On the morning of Jan. 14, Phoebe Prince looked like a typical 15-year-old girl giddy with excitement about an upcoming school dance. In her morning gym class at South Hadley High, "she was skipping around," says a female friend. "She seemed great." But as the day wore on, she came in for a barrage of vicious taunts and vulgar insults from a group of upperclassmen that darkened her mood. Initially she sought solace in her iPod, where, she'd explained three months earlier in an upbeat school essay, "I have a song for every moment and mood of my day." By French class after lunch, she was so shaken that she described an incident to friends, then shrugged it off. "Phoebe said she'll find a way out of the problem she was in," says a friend, who initially thought nothing of the comment. "It didn't click until later that night."
By then it was too late. At 5:17 p.m. investigators found Phoebe Prince dead in a stairwell of her family's rented house, hanging from a noose she'd fashioned from a scarf. The suicide ignited fiery discussion around town about teen bullying; that debate fanned out across the country three months later, when prosecutors charged six of Phoebe's Massachusetts schoolmates with felonies ranging from stalking to statutory rape. (Attorneys for all six defendants say their clients are not guilty.) But for all the shock and indignation, no one could answer the question that most unnerved parents: What could possibly be so awful that it would drive an attractive, vibrant teen-one who signed her text messages "Life is an opportunity in itself"-to kill herself? Now, between the details provided in three recently released affidavits that support the charges against three 16-year-old girls and eyewitness accounts given to PEOPLE by schoolmates (most of whom asked not to be identified for fear of persecution by classmates), a clearer picture emerges of the verbal abuse and physical threats that may have driven Phoebe to-and ultimately beyond-the brink.
A transplant with her mother, Anne, and younger sister Lauren from County Clare, Ireland, Phoebe quickly stirred notice when she arrived at her new 760-student public school last fall. "She was beautiful," says a female sophomore. "She was bullied out of pure jealousy." Male attention, says a close female friend, provoked girls to start calling Phoebe "Irish whore." It didn't help when Phoebe caught the eye of football captain Sean Mulveyhill, a senior. "I saw them in the hallways around November," says the sophomore. "They were laughing and joking; they seemed like best friends." In fact, according to friends, they had a brief relationship. But Mulveyhill, the close friend says, didn't mention that he already had a girlfriend: junior Kayla Narey. "I saw Phoebe apologize to her," this friend says. "Kayla got up and said, 'Everything's fine; we're okay.' But I guess they weren't." Soon, according to an affidavit, Phoebe was warned by Kayla's friend Sharon Velazquez to stay away from "people's men."
In December Phoebe hooked up briefly with senior Austin Renaud, only to learn that Austin had an on-and-off involvement with sophomore Flannery Mullins. Again Phoebe apologized, says her friend Erin. But allegedly that didn't stop Mullins from threatening to beat up Phoebe. "I know she said it to [Phoebe's] face a couple of times," says her close friend.
The torments grew: Phoebe was shoved into lockers and encouraged on Facebook to kill herself. Sophomore Nick Shenas recalls a Jan. 7 cafeteria encounter with Velazquez: "Sharon came up to Phoebe and said, 'We have to talk right now,' and Phoebe said, 'I don't want to get up right now,' and Velazquez said, 'You have to stop being a ho.' When Phoebe said, 'Don't call me a ho,' Velazquez responded, 'Well, I just did, so do something about it.' Phoebe just sat there." Shenas says two teachers witnessed the exchange but did nothing. (Recent court documents say Phoebe sought help from school officials one week before her death, but she told a friend no action was to be taken.) In Latin class that day, Velazquez again hectored Phoebe until she grew visibly upset. When a witness told school administrators, Velazquez was suspended for a day. Mullins also put out word that Phoebe "should get her ass kicked." According to witnesses quoted in the affidavit for Flannery Mullins, Phoebe grew so nervous that she asked to walk between two friends because she feared being attacked.
Up to this point, Phoebe's strategy had been, as she texted a friend in Ireland, to "keep her head high, smile and just let it go past her." By Jan. 13 Phoebe couldn't ignore the taunts and confided to a friend that school "has been close to intolerable lately." As detailed in the documents involving defendants Velazquez, Mullins and junior Ashley Longe, the taunts the next day began in the library with Longe yelling, "Close your legs" and "I hate stupid sluts," while Narey and Mulveyhill penned "Irish bitch" and other obscenities on the library sign-in sheet. As the final bell approached, one witness heard Longe and Mulveyhill call her "whore" and saw Narey standing by laughing. Minutes later, as Phoebe walked home, Longe drove past and threw an empty Monster Drink can at her.
Within hours word spread: Phoebe Prince had killed herself. When her friend Erin received the news via text message, "I thought it was a joke," she says. "I responded, 'Why would you say something like that?'" When she learned by return text that this wasn't a joke, it began to sink in. "That's when I knew that things were going to be different," Erin says, "and that all of our lives were going to change."
- Diane Herbst,
- Nicole Weisensee Egan,
- Judy Rakowsky,
- Kristen Mascia.