this charismatic child genius. I figured it would take a couple years. I wasn’t even close. A journalist’s worst fear is that he will miss the story or overlook the most important information. It’s called “burying the lead.” So you keep digging and asking questions and questioning the answers. The lead is always there, of course, whether the journalist buries it or not. The trick is digging it out.


    In Mark’s case, I spent several years chasing the wrong story and burying the lead. But with help from many courageous people, I finally got it right. I think. It took nearly 10 years but, hey, I had nothing better to do.


    I am rapidly getting closer to placing the book a literary agent and completing the final manuscript. The book chronicles of my quest to find out what really happened to Mark Huston and why such tragedies happened over and over again in my hometown. I cannot disclose how the story ends — an upbeat note of hope and redemption — but I can explain what it’s about.



    The story wasn’t really about Mark Huston.  Nor is it a story about suicide. I’m not a mental health clinician. It is not a coping-and-grieving book or a survivor’s story; No one in my family ever died by suicide. It is not about what causes people to take their lives. The bookstores and medical journals are full of such speculations and theories.


    The project — tentatively titled “Angels in the Park,” is about fear of things we can’t see or understand. Assuming there is anything to fear in the first place.


    Stories about fear are mostly about secrets.  Secrets and truth cannot co-exist, for lies make secrets possible. It’s hard to save fragile, frightened young people in a world where everyone keeps secrets, in a place where people are afraid of things they cannot see.


    By the time I figured out what happened to Mark Huston, I had also learned about Johnson County’s best-kept secrets. They include bright young people like Adam Wilcutt.  And Brent Ricci and Casey Fox and John Gaieski. Kids like Samantha Herzog, whose obituary appeared in the newspaper the same day Mark Huston’s appeared — right next to Mark’s obit. There were more; many more. Alexis Heiman. Matt Miller. Joseph Schingle. Jesse Johnson. Michael Schemmel. Danielle Franzen. Kyle Randall. James Patrick Stover. Jason and Justin Mares.


[see:  Mares vs. Shawnee Mission School District, on this Web site]


Sometimes the deaths came so fast no one could keep track of them; or maybe no one wanted to. There were so many youth suicides in Johnson County during the 1990s that the community, more than once, came to the brink of  “contagion.” That’s the term used — frequently and often misrepresented —   to describe a localized outbreak of suicides, usually among the young, that cannot be explained by mere coincidence. Such mini-epidemics commonly call for a massive and immediate response by public health, school, law enforcement and civic leaders.


    But there is nothing common about Johnson County. The permanent exhibit at our local history museum is called, “Seeking the Good Life.” We are a prosperous community that cherishes its privacy. Without privacy and lies,  there are no secrets.



    There is more — much more — to be said about the Mark Huston story. Suffice it to say that few people got the story right.  That included his family, the police, school officials, neighbors, and many of Mark’s closest and dearest friends. Mark, like everyone else, kept secrets from those who knew him best, or thought they did.


    Similarly, it remains to be seen whether anyone — the judge, the lawyers, the school system, the lawyers – will get the Mares story right. Perhaps the local news media will cover the lawsuit (as of this writing, it has not)  Or maybe they will write about it and bury the lead. God knows, I almost did.


    If something good comes from the deaths of these young people in my hometown, much of the credit goes to the courageous mothers. Cindy Huston and Barb Mares probably never knew the truth about their sons, either.  But they were determined to stop others from passing judgment on children who were no longer around to defend themselves.


    Mothers are like that. A mother wants her child to be remembered as she remembers him, to be known as she knew him.  Cindy Huston and Barb Mares want their sons to be remembered for how they lived, not how they died.


    It doesn’t seem like much for a grieving mother to ask.


The Hustons of Johnson County: (Left) Cindy and Dave with children Carrie, Jessica and Mark.  (Right)  Mark Huston the teen, dancing the night away.

     To those who knew him— or thought they did — Mark was brilliant, funny, musically gifted, a Boy Scout, and a charismatic suburban teen with a vast and diverse circle of friends. After his battle with depression ended in suicide, conflicting versions of Mark’s life and death were whispered around town.  Three years later, school administrators refused the family’s request that their son be remembered with an “empty chair” at the commencement ceremony for Mark’s classmates.


“Gifted kids are angels on this earth with responsibilities to help others. There’s no  other way to explain it.

— Linda Silverman, director of the Gifted Development Center, Denver